J. Pharoah Doss: Rep. Jamaal Bowman Faces Firing Squad
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J. Pharoah Doss: Rep. Jamaal Bowman Faces Firing Squad

Politics is the art of compromise. Activists, on the other hand, are uncompromising. What happens when an activist wins a seat in Congress but decides to remain an activist rather than become a politician?

They don’t live long.

In 2020, the Democratic Justice Party recruited Jamaal Bowman, a 44-year-old black man and former high school principal who described himself as a democratic socialist, to run for Congress in New York’s 16th district against a 16th-term incumbent congressman whom the Democratic Justice Party viewed as disconnected from working-class issues.

Justice Democrats, a progressive political organization and caucus formed in 2017, seeks to elect a “new type of Democratic majority” to Congress. In 2018, Justice Democrats fielded 79 progressive candidates in local, state and federal elections, winning seven congressional seats. Four of the seven winners were Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib, who became known as “the squad.”

Bowman had never held public office before, but he gained a reputation as a charismatic grassroots activist who focused on issues that disproportionately affected poor students of color.

Bowman’s defeat of the 16-term incumbent was a surprise victory for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Bowman didn’t defeat the incumbent on key Democratic issues. He didn’t have to. He simply rode the outrage into Congress.

J. Pharoah Doss: Rep. Jamaal Bowman Faces Firing Squad

The Atlantic’s Elaine Godfrey put it best: Bowman’s victory came against an unprecedented backdrop, without precedent. The treatment of black Americans by police had sparked historic weeks of civil unrest, and black Americans had suffered and died disproportionately during the pandemic. The uprising directly fueled Bowman’s victory and generated significant enthusiasm, leading to the election of several other black progressives. Their victories were the first electoral victories of the current protest movement.

During his victory speech, Bowman said, “Tonight, when we celebrate, we are not celebrating me as an individual. We are celebrating this movement, a movement designed to stand up to a system that is literally killing us.” Bowman said his opponent used to call himself a thorn in Donald Trump’s side, but Trump’s greatest fear was “a black man with power.”

Bowman soon gained national recognition as a new member of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which publicly opposed President Biden’s moderate political views.

Following President Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress in 2021, Bowman offered a “progressive response.” Bowman argued for a more just American society. Bowman acknowledged that Biden’s economic policies were a start, but they weren’t nearly enough.

Bowman has appeared on national news shows repeatedly, attacking both Republicans and moderate Democrats. He rose to prominence after engaging in heated arguments with colleagues in the legislative lobby, and in 2022, he was arrested at the Capitol for participating in a voting rights demonstration.

Following the October 7, 2023 Hamas terrorist attack on Israel, in which Hamas murdered citizens and took hostages, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bipartisan resolution condemning Hamas by a vote of 412 to 10. Bowman and the rest of the “squad” voted against the resolution.

Instead of voting like a pragmatic politician who understood that he could condemn Hamas and support the right of Palestinians to self-determination, Bowman voted like an activist who confused a Hamas terrorist attack with the right of Palestinians to “resist the occupation.”

Pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist progressives across the United States praised Bowman’s uncompromising stance, but the 9 percent of Jews in Bowman’s district, who made up 20 percent of the vote, found it deeply troubling.

Bowman later criticized the Israeli military response as “genocide” and dismissed Israel’s claim that Hamas terrorists had sexually assaulted Israeli women on October 7 as Zionist propaganda. These activist positions attracted the attention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a lobbying group whose mission is to encourage and persuade the United States government to enact specific policies favorable to Israel. AIPAC decided to use all of its financial resources to campaign against Bowman.

After AIPAC aired negative ads, Bowman dropped out of the race against his primary rival and began campaigning against a “Zionist lobbying group” that was trying to remove from power a “black man in power” who criticized Israel.

AIPAC spent more than $14 million on ads against Bowman, the most it has ever spent on a congressional election. But most of the ads AIPAC endorsed were not about Bowman’s criticism of Israel; rather, they showed how Bowman’s voting record in Congress often differed from that of the Biden administration, proving that Bowman was a left-wing activist.

Bowman, as expected, lost the Democratic primary to George Latimer. During his concession speech, Bowman blamed AIPAC for his defeat and called on his supporters to outrage.

According to journalist Jonathan S. Tobin, Bowman didn’t lose the race because of AIPAC. The pro-Israel lobby didn’t put any money into the race until a March poll showed Bowman trailing his opponent by the same 17 percent margin—52 percent to 35 percent—that he ultimately lost in the election. The congressman’s problems stemmed from a fundamental conundrum: He was out of sync with the mood of his constituents.

During the debate with Bowman, Latimer said, “When you work in a legislative body, you have to build coalitions with people… You can’t lecture them and yell at them on the steps of the Capitol.”

Bowman took Latimer’s criticism personally, accusing him of perpetuating “angry black man” stereotypes and saying voters understood his passion.

Bowman was wrong.

Voters have learned that passion is not enough to pass legislation, and activists are ineffective congressmen.

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