Jamaal Bowman: Biden’s ‘lies’, Squad threats and why the president is failing to connect to Black America

In an exclusive interview the New York Democrat says Joe Biden needs to act quicker on police reform, student loans and voting rights. Eric Garcia writes

Monday 20 December 2021 13:36 GMT
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Don’t say Representative Jamaal Bowman didn’t warn Democrats.

When House Democrats passed the bipartisan infrastructure bill last month and sent it to President Joe Biden’s desk, he and his fellow Squad members – Representatives Cori Bush of Missouri, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and fellow New Yorker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – were the only six Democrats who voted against it.

They did so because, as Ms Omar toldThe Independent at the time, they wanted it to be passed in tandem with Build Back Better – which included progressive priorities like an expanded child tax credit, childcare, paid leave, home care for elderly people and people with disabilities, and provisions to combat climate change. The fear was that without it, moderate Democrats in the Senate like Senator Joe Manchin in West Virginia could stall it.

Similarly, on Friday, Ms Ocasio-Cortez tweeted about how it was “actually delusional” for Democrats to believe they can get re-elected in 2022 without acting on student debt, passing Build Back Better, letting the child tax credit lapse and no pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Now, as Build Back Better looks likely to be shelved because of Mr Manchin’s objections, Mr Bowman told The Independent this is exactly what he feared.

“Unfortunately, Manchin and lobbyists and special interests want to continue to gut and even kill BBB,” Mr Bowman told The Independent on Thursday before Mr Manchin announced he was a no on the legislation on Sunday, all but killing it. “That’s what we’ve been saying for a very long time, and unfortunately it looks like they’re going to continue to kick the can down the road on BBB.”

It’s that exact type of centrist Democratic politics Mr Bowman defeated in 2020. The former middle school principal and a Yonkers native pulled off an improbable win against Democrat Eliot Engel, who had been in the House since 1989 and was chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. His long-shot campaign was backed by Ms Ocasio-Cortez, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and snatched victory after Mr Engel was caught on a hot mic at a George Floyd rally saying: “If I didn't have a primary, I wouldn't care”.

Now at the end of his first year in office, Mr Bowman has those election days long behind him. He is affable and often found joking with his fellow members or with reporters when the House is in session. He is also just as comfortable wearing a suit to cast votes on the floor as he is wearing a Transformers Decepticon shirt and referencing his favorite rappers like the Wu-Tang Clan and Public Enemy.

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His win was not unlike the victory of his fellow New Yorker and Democratic Socialist Ms Ocasio-Cortez, and of Ms Pressley’s defeat of an incumbent in 2018. Shortly after Mr Bowman’s win, Ms Bush pulled off an even more improbable win, when she beat Rep William Lacy Clay in Missouri’s 1st District. Mr Clay had held the seat for 20 years and succeeded his father, who had held the seat for an additional 32 years.

These insurgent campaigns followed the mould of Mr Sanders’s 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns and Mr Bowman and Ms Bush’s wins gave the left-wing of the party even more leverage to ensure that Democrats would pass progressive policies.

At the same time, the Democratic Party still nominated Joe Biden, a man who campaigned on restoring normalcy and who prides himself on his ability to work with Republicans. That message to unify the country helped Democrats defeat Donald Trump.

And that tension has not gone away.

Progressives have become a punching bag for moderates. They have claimed Squad positions such as defunding the police cost them House seats in 2020, they have repeated conservative critiques and blamed “stupid wokeness“ for the loss of the Virginia gubernatorial race and they have also blamed the progressive wing for holding up Biden’s agenda with “purist demands”.

Progressive Democrats are also frustrated with the more establishment wing of Democratic leadership, including Mr Biden, whom many in the party feel has offered lacklustre leadership. Mr Bowman listed a series of elements of disappointments he feels with the Biden administration.

Mr Bowman is frustrated with the president’s lack of action on cancelling student loan debt. Last week, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki called on Congress to draft legislation to do so, but Mr Bowman is pushing back on this presidential fudge.

“He ran on cancelling student debt. He communicated that to the American people,” Mr Bowman said. “Now he seems to be walking that back, and we hear things from the White House like Congress needs to pass legislation and bring legislation to cancel student debt to the White House.”

Mr Bowman says action in Congress on student loans is “very difficult and probably impossible”.

And he’s not alone; his fellow Squad member Ms Pressley, as well as Ms Warren and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, have also called on Mr Biden to cancel student loan debt. But all indications are that the student loan pause that began during the Trump administration due to the coronavirus pandemic will end in February.

