Engel scrambles to fend off primary challenge from left

Engel scrambles to fend off primary challenge from left
© Greg Nash/Courtesy of the Jamaal Bowman Campaign

Rep. Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelMeet the three Democrats who could lead foreign affairs in the House Trump relents as GSA informs Biden transition to begin Dozens of progressive groups endorse Joaquin Castro for Foreign Affairs chair MORE (D-N.Y.) is scrambling to fend off his most serious primary challenge in years, as progressives set their sights on taking out a congressman that has represented parts of New York City and its suburbs for more than three decades.

The 16-term congressman’s top primary opponent, former middle school principal Jamaal Bowman, has consolidated support on the left in recent weeks after another rival, Andom Ghebreghiorgis, withdrew from the race and threw his support behind Bowman.

Since then, Bowman has benefited from a last-minute surge in fundraising, raking in more than $200,000 in a two-day period last week, and has picked up a series of high-profile endorsements, including from Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersIn defense of incrementalism: A call for radical realism Thomas Piketty says pandemic is opportunity to address income inequality Trump will soon be out of office — but polarization isn't going anywhere MORE (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezTrump will soon be out of office — but polarization isn't going anywhere Trump tweets Thanksgiving criticism of NFL QBs for kneeling Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year MORE (D-N.Y.), who unseated a longtime incumbent herself in 2018.


Taken together, that could spell trouble for Engel, who is already facing scrutiny over his absence from his district amid the coronavirus pandemic as he heads to the primary on June 30.

Further fueling criticism is a moment last week when, as he was pressing for his turn to speak at a local news conference in the Bronx, he was heard saying,“If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.”

“Mr. Engel knows how to ‘bring home the bacon,’ but there are people in his district who are starving,” Bowman said at a primary debate against Engel last week. “Where is this bacon? Especially with 30 percent of his population living in food deserts.”

The last time Engel was on the ballot, in 2018, he easily dispatched his closest primary opponent with a 57-point win before coasting to a 16th term in an uncontested general election.

That same year, just a few miles south of Engel’s district, Ocasio-Cortez staged an upset victory over longtime Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), shocking many in the political world who failed to recognize Crowley’s vulnerability.

Progressives’ efforts to expand their influence in Washington this year have so far yielded a mixed bag of results.


The highest-profile victory for progressives this year was in Illinois’s 3rd District, where challenger Marie Newman narrowly defeated one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, Rep. Daniel LipinskiDaniel William LipinskiHouse votes to condemn alleged hysterectomies on migrant women Five things we learned from this year's primaries Hispanic Caucus campaign arm endorses slate of non-Hispanic candidates MORE.

But Jessica Cisneros, a 26-year-old immigration attorney, lost to seven-term Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) in Texas’s 28th District in March, while progressive Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez fell to M.J. Hegar and Royce West in the state’s Democratic Senate primary.

And in the presidential race, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  New DOJ rule could allow executions by electrocution, firing squad MORE, a more moderate-minded Democrat, beat out Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) after a series of early wins for the progressive standard-bearer.

However, progressives say that Engel’s seat in New York’s 16th District, which encompasses the northern Bronx and parts of Westchester County, may be a bright spot for them.

“He’s an institution there. He’s been there for 34 years, and he is contesting this race seriously,” said George Albro, co-chairman of the New York Progressive Action Network.

“And yet we have a candidate who is just a superb candidate,” he added, referring to Bowman.

Engel’s lack of presence in his district has drawn criticism in recent months, especially after New Rochelle, in Westchester, emerged in March as the original epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in New York.

More recently, the district has also had to contend with protests about racial injustice and policing in the U.S. The district bore witness to unrest following the death of George Floyd last month, forcing public officials to respond.

Bowman has spoken candidly in the past about his experiences as a black man in America, joining a rapidly growing racial justice movement across the country.

He notably wrote about his experience living in New York City during former Mayor Michael BloombergMichael BloombergBiden's great challenge: Build an economy for long-term prosperity and security The secret weapon in Biden's fight against climate change Sanders celebrates Biden-Harris victory: 'Thank God democracy won out' MORE’s tenure earlier this year in an NBC News op-ed that coincided with Bloomberg’s presidential run. In the piece, he recounted an arrest after police stopped him at a traffic light as well as an earlier arrest in which he was accused of stealing his own car.

Engel has also faced backlash from progressives over his support of the 1994 crime bill, which has been criticized for growing the prison population in the U.S. Bowman hit Engel on the issue in the debate last week.

Additionally, Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has faced heat from progressives for his foreign policy stances. Progressives have specifically pointed to his vote in favor of the 2002 Iraq War Authorization.

“Those two examples show you that he’s not a progressive,” said Paco Fabian, campaigns and communications director at the progressive group Our Revolution. “It’s time for a true progressive to take over and represent that part of New York City.”

But Engel’s fate in the primary is not a foregone conclusion.

He still has a significant cash-on-hand advantage over Bowman, with more than $1 million in the bank as of the end of March. And he remains a known quantity, both in his district and nationally. House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiGovernors take heat for violating their own coronavirus restrictions Spending deal clears obstacle in shutdown fight Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz trade jabs over COVID-19 relief: People 'going hungry as you tweet from' vacation MORE (D-Calif.) formally endorsed Engel’s reelection bid last week.

“It’s not just that he’s nationally identified with his district; he’s also a massive presence in it with labor, synagogues, churches, local elected officials, local community groups,” Jon Reinish, a New York-based Democratic strategist, said. “You can’t say that he’s taken his eye off his district, because he hasn’t.”

At the same time, Engel’s record in Congress largely aligns with the liberal wing of his party. He was among the founding members of the Congressional Medicare for All Caucus and was an early backer of the Green New Deal resolution pushed by Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed MarkeyEd MarkeyUS national security policy in the 117th Congress and a new administration OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden eyes new leadership at troubled public lands agency | House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally | Trump administration pushes for rollback of Arctic offshore drilling regulations House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally MORE (D-Mass.).

Tom Watson, a spokesman for Engel’s campaign, brushed off Bowman’s recent endorsements from the likes of Sanders and other prominent progressives, pointing to other high-profile backers of the congressman and his deep ties in his district.


“Bernie Sanders is free to endorse whoever he wants,” Watson said. “Congressman Engel is just as happy with the people both national and local who have endorsed his campaign.”

Still, Engel’s allies and Democratic operatives acknowledged the delicate situation he is in, noting that there is little room for error in the coming two weeks.

“He has the advantage of incumbency and I think in this race that’s going to be very important,” Reinish said. “All that being said, do not take your eye off the ball, because we’ve seen giants fall before.”