Rep. Jamaal Bowman clutched a handful of flyers as he walked around the Gun Hill subway station, introducing himself to anyone who would stop and chat along the street in the Bronx.
"Did you know that I was your congressperson before I introduced myself?" Bowman asked a woman, raising his voice to a shout as the train clattered overhead.
"Come on now," Bowman said, adopting an affect of incredulity. "How is that possible? I was out here campaigning all in 2019 to 2020. And in 2020 I won the election — against Eliot Engel."
That name might have jogged her memory because Engel represented the area for more than 30 years, an old-guard Democrat and chairman of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee who ran for reelection with establishment support. Bowman, a young, Black former middle school principal and first-time candidate, defeated him in last year's Democratic primary to represent a district that straddles the Bronx and Westchester County with a mostly Black and Hispanic electorate.
Now, the activist and educator who was elected for his progressive, anti-establishment platform is seeking to change the way that Washington works — and serve the people it isn't working for.
Bowman was raised by a single mother and grew up in public housing. He became an educator and guidance counselor, and he helped found a middle school, Cornerstone Academy for Social Action, in the Bronx. He remembers campaigning on Election Day — in a face mask — and how it felt to hear that people were excited to vote for him.
"You know, I grew up Black in America, I grew up close to Spanish Harlem where we ain't have much money, but we was like all friends and cool and playing and going to school together," he said in an interview outside the Gun Hill Houses, a public housing project in the Bronx. "So I feel like I'm representing my tribe, my kinship."
Bowman was one of three younger, Black progressive Democratic lawmakers elected to represent New York in Congress last November, after a campaign cycle upended by the pandemic, which exposed racial inequality in America's health and economic systems, and marked by protests over racial justice after the killing of George Floyd and other Black people during encounters with law enforcement.
In neighboring districts, Reps. Mondaire Jones and Ritchie Torres also both won congressional seats last year that had each been held by the same incumbent for about three decades, shaking up New York's congressional delegation, making it more racially representative and pushing it further left.
"Our districts are very different. But neither of them had ever elected a person of color running on a progressive platform by today's standards," said Jones, who replaced retired Rep. Nita Lowey. "And we both won handily even when the political establishment counted us out until the very end of our respective races."
While the political establishment — and Engel — may have taken Bowman for granted, his campaign had the backing of prominent left-leaning Democrats like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
He also had the support of the Justice Democrats, the insurgent political group that supported progressives like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts. Justice Democrats recruited Bowman to run against Engel. On Capitol Hill, Bowman joined a growing number of House progressives looking to turn their presence into power.
"The squad is definitely my people," Bowman said of the foursome of progressive female lawmakers that includes both Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley. "Alex, AOC, Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, she was a mentor from afar, even before I got to Congress. Same thing with Ayanna, Ilhan [Omar], Rashida [Tlaib] — just four badass women of color, just tearing s*** up."
Friendship and frustration with top Democrats
Bowman has a clear version of what he believes the future of his party on Capitol Hill can look like, if more people like him can run and win.
"I think you're going to continue to have members of Congress who are progressive — and other members who are retiring or will be beaten in primaries — who's going to force the House to do more and do better, force the White House to do more and do better."
While Bowman's politics are unabashedly progressive, he said that he has strong relationships with lawmakers across the political spectrum. He counts fellow New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, as a regular texting buddy on Capitol Hill.
Jeffries, who has been a member of Congress since 2013 and is widely seen as a rising leader in the House, said he believes Bowman already has an understanding of how "official" Washington works.
"In the House, it takes 218 votes to get anything done, which means you have to go out and find 217 additional people to agree with your perspective on any given issue," Jeffries said in an interview. "That requires relationships, intentionality and strategic advocacy. And Jamal Bowman came into Congress recognizing that and has really laid out a vision and begun to execute."
Bowman, who has been a champion of the reparations legislation sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, speaks approvingly of older members of Congress who he refers to as "O.G. reps," as in, original gangsters.
"They've paved the way for us to come in and be more radical," Bowman said. "Like if they didn't get in and provide consistent representation and leadership, you know, we wouldn't have the chance to come in and make the noise that we're trying to make."
While Bowman is willing to work with members across the political spectrum, he is also not shy about speaking up when he disagrees with members of his own party, including President Biden.
