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Important New York Races To Follow In Tuesday Primary


For three decades, Congressman Eliot Engel has represented the state of New York in the House of Representatives. His district includes parts of the Bronx and Westchester. Now a relative political newcomer is giving Engel a real challenge in tomorrow's Democratic primary. Jamaal Bowman is a middle school principal running on a progressive platform, and Jesse McKinley is following the race for the New York Times. He joins us now.


JESSE MCKINLEY: Thanks very much.

SHAPIRO: Begin by telling us about the incumbent Eliot Engel's record.

MCKINLEY: Well, he was elected in 1988, so you're talking, you know, 31 years in Washington. During that time, he's kind of slowly risen in the ranks. It's been very much kind of an old-school political career for him. You know, he's done his time on committees. He's been very officious about showing up at the State of the Union early to shake the president's hand, although he abjured that with President Trump. And he has, you know, slowly made his way to the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee, which is a pretty powerful committee in Washington. He's done things in kind of the traditional democratic fashion.

SHAPIRO: And his rival, Jamaal Bowman - what makes the challenger such a unique candidate?

MCKINLEY: Well, I think what you're seeing here is kind of the confluence of a lot of things. You know, this is kind of the continuation of the 2018 kind of progressive surge inside of the Democratic Party, where you've got a lot of younger, kind of more left-wing Democrats who are kind of demanding change. And for them, Jamaal Bowman looks very, very attractive. He's got a compelling life history. He grew up in public housing in New York City, kind of raised by the bootstraps to become a middle school principal and found his own school in the Bronx. And he also talks the talk in terms of that kind of left wing of the party. He embraces the Green New Deal. He embraces Medicaid for all. And for people looking for change after 31 years of Eliot Engel, that seems to fit the bill.

SHAPIRO: Many people are comparing this race to the upset a couple of years ago when Alexandria Ocasio Cortez defeated incumbent Joseph Crowley in a different part of New York. Crowley was the No. 4 Democrat in the house at the time. How similar do you think these two situations are?

MCKINLEY: I think there's a lot of parallels. I mean, once again, AOC kind of started this, and people are looking for people like Jamaal Bowman to continue it. As you pointed out, Crowley was kind of very similar to Engel - kind of an old-school Democrat, an establishment Democrat who was taken by surprise by AOC's kind of insurgent candidacy. In this case, however, Engel has almost seen this coming, and a lot of establishment Democrats - like Hillary Clinton, like Gov. Andrew Cuomo - have been trying to, it would seem, rescue Engel at the last minute here.

SHAPIRO: You know, you described 2018 as kind of the rise of the progressives within the Democratic Party, but that year we also saw a lot of centrist Democrats win districts that President Trump had carried in 2016. This year it looks like there are a lot of progressive Democrats challenging incumbents far beyond New York. How would you describe this political moment right now?

MCKINLEY: Well, I think it's interesting. I think that in 2018, the kind of progressive wave was obviously galvanized by the presidency of Donald Trump. It had real fire in the belly. And I think in 2020, that movement may have matured a little bit. You know, I think they've raised even more money if you look at the kind of small donations as well as mid-sized donations. I think their campaigns have gotten a little bit more professional, and yet they're still using kind of grassroots methods to try to get the word out. So this will kind of be a test of whether that progressive movement has grown up a little bit and can continue their success from a couple of years ago.

SHAPIRO: OK, I'm going to put you on the spot and ask how likely you think an upset actually is tomorrow.

MCKINLEY: I've stopped making predictions after 2016. Let's be...


MCKINLEY: ...Very clear. But I think that Bowman has a puncher's chance. And I think, you know, this is going to be a weird election because a lot of ballots are going to be cast either through early voting or through absentee voting because of the corona crisis. So we may not know the result tomorrow night as the ballots get counted slowly but surely.

SHAPIRO: That's Jesse McKinley, Albany bureau chief for The New York Times.

Thank you very much.

MCKINLEY: Of course. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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