On Tuesday, voters will cast their ballots in the June 23 primaries in Kentucky and New York, two states whose original primary dates were pushed back due to coronavirus. With former Vice President Joe Biden having secured all of the delegates he needs to become the official Democratic nominee for president, the intrigue lies mostly with a number of congressional races. Amid nationwide protests against police brutality and white supremacy, heading into an election largely defined by the fight for climate and health care legislation, it looks as if voters might desire a change in leadership.
It's pretty difficult to unseat an incumbent candidate, as sitting representatives have name recognition, a voting record to point to, and often large campaign finances to dig into. In 2018, only four incumbents were defeated in primaries. But these four upstart candidates are hoping to beat out incumbent Democrats or Democrats endorsed by the national party — and despite their lack of institutional support, they just might win.
Melquiades Gagarin, challenging New York Rep. Grace Meng
Gagarin has worked for community-based organizations, state Sen. Jose Serrano, disgraced former Rep. Anthony Weiner, and the NAACP legal defense fund. He is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, though he did not receive the Queens branch's endorsement. Like other candidates running this cycle, Gagarin is running on a platform of economic and racial justice. He favors a housing guarantee and has put forth text for what he calls the Golden Years Security Act, which would seek to meet the housing and health care needs of the elderly via subsidies and expanded caretaker training.
Gagarin is running against sitting Rep. Grace Meng in New York's 6th District, which includes a large swath of northeast Queens. Meng checks some progressive boxes, the Queens Daily Eagle noted last year, including her cosponsoring of the Green New Deal and joining the House's Medicare-for-All caucus, both proposals Gagarin supports as well.
But the challenger hopes to draw favorable comparisons with Meng on the issue of policing. "[Meng] voted against a bill that would have demilitarized our police forces, and has gone to great lengths to be seen as a law-and-order Democrat, serving to reinforce and legitimize a system that has been in need of reform since before her tenure in Congress began," Gagarin told Mic in an email.
Comparatively, Gagarin favors demilitarizing the police, investing in community-based intervention programs, and reallocating police budget funding to local communities. He sees these measures as addressing the past harms of congressional legislation, namely the 1994 crime bill, which "cut off Pell grants to incarcerated students," he told Mic. He also plans to distinguish himself by noting Meng's status as a proponent of Israel and her willingness to accept corporate donations.
Charles Booker, challenging Amy McGrath
Born and raised in the west end of Louisville, Booker is Kentucky's youngest Black state representative. He's running on a platform of championing Kentucky progressivism and ultimately, on being the right candidate to oust Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) this fall. "We need to beat Mitch McConnell so that we can transform our future and end generational poverty and uproot structural racism," Booker tells Mic. "I'm taking this stand for Kentucky."
Whereas many outside the state might believe that Kentucky voters favor a moderate Democrat for Senate, Booker says that he's built a broad coalition of Kentuckians who, like him, are committed to reducing incarceration, ending generational poverty, and stopping police violence against Black people.
For Booker, the fight is personal: "I felt like I owed it to my daughters to try to fight for change. And I felt convicted to run for office when my cousin T.J. was murdered. He was murdered on Easter Sunday 2016," he tells Mic. "T.J. can't wait. He doesn't have the chance to wait for someone else to decide that our lives matter."
Booker is one of the many young Black people working to break into a legislative system where people of color and Black people have never seen parity. He says that his candidacy is "helping to redefine electability" by showing that people with lived experiences of policy have a right to help shape legislation. "We deserve to be heard in the decisions that shape our lives as much as anybody else. We belong there, and we're capable, and we have the experience to add value in those decisions."
His primary opponent, Amy McGrath, ran for Congress in 2018 and lost. She has been endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee this cycle, but many see weakness in her inconsistent messaging and waffling on issues, like whether she would've voted to confirm now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, given the credible allegations of sexual misconduct against him.
Whereas just a few months ago it seemed like McGrath would easily clinch the Democratic nomination, the endorsements for Booker have been rolling in. Notably, former Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who ran against McConnell in 2014, endorsed Booker last week — "an unignorable vote of no confidence in McGrath," New York magazine wrote, given Grimes's standing in Kentucky establishment politics.
Jamaal Bowman, challenging New York Rep. Eliot Engel
Bowman is a middle school principal running to unseat Eliot Engel, the Democratic congressman who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Engel, a 30-year veteran of the House, represents New York's 16th district which spans the north end of the Bronx and up into the southern end of Westchester County.
Bowman decided to run after seeing Engel's response to school shootings and violence. He told New York's City & State last year: "The tipping point for me was 2017-2018 when 34 children died within the K-12 school system in the Bronx, and 17 of those children died via suicide. That same year, the Parkland shooting occurred. And I didn’t really hear anything from our politicians except thoughts and prayers," Bowman said. He has endorsed the Green New Deal as well as national rent control and a #ReconstructionAgenda dedicated to addressing the systemic racism in America.
So far, the 16th is looking like a fight between the old guard and the new: Hillary Clinton and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) have thrown their weight behind Engel, but Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) have all endorsed Bowman.
Lindsey Boylan, challenging New York Rep. Jerry Nadler
Boylan is running to oust Rep. Jerry Nadler, the chairman of the powerful House Judiciary Committee, which led the impeachment proceedings against President Trump. Nadler holds a powerful position in the House, and within Democratic politics, but Boylan believes that voters are ready for a more progressive candidate.
Boylan, like many of her progressive contemporaries, sees the country's current struggles as connected to its roots. "A country's origin story beginning in slavery and complete displacement of an entire population has a systemic impact on everything afterward," Boylan tells Mic. That's why she believes voters deserve "systemic change that responds to our history."
Boylan previously worked in New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office, but now she's running on a platform that mirrors the new wave of progressive candidates: She's in favor of the Green New Deal and believes that housing and health care are human rights. She also wants to decriminalize sex work, a position that hasn't quite caught on within Democratic politics despite its potential to protect trans women, particularly Black and brown trans women. She's additionally spoken openly about the toll that inadequate mental health services took on her own family and upbringing, and has said fighting for mental health care is a top priority.
Mental health is especially relevant now given the ongoing movement against police brutality, as 25% of people shot by police suffer from mental illness. Mental health care is also hard to come by for incarcerated people. Boylan says that on Rikers Island, New York City's notorious jail, 40% of detainees have severe mental illness.
Boylan tells Mic that she has attended protests against police brutality and is inspired by the movement. However, she recognizes that "it is a very important thing that I don't situate myself for visibility." "I never want to be a savior," she says. "I spend a lot of time listening."
Boylan is challenging Nadler in New York's 10th district, which covers a bizarrely choppy swath of New York City, from central-southern Brooklyn up the coastline and through almost the entire west side of Manhattan. Nadler has served 15 terms in Congress, and Boylan has predicated her run on representing a change in leadership. She told New York County Politics last week that "although the congressman is perfectly nice, I guess, he’s only passed a handful of bills into law on his own in 30 years."