In an interview, he was critical of the president's position on reparations for the survivors and descendants of victims of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. Biden traveled to Tulsa to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of that violence, but did not make mention of reparations in his speech and has not publicly said he supports them.
"You have to provide the vision for what needs to happen and what's possible," Bowman said of Biden. "And, you know, this is where he, you know, as a white man in America falls short, and as many white men and white people in America fall short," he said.
Bowman is a proponent of the legislation known as H.R. 40 that would create a commission to study reparations for Black Americans and a "national apology" for the lingering effects of slavery.
"Let's go through the process of asking the right questions, searching for the right answers. And throughout it all, I believe we heal as a country," he said "And when I say heal as a country, I mean all of us, not just the African American community. We all need to do better as a nation. The human race needs to do better."
Bowman is also one of a group of progressives in the House that signaled to House leadership that eliminating legal protection for police officers known as qualified immunity was a must-have in the ongoing negotiations over police reform legislation.
Asked whether a bill that did not eliminate qualified immunity was worth passing, Bowman responded quickly.
"Hell no," he said. "Like, if we're not ending qualified immunity, this is just — this has been an exercise in futility."
Campaigning against COVID-19
Bowman's district was hit hard by the pandemic, but by June the streets around the Gun Hill Houses, a public housing project in the Bronx, were bustling again with vendors selling fresh fruit and vegetables, people commuting to and from work and children playing at the playground.
"Things are starting to come back," he said. "But I know for a fact, when I go into certain communities and I ask the question, 'Have you been vaccinated?' I know I'm going to get like a 50-50 response, because generally people in historically marginalized communities are less likely to trust government, and therefore less likely to get a vaccine."
That was exactly what happened when Bowman was doing constituent services that day. As he handed out flyers — the kind of constituent outreach that was unthinkable even a few months earlier — he met Gianna Guzman, who works at a casino in Yonkers. He asked her if she was vaccinated, and she said she wasn't yet.
"Come on now, what are you waiting for?" Bowman said, throwing his hands into the air. This is also personal for him. Bowman's mother, Pauline, died in February after battling COVID-19.
He asked Guzman why she hadn't been vaccinated yet, and before they went their separate ways made her promise to keep her word and make that vaccination appointment.
"I got to have the conversation to encourage people and persuade them to actually go get vaccinated, that it's safe, that it's free, and that it will not only save your life, but the lives of others," he said.
Chloee Weiner and Lexie Schapitl contributed reporting.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A former middle school teacher from New York City joined a new class of his own recently. Jamaal Bowman is a freshman congressman, one of several young Black progressive lawmakers elected last year as the country confronted systemic racism. So what does his presence mean for the people he represents and his party? NPR's Juana Summers has this profile.
(SOUNDBITE OF SUBWAY TRAIN PASSING)
JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Jamaal Bowman clutched a handful of flyers as he walked around the Gun Hill subway station in the Bronx. It's the kind of hand-to-hand retail politics that felt unthinkable even just a few months ago. As the 2 and 5 trains clattered overhead, Bowman introduced himself to a woman. She didn't know he was her new congressman.
JAMAAL BOWMAN: Come on now. How is that possible? I was out here campaigning all in 2019 to 2020. And in 2020, I won the election against Eliot Engel.
SUMMERS: Engel was a 16-term member of Congress with the backing of prominent Democrats. He faced questions about his absence from this district during the pandemic. Then, weeks before the primary, George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis. The video of his killing sparked unrest and protests across the nation, including in New York. Engel was caught on a hot mic talking to a local official at a news conference focused on that unrest. His comments suggested that he was only showing up there because Bowman was giving him a serious primary challenge.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ELIOT ENGEL: If I didn't have a primary, I wouldn't care.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Say that again.
ENGEL: If I didn't have a primary, I wouldn't care.
SUMMERS: Bowman, who is Black and has spoken openly about his own experiences with law enforcement, described the video at the time as incredibly painful to watch. The middle school principal and first-time candidate ultimately defeated Engel to represent this district, which straddles the Bronx and Westchester County. It's majority Black and Latino, and I asked Bowman what it meant for people here that he is now their representative in Washington.
BOWMAN: You know, I used to live in public housing. You know, I grew up Black in America. I grew up in - you know, close to Spanish Harlem, where, you know, we ain't have much money. But we was, like, all friends and cool and playing and going to school together. And it was just dope. So I feel like I'm representing, you know, like, my tribe, like, my kinship, like kin, you know?
