As party leaders age, progressive Black Democrats take stage

Senate candidate Charles Booker
Kentucky state Rep. Charles Booker is vying for a Senate nomination against a rival who outraised him 40 to 1 and was backed by national Democratic leaders.
(Associated Press)

Yearning for change, a group of progressive Black Democratic congressional hopefuls is rushing toward the national stage, igniting rank-and-file enthusiasm in a party dominated by aging white leaders.

Charles Booker, 35, a first-term Kentucky state legislator who grew up poor, is vying for a Senate nomination against a rival who’s outraised him 40 to 1 and is backed by national Democratic leaders. Jamaal Bowman, 44, an educator and political neophyte, is seeking a New York congressional seat held by the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, who’s endorsed by Hillary Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

They and others ran in Tuesday’s Democratic primaries in New York, Kentucky and Virginia, and it remains unclear how many of them will win. But the day’s message was clear: A fresh set of candidates of color wants to steer Democrats leftward, even as presumed presidential nominee Joe Biden sets a more centrist course to woo moderate voters this November.


“The leadership of the party has to catch up with public opinion, which is largely progressive,” Mondaire Jones, who’s fighting for a vacant seat from a tony district in New York City’s northern suburbs, said in an interview.

Jones said that he enthusiastically backs Biden but that the former vice president must “advance a vision of America that is more progressive than what he’s set forth” if he wants to energize liberal voters.

“The world has changed,” Bowman said in a statement. “Congress needs to change, too.”

As election officials count boatloads of mail-in ballots prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, the Associated Press hasn’t declared winners in many close primaries. But one victor was Cameron Webb, a Black physician and lawyer who defeated three white rivals in a GOP-held Virginia district that Democrats hope to capture in November.

Tuesday’s primaries occurred in a Democratic Party led by Biden, 77, Pelosi, 80, and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, who’s 69. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist and progressive leader who lost his bid for the presidential nomination this year, is 78.

But another hero of the left, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., is only 30. And in one indication of the party’s sensitivities, Biden has already said he will choose a woman as his vice presidential running mate and faces pressure to pick a person of color.

Booker, Bowman and Jones have gained momentum from the Black Lives Matter movement and the nationwide protests following last month’s killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis. Their strong showings have spotlighted that candidates who can tap into that energy can garner significant votes from African Americans and white progressives.


While each has emphasized social justice, they and others say their appeal goes beyond racial issues. All, for example, have supported the Green New Deal and “Medicare for All” proposals dear to many liberal voters.

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Sean McElwee, a political analyst for progressive candidates, says liberal-leaning millennials are entering the age when people tend to vote more often. That produces increasingly successful progressive candidates, especially people of color who can appeal to liberal and minority voters, he said.

“We’re a little bit over” white male progressive candidates, McElwee said.

Sochie Nnaemeka, New York state director of the progressive Working Families Party, said candidates of color also gain appeal from their authenticity.

“They have lived experiences,” Nnaemeka said. “There’s no translation needed for Jamaal Bowman to talk about the crisis of police brutality.” Bowman, challenging 16-term veteran Rep. Eliot Engel in a district covering parts of the Bronx and Westchester County, grew up in public housing in New York.

Despite Tuesday’s races, Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.), one of Congress’ most conservative Democrats, is the only Democratic incumbent to lose this year. And moderates dispute that Democrats are becoming controlled by progressives and that Black voters inevitably skew to the left.

They note that the moderate Biden decisively clinched the presidential nomination over Sanders with strong support from Black voters. They say the dozens of Democratic freshmen elected in 2018, giving them House control, included centrist lawmakers of color such as Reps. Colin Allred of Texas and Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico.


“There is a new generation coming that’s very diverse,” said Jim Kessler, an executive vice president of the centrist Democratic group Third Way. “But it would be a mistake to say the next generation only represents the far left of the party.”

According to AP VoteCast, a survey of voters, about 2 in 10 people who voted for Democratic candidates in 2018 were Black and about 1 in 10 was Hispanic. About half identified as liberal, including 2 in 10 who said they were very liberal, with most of the rest moderates.

Booker is seeking the Democratic nomination for Senate in Kentucky against former Marine combat pilot Amy McGrath. Schumer has backed the centrist as his party’s best chance to defeat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky in the GOP-heavy state.

Other candidates of color seeking Democratic congressional nominations Tuesday included Ritchie Torres, a New York City council member running for an open seat from a diverse Bronx district. Suraj Patel is a businessman trying to oust 14-term Rep. Carolyn Maloney in New York City.

Former Rep. Steven Israel of New York, who ran House Democrats’ campaign committee, largely attributed progressives’ energy to the antipathy in the party to President Trump.

“Trump has unleashed a tremendous intensity and energy among activists, and they have patience in waiting their turn” to run for higher office, Israel said.