Are the Justice Democrats Gaining Ground in Congress?

They are getting elected, but are they making any legislative headway?

In 2020, longtime New York Representative and Democratic Party stalwart Rep. Eliot Engel lost his seat to a challenger. His colleagues in Congress, and most especially his fellow Representatives on the prestigious House Foreign Affairs Committee, were sad to say goodbye to the incumbent Congressman.

He was well-liked for his willingness to work across the aisle, and for his dedication to his constituents. He was well-known for his support of the Jewish community, and for Israel.

That it wasn’t a Republican opponent who defeated former-Rep. Eliot Engel in New York, but a fellow Democrat, made his ouster all the more noteworthy.

Recently elected Rep. Jamaal Bowman, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez before him, was backed by the political action group, the Justice Democrats, in 2020. Like Ocasio-Cortez, he unseated a veritable titan in the Democratic Party.

Engel’s defeat left a sizable hole in the upper echelons of Democratic leadership. Engel had painstakingly leveraged his many years in Congress into good professional relationships with his colleagues, bipartisan legislation, and assignments to all the best committees. Rep. Bowman, whatever his progressive bonafides and success as a campaigner, recently entered Congress as a freshman.

Always the consummate professional, Rep. Engel spoke highly of his party’s “new energy” during the primary. He called the young progressive Democrats intent on running against him, “the beauty of our electoral system.”

“We all run for re-election,” Engel told the Jewish Insider, “but you know, there’s no permanent stay in a democracy. We have to try and convince the voters each time.”

Engel took the high road, and took his long-time support of Israel with him when he lost his primary to a Justice Democrat-backed progressive candidate.

Progressive Democratic activists aren’t as reticent and they have a message for moderate Democrats in Congress: “They should be afraid,” said Maria L. Svart, National Director of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Former Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) was only the latest tenured incumbent to draw the ire of the Justice Democrats. Engel’s record voting for the war in Iraq, but more so his support of President Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, landed Engel on the list for a serious primary challenge. Engel had also been outspoken in his criticism of Rep. Ilhan Omar- a favorite on the progressive left- for comments he and others have deemed anti-Semitic.

“I’m running for Congress because the people of NY-16 deserve a Democrat who will fight for jobs and education, not bombs and incarceration,” said Justice Democrat Jamaal Bowman on the campaign trail.

In NY-16, the Justice Democrats prevailed. Rep. Eliot Engel was defeated by Jamaal Bowman in the primary and Bowman went on to win his general election race to be elected to Congress in 2020.

In Texas, however, a different scenario played out. Like Engel, incumbent Democrat Rep. Henry Cueller had the support of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic Party leaders. The Justice Democrats, and popular progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, backed a former intern for Cueller, 27-year old attorney Jessica Cisneros.

Cisneros was defeated by Rep. Cueller in the primary, but not by a wide enough margin to make Democratic leadership comfortable.

Some of the primary challengers Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Justice Democrats backed in the latest Democratic primaries lost their races; others did not.

Watching these races, it is difficult to determine just how far the new progressive ideology has spread within the Democratic Party and the Democrat-voting electorate.

Judging by campaign fundraising prowess alone, the Justice Democrats, and some of their highest-profile members, are proof that the far-left progressive ideology, coupled with a massive social media following, is a new winning strategy for amassing campaign funds.

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez has been a fundraising juggernaut, using Twitter and other social media to expertly wheedle small-dollar donations from non-constituents who like AOC and her brand of Democratic socialism.

However, the Democratic Party hasn’t benefitted much from the progressive campaign boom. Ocasio-Cortez has been withholding her party dues, refusing to pay until the party agrees to back progressive primary challengers against moderate Democratic incumbents.

Now, however, Ocasio-Cortez might consider reevaluating her position. On one hand, replacing every moderate Democrat in Congress, or even a number substantial enough to shift legislative priority, is going to take a good deal of time and a not-insignificant amount of money. No matter how deep the pockets of the Justice Democrats go, it might not be enough.

On the other hand, meaningful legislation might be passed if newly elected Justice Democrats stop pushing primary challenges against their colleagues and start working seriously with those colleagues to take advantage of the Democratic Party’s control of the executive and both legislative bodies.

The Democratic grip on the House and Senate is tenuous and isn’t likely to last forever- grips on the House and Senate never do.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store