In our new limited series “How I’ll Get It Done,” rising progressive stars tell the Cut how they plan to fight for a better future.
Jamaal Bowman is joining the squad in January. The 44-year-old former middle-school principal has been called a successor to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other grassroots progressives, whose ranks in Congress have been steadily growing. A working class candidate in New York’s 16th District, Bowman won his primary in a total upset against his well-funded, long-established Democratic opponent, Eliot Engel. He did so without corporate donations and while running on a platform that included Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and free college. Now Bowman is preparing for his new role while living part time in Washington, D.C., and parenting three children — during a pandemic.
Bowman discussed how his role as an educator shapes his intentions as a legislator, his thoughts on Biden’s Cabinet picks, and how he remains the smiliest person on Capitol Hill.
What are some of the biggest ways life has changed since your primary win?
I’m still doing a million things. I’m still homeschooling my three kids — my oldest son is 19, my second is 11, and my daughter is 6. And I’m supporting my wife in her job as a remote learning teacher for second graders in the Bronx, while the pandemic continues to rage on. Now I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to continue to pay my mortgage in Yonkers while also renting an apartment in D.C., while paying student loans and all the other bills we have to pay. I’m going to meet with a financial consultant who is going to sort of walk me through that. But it’s a real problem. It’s stressful for me and my family.
What does it mean for you to be a working-class person headed to Congress — someone who actually shares the circumstances of your constituents? That’s a pretty rare thing, still.
Congress has the authority to authorize spending and investment to historically neglected and marginalized communities. It’s sickening to watch Republicans in particular negotiate [a stimulus package] in a way that clearly shows they don’t care about working people. They don’t care about tens of millions of Americans and children who are struggling to put food on the table every day. They don’t care about the tens of millions of Americans and children who may lose their apartments or homes in the next month.
[Mitch] McConnell is quoted as saying he doesn’t care if states and cities go bankrupt. You know, he’s facilitating a privatization agenda that I’m fairly familiar with because I’ve seen it in education. And everybody else is just scratching, clawing for crumbs to survive.
How does your background as an educator influence what you want to accomplish in office?
My second year of teaching I was chosen to be a crisis intervention teacher. Our school was a kindergarten through fourth grade school with 1,500 kids, largely recent immigrants from Africa and South America. And it was in one of the poorest zip codes in the country. The classes were too big, the school was underfunded. My job was to provide both teachers and students with social, emotional, and psychological support.
I remember one year there was a spike in kids who were committing self-harm. It was coinciding with a documented rise in mental distress over the past ten years among Black boys and Latinas. And I remember kicking the issue up the food chain and sharing with them that there’s been this spike in mental distress for many kids in our school. And the district rep said something sort of joking, like, “Jamaal, you need to take the kids home with you.” I was blown away by that, that they would make light of the fact that we didn’t have the infrastructure in place to provide the kids with mental health support. But we had an infrastructure in place where, if I wanted to get a kid arrested, from my school, I could do that. If I wanted to suspend a kid from my school, I could do that very quickly.
I feel like a conduit between the real life experiences of these kids I had the honor of serving and what needs to be happening in Congress. My job is to allow their stories to guide the bills that we introduce, and the policies we fight for. I come from a similar background to many of my students: I was raised by a single mom. I’ve lived in public housing, rent stabilized apartments. I used to get in trouble in school. My job is to fight for policies that will help children like me, children who struggle across the country.
How do your former students feel about your new job?
If there were no COVID, the first thing I would have done the day after the primary is go to my old school and just celebrate with my kids. I can’t wait for us to be post-COVID — we’ve got to figure out how to bring up one bus of students to D.C. a week. I need, we need, this country needs kids from the Bronx to come to the halls of power, walk the halls of power, understand that this is their house.
You chronicled your orientation experience on Twitter … with a breakfast cookie that travelled all around the Capitol with you, and is now famous.
The cookie might become a children’s book, there was such a reaction. “Mr. Bowman and his cookie goes to Washington” — we’ve got to figure that out. But I mean, it was surreal. The rotunda, you know I’ve been there before with my students. It’s just a tremendous, incredible piece of architecture. And this is now my workplace. It was a moment of just being overwhelmed.
Because I’m a member now I was listening differently to the story of American exceptionalism. As I listened during our tour, I didn’t hear enough of the story of indigenous genocide, and enough of the story of African enslavement. As ugly and evil as that history is, it’s still our history.
Have you been in touch with the Biden administration about Cabinet picks? What position are you most concerned about?
I’ve been in touch with them about my thoughts on staffing. Deb Haaland [as Environmental secretary] is probably the biggest name we were able to get. That’s huge for the progressive movement. Joe Biden is putting together a diverse cabinet with ideology, gender, race, and I support that. Others, not as much. I’m glad that Rahm Emanuel is nowhere to be found. Whoever becomes Education Secretary has to have a love and passion for public schools. Not charter schools, not vouchers, but public schools. Anyone really focused on children and educating the whole child is a person that I’m going to get behind 100 percent. And a person hopefully I can work with to pass policy that’s transformative for our schools.
[After conducting this interview, it was announced that Biden had chosen Connecticut school commissioner Miguel Cardona. Bowman tweeted that Cardona’s “roots are where the Secretary of Education’s need to be — in America’s public schools. I look forward to working with him to navigate the education crisis that is COVID and build a world renowned public education system.”]
You posted a video of yourself dancing in your car to Wayne Wonder just a few days before your primary, probably one of the most stressful days in your life. It went viral in part because you just seemed so happy. How do you stay joyful? Do you ever worry you won’t be taken seriously?
In teacher training, there were teachers who would tell you, “Don’t smile until December” because they wanted to make sure that you had a serious demeanor with the kids in your classroom. I never, never subscribed to that. Come on, now — kids need joy; kids need love. All my kids do is make fun of me. They see me do call time, they see me on the stump. My daughter’s the worst, she’s always doing my voice like, “Hi, I am Jamaal Bowman, I’m running for Congress.” It’s good for us to not take it too seriously. It’s very serious, but I don’t want my kids to think being in Congress is special or elitist.
I even heard this on a call the other day, people were talking about me as if I wasn’t in the room. They said something like, “You know, Jamaal is the happiest, most joyful person running for office. There’s no way that’s going to last.” I know it’s going to be incredibly challenging. But being a middle school principal helps me — I want to bring joy to my office. I want to bring joy to policymaking. I continue to smile.