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 EngelHuffPost reporter discusses progressives' successful showing on Tuesday Ex-USAID employee apologizes, denies sending explosive tweets Progressives soaring after big primary night 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 SandersOn The Money: Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire | Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks | Tax preparers warn unemployment recipients could owe IRS Senators introduce bill to block Trump armed drone sale measure Sanders offers bill to tax billionaires' wealth gains during pandemic MORE (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezHispanic Caucus asks for Department of Labor meeting on COVID in meatpacking plants Harris, Ocasio-Cortez push climate equity bill with Green New Deal roots Young minority voters show overwhelming support for Biden: poll 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 LipinskiBottom line How a progressive populist appears to have toppled Engel House to pass sweeping police reform legislation 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 says his faith is 'bedrock foundation of my life' after Trump claim Biden clarifies comments comparing African American and Latino communities Kanye West may have missed deadline to get on Wisconsin ballot by minutes: report 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 BloombergEverytown on the NRA lawsuit: 'Come November, we're going to make sure they're out of power, too' Hillicon Valley: Trump raises idea of delaying election, faces swift bipartisan pushback | Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google release earnings reports | Senators ask Justice Department to investigate TikTok, Zoom Meme group joins with Lincoln Project in new campaign against Trump 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 PelosiCoronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame On The Money: Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire | Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks | Tax preparers warn unemployment recipients could owe IRS Top Democrats say postmaster confirmed changes to mail service amid delays 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 MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeySanders offers bill to tax billionaires' wealth gains during pandemic Senate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic Budowsky: Why I back Kennedy, praise Markey 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.”