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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 EngelDemocrats call on Blinken to set new sexual misconduct policies at State Department Lawmakers on hot mic joke 'aisle hog' Engel absent from Biden address: 'He'd wait all day' Bowman to deliver progressive response to Biden's speech to Congress 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.

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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-CortezHarris rebounds after difficult trip Democrats facing tough reelections back bipartisan infrