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Top House Democrat Eliot Engel defeated in primary after weeks of vote counting

Former middle school principal Jamaal Bowman has toppled 16-term U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel in New York’s Democratic primary in another upset victory for the party’s insurgent wing.

Many votes cast by mail in the race have yet to be counted, but an Associated Press analysis of absentee ballots returned so far indicated Friday that Bowman’s lead from votes cast in person is too large for Engel to overcome.

Bowman declared victory in the race on June 24, a day after the primary.

A political novice who has never held public office before, Bowman, 44, was a progressive African American challenger who said Engel, the 73-year-old chairman of the House’s foreign affairs committee, had lost touch with his economically and racially diverse district.

He earned his extraordinary win in a campaign season upended first by the coronavirus outbreak, then by protests over the death of George Floyd.

Both candidates were unable to do traditional campaigning because of social distancing restrictions, but Bowman criticized Engel for staying at his home in Maryland as the pandemic turned his district in the Bronx and suburban Westchester County into one of the virus’s most deadly hunting grounds.

Engel said he was working on behalf of the district from Washington.

Biggest upset since AOC victory

Then, after protests over Floyd’s death in Minnesota gave way to two nights of looting, Engel made comments damaging to his campaign while appearing at a Bronx event where he joined other local politicians appealing for peace.

“If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care,” he said in a comment picked up by a live microphone, while pleading with local organizers for a chance to speak at the event.

Engel, who is white, said he has “always believed that Black lives matter” and said his comments were taken out of context, but Bowman, who has spoken of his own experiences with police brutality, said they illustrated why the district needed new leadership.

By defeating Engel, Bowman replicated the success of democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated another powerful New York City Democrat, Joe Crowley, in a neighbouring congressional district two years ago.

The campaign was the latest proxy battle between the party’s progressive and pragmatic wings. Bowman was endorsed by Ocasio-Cortez and U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren while Engel picked up support from Hillary Clinton and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer.

Bowman grew up in public housing in New York City. He was a teacher and school counsellor for several years before becoming the founding principal of a Bronx middle school, the Cornerstone Academy for Social Action.

The district is heavily Democratic, so the primary winner is virtually assured of victory in the general election in November.

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