“The president has the authority, the unilateral authority through executive order, to cancel student debt,” Mr Bowman, who serves as vice-chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, said. “And the president should recognise this moment in our history, in terms of the impact of Covid, the impact on the economy, how for decades student loans have been predatory and disproportionately harming communities of colour and people of colour. This is a chance for us in a moment where we need to reset our society, and part of that reset involves canceling student debt. This is what the American people want.”

While Mr Bowman said he and other progressives had an open line of communication with the White House, particularly with White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, he expressed concern that the progressives have been excluded on policy including the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

“So I think we have to do better in terms of, not just a phone call here or a phone call there,” he said. “How is the president consistently communicating with the Progressive caucus to ensure that our policies align and meet the needs of progressives across the country and the American people?”

Biden ‘lies’

Similarly, Mr Bowman also said one reason that Mr Biden’s numbers were lagging among African American voters was not just because of his lack of action on voting rights, but also his lack of action on police reform – specifically citing the fact that the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is essentially dead in the Senate was a slap in the face to Black voters, who catapulted Mr Biden to win the nomination against Mr Sanders last year.

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A Quinnipiac University Poll from last month found that 63 percent of Black voters approve of the job Mr Biden is doing. That is a drop from 78 percent of Black voters in another Quinnipiac poll from April.

“Something needs to be done about that, and the president needs to be more of a leader on that – it was maybe even as big of a lie as the student loan lie,” he said.

“I know for a fact his numbers are sliding in the African American community because nothing has been done on police reform, even though the world watched George Floyd get lynched, and the world stood up in response to that.

“It’s that. It’s voting rights taking this long. And it’s a lack of consistent engagement and strategic planning with the African American community. That has been unacceptable. That has been deplorable. And the president needs to do much, much, much more to connect with Black people in this country.”

As Build Back Better stalled in the Senate this last week, Mr Schumer announced Democrats would begin work on voting rights as well. As the Senate passed a carve-out to raise the debt limit, plenty of Democrats, including moderates such as Senators Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Michael Bennet of Colorado, indicated openness to eliminating the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation. But even an exemption for voting rights faces obstacles, as Mr Manchin and Ms Sinema both oppose changing the 60-vote barrier.

Mr Bowman also criticised Mr Biden for not speaking out enough against white nationalists like the ones who ransacked the Capitol in an attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election. Mr Bowman was only three days into his time as a congressman when the would-be-insurrectionists barged into the Capitol searching for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and calling to hang Vice President Mike Pence.

“And he hasn’t led enough on that issue either,” Mr Bowman said of the president. “And those white nationalists are planning and plotting to win in 2022 and 2024. And in 2024, it might be Donald Trump again. And then where the hell is our country going to be at that point?”

In the days after the riot, Mr Bowman introduced legislation to investigate the attack and search for ties between nationalists and Capitol Police officers.

The honorary male Squad member

Mr Bowman has not received the same amount of vitriol that his female colleagues in the Squad receive. While Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona tweeted an anime video of a character with his head killing a character with Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s head on it and Representative Lauren Boebert was caught on video calling members of the Squad “the Jihad Squad” and implying Ms Omar would blow up the Capitol, Mr Bowman has faced fewer personalised attacks.

He was the only non-Muslim member of Congress to join a press conference about Islamophobia when Ms Omar played audio of a death threat she received replete with anti-Muslim hate speech. Similarly, he joined with other members of the Squad to support stripping Ms Boebert of her committee assignments in the House.

“Well, I mean, just on a personal level, they’re my sisters and I love them. Number one,” he said. “Number two, on an even more personal level, I grew up in a house with all women. I got four sisters and one mom. So that was my household growing up, so it’s natural and easy for me.”

At the same time, he noted, white nationalism is often intertwined with white patriarchy.

“And our country’s roots and foundation is built on White patriarchy and built on this idea that men are superior to women, and men are more important than women. And that is complete nonsense, obviously,” he said.

“So whether it’s fighting for women’s rights overall, women’s reproductive rights, Islamophobia, sexism, LGBTQ rights, it’s important for men to stand with them, and beside them, and support them in every way that we can,” he said. “Because that’s the only way we are going to evolve as a democracy into not just a multiracial, but one that accepts women as equal to men.”

“So when people criticise the squad, it’s one thing to criticise policy, right, and approach and process. What they get is hate, and it is hate rooted in racism, sexism, Islamophobia at the same time,” he said. “So like, for me, as much as I can support them and be there with them, I’m going to do that. And if we all care about our country, and care about our democracy, and care about our humanity, everyone should do the same.”

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