SUMMERS: We were talking at a public housing development in the Bronx. Bowman said he'd been here a few months ago, and the area was deserted, dead quiet. But as we talked, there were kids running around a playground, people selling fresh fruit from tables on the sidewalk. There was music pulsing.
BOWMAN: I got to tell you, this is, like - it's very festive outside right now. Like, there's a lot of good energy everywhere.
SUMMERS: Good energy. But the Bronx is also still recovering from the effects of the pandemic.
BOWMAN: Things are starting to come back. But I know for a fact when I go into certain communities and I ask the question, have you been vaccinated, I know I'm going to get, like, a 50-50 response.
SUMMERS: That's what happened when Bowman met Gianna Guzman, who works at the casino in Yonkers.
BOWMAN: Good to meet you.
GIANNA GUZMAN: Good to meet you, too.
BOWMAN: Thank you so much. Are you vaccinated?
GUZMAN: Not yet.
BOWMAN: Come on now.
GUZMAN: I'm about to be, though.
BOWMAN: Come on. What are you waiting for?
GUZMAN: I will be next week.
BOWMAN: You promise you have your appointment.
SUMMERS: Bowman's mother died in February after battling COVID-19, and he says he worries about people in this district who still aren't making a plan to get vaccinated.
BOWMAN: But then I got to have the conversation to encourage people and persuade them to actually go get vaccinated, that it's safe, that it's free and that it will not only save your life but the lives of others. So...
SUMMERS: Some of Bowman's supporters say they can already feel the difference of having him represent them.
MENORAH SANJEET RAJ: I still feel like he's a text away. He called me to check on me during the pandemic.
SUMMERS: That's Menorah Sanjeet Raj, a birth worker who lives in Yonkers.
SANJEET RAJ: And also my clients that are the most high-need. He keeps a pulse on the community. He follows up.
SUMMERS: She helped Bowman organize his first campaign event focused on the maternal mortality rate among Black women, which is exponentially higher than for white women. Bowman was elected after running a campaign steeped in today's progressive policy. He's been vocal on issues like criminal justice, reparations and education. And he joins a growing number of House progressives looking to turn their presence into power.
What's the best piece of advice you've gotten as a new member of Congress?
BOWMAN: Use your power. You know, there's this belief that, you know, power is like a bank account. The more you use it, the more you lose it. But this person told me, the more you use it, the more you gain it.
SUMMERS: That advice came from Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, part of the foursome of female members of Congress who have called themselves the squad. The others are Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.
BOWMAN: The squad is definitely my people. Alex, AOC, Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez - you know, she was a mentor from afar even before I got to Congress. Same thing with Ayanna and Ilhan and Rashida - just four badass women of color just tearing [expletive] up.
SUMMERS: Senior Democratic lawmakers also praised Bowman for how he's approached the job in his first six months. Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, a fellow New Yorker, is the chair of the House Democratic Caucus.
HAKEEM JEFFRIES: It takes 218 votes to get anything done, which means you have to go out and find 217 additional people to agree with your perspective. You know, that requires relationships, intentionality and strategic advocacy. And Jamaal Bowman came into Congress recognizing that and has really laid out a vision and begun to execute.
SUMMERS: Bowman says he's willing to work with members across the political spectrum, but he is also not afraid to take on members of his own party when he disagrees.
BOWMAN: What pisses me off about my party, the Democratic Party, is we keep playing this sort of moderate game where we pander to independent so-called middle-of-the-road voters as opposed to being true world leaders for justice and equality.
SUMMERS: And take a listen to how he responded when asked about President Biden's position on reparations for survivors of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. To be clear, the White House has not said whether Biden supports reparations for the survivors, but he did mention it in a speech in Tulsa last month.
BOWMAN: You have to provide the vision for what needs to happen and what's possible. And, you know, this is where he, you know, as a white man in America, falls short as many white men and white people in America fall short, you know?
SUMMERS: Bowman has a clear vision of what he believes the future of his party on Capitol Hill can look like.
BOWMAN: I think you're going to continue to have members of Congress who are progressive and other members who are retiring or will be beaten in primaries who's going to force the House to do more and do better and force the White House to do more and do better. That's going to happen. That is happening right now as we speak.
SUMMERS: For that change to really happen, he wants to see more people like himself run and win elections. Juana Summers, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SONG, "PROVE IT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.