How a progressive populist appears to have toppled Engel

How a progressive populist appears to have toppled Engel
© Greg Nash

A trickle of absentee votes counted weeks after last month’s New York primary contest has almost assured that former middle school principal Jamaal Bowman will defeat House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelEx-USAID employee apologizes, denies sending explosive tweets Progressives soaring after big primary night Carolyn Maloney defeats Suraj Patel to win New York primary: AP MORE in what was once seen as a quixotic challenge.

With about 40,000 absentee ballots left to count, Bowman, a first-time candidate, led Engel by 23 percentage points, or just over 10,000 votes. Engel has not conceded the race, though New York Democrats believe his odds of a comeback are almost hopelessly long.

Engel’s campaign has filed suit against elections officials in the Bronx and Westchester County seeking permission to observe absentee ballot counts.

ADVERTISEMENT

If Bowman’s lead holds out, it will be just the latest sign of an ascendent movement that has already knocked off long-serving incumbents in recent years in New York, Massachusetts, California and Illinois.

In interviews, nearly a dozen top Democrats in New York City and Washington who kept close tabs on the race described a perfect storm that raised Bowman and hurt Engel, who has represented various iterations of the district since 1988, before Bowman was old enough to vote.

Engel would be the second powerful New York Democrat to lose his bid for another term in just two years.

The veteran lawmaker had plenty of warning that he was facing his most significant challenge since 2000, when he fended off an African American New York City councilman by 9 points. 

Senior Democrats had sounded alarms for several members after Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezProgressives soaring after big primary night 'Absolutely incredible': Ocasio-Cortez congratulates Cori Bush on upset victory over Lacy Clay Biden needs to bring religious Americans into the Democratic fold MORE (D) stunned House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe CrowleyJoseph (Joe) Crowley'Absolutely incredible': Ocasio-Cortez congratulates Cori Bush on upset victory over Lacy Clay Progressives lost the battle for the Democratic Party's soul Progressive Bowman ousts Engel in New York primary MORE (D) in the 2018 primary. Justice Democrats, the group behind Ocasio-Cortez's upset, eyed several other long-serving members who had not faced serious challenges in years or even decades.

Rep. Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesJeffries on Senate coronavirus bill: 'Totally irrelevant' Gohmert tests positive for COVID-19 The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Brawls on Capitol Hill on Barr and COVID-19 MORE (D-N.Y.), who replaced Crowley as caucus chairman, urged fellow incumbents to be prepared and to modernize their campaigns. So did Rep. Gregory MeeksGregory Weldon MeeksDemocrats go big on diversity with new House recruits Chamber of Commerce, banking industry groups call on Senate to pass corporate diversity bill Sherman joins race for House Foreign Affairs gavel MORE (D), who acts as the unofficial dean of New York City's delegation to Congress, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which pushed members to hire staff and poll their districts so they would not be caught unaware.

ADVERTISEMENT

Jeffries’s representatives declined to comment for this story. A spokesman for Meeks did not return a request for comment.

Two other members of New York's delegation, Reps. José Serrano (D) and Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyHelping our seniors before it's too late House approves .3 trillion spending package for 2021 House approves two child care bills aimed at pandemic MORE (D), opted to retire instead of risking a primary challenge. Voters in both districts last month picked young progressive candidates of color to replace them.

Others, like Reps. Yvette ClarkeYvette Diane ClarkeThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Top tech executives testify in blockbuster antitrust hearing Hillicon Valley: Tech CEOs brace for House grilling | Senate GOP faces backlash over election funds | Twitter limits Trump Jr.'s account The Hill's Coronavirus Report: INOVIO R&D Chief Kate Broderick 'completely confident' world will develop a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine; GOP boxed in on virus negotiations MORE (D) — who only narrowly survived her own primary challenge in 2018 — Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerBy questioning Barr, Democrats unmasked their policy of betrayal Chris Wallace: Barr hearing 'an embarrassment' for Democrats: 'Just wanted to excoriate him' Apple posts blowout third quarter MORE (D) and Carolyn MaloneyCarolyn Bosher MaloneyUS could avoid 4.5M early deaths by fighting climate change, study finds Carolyn Maloney defeats Suraj Patel to win New York primary: AP Maloney, Torres declare victory in NY primary races after weeks of delays MORE (D) built more robust campaigns than they had in the past. 

Clarke and Nadler survived spirited challenges this year. Maloney leads her challenger, former Obama administration official Suraj Patel (D), by a scant 1.6 percentage points, a margin of fewer than 900 votes.

Engel, too, appeared to take the potential for a primary challenge seriously — he paid for polls in August, December and May, according to spending records filed with the Federal Election Commission. 

Engel did not provide a comment for this story.

Those early polls did not show Bowman as a rising threat, though insiders say they did show Engel with worryingly low numbers in a district in which a majority of voters are people of color. Demographic data shows the district had been moving away from Engel. Over the last decade, Engel's constituents have become more diverse, less white and younger, according to the Census Bureau.

“Engel is one of the people who is ground zero for a primary because he is in a situation in which he represents an increasingly diverse urban constituency where it is possible to create a deathly coalition against an older white incumbent, which is progressive, high socio-economic status whites and people of color,” Sean McElwee, who runs the liberal group Data for Progress, said before the votes came in.

Bowman, meanwhile, spent months planting the seeds of his challenge. Recruited by Justice Democrats, Bowman in February won the Working Families Party’s endorsement, a moment strategists called an early sign of his potential. In early June, only weeks before the primary, another candidate challenging Engel, Andom Ghebreghiorgis, dropped out and backed Bowman.

Gov. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoCuomo to serve as National Association of Governors chair New York City adding 'key entry point' checkpoints to enforce quarantine Iconic NY columnist Pete Hamill dies MORE and Sen. Charles SchumerChuck SchumerGroup of GOP senators back more money for airlines to pay workers GOP super PAC launching August ad blitz Schiff, Khanna call for free masks for all Americans in coronavirus aid package MORE, New York's top Democrats, waited until the week before last month’s primary to back Engel. Bowman, meanwhile, racked up support from progressive icons like Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) and Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersProgressives soaring after big primary night 'Absolutely incredible': Ocasio-Cortez congratulates Cori Bush on upset victory over Lacy Clay Sanders supporters launch six-figure ad campaign explaining why they're voting for Biden MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenBill from Warren, Gillibrand and Waters would make Fed fight economic racial inequalities The other reason Democrats want Biden to shun debates The Memo: Biden faces balancing act MORE (D-Mass.).

Events far from Engel’s control also hurt him. In March, New York officials announced that the coronavirus had landed at a synagogue in New Rochelle in Engel’s district. As officials scrambled to contain the spread of the disease, Engel was conspicuously absent.

In May, a reporter for The Atlantic found Engel at his home in Potomac, Md. Engel's communications director said Engel had not been to his district since March.

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him go back to his district during a pandemic,” a Washington Democrat said.

Engel returned to New York in the closing weeks of the race, though one appearance in particular came to embody the charge Bowman had leveled: that Engel, a 32-year incumbent, was out of touch with his district.

Sharing the stage with fellow elected officials, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. told Engel he had a long list of elected officials who were set to address an audience after protests over police brutality, following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

“If I didn't have a primary,” Engel said, “I wouldn't care.”

The twin shocks of a global pandemic that disproportionately killed Blacks and Hispanics and widespread demonstrations for racial justice gave voters a chance to form new coalitions.

The pandemic undermined trust in government institutions, New York-based strategists said, making a long-time incumbent more a symbol of a broken system than the bearer of popular pork projects. 

ADVERTISEMENT

The protests, which elevated the Black Lives Matter movement, gave voters another reason to cast a ballot for a young progressive Black man who had told of his own abuse at the hands of police.

Bowman would be the second progressive outsider to oust a Democratic incumbent this year, after marketing executive Marie Newman (D) beat Rep. Daniel LipinskiDaniel William LipinskiBottom line How a progressive populist appears to have toppled Engel House to pass sweeping police reform legislation MORE (D-Ill.) in a Southside Chicago district. He is overwhelmingly likely to win the Yonkers-based district in November. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPence: Chief Justice Roberts 'has been a disappointment to conservatives' Top federal official says more details coming on foreign election interference The Hill's Campaign Report: COVID-19 puts conventions in flux  MORE carried three-quarters of the vote there in 2016.

In a statement the day after the primary, with a commanding lead but thousands of votes left to count, Bowman declared victory.

“From the very beginning, we anchored our campaign in the fight for racial and economic justice. We spoke the truth — about the police, about systemic racism, about inequality — and it resonated in every part of the district,” Bowman said. “The results show that the people of NY-16 aren’t just ready for change — they’re demanding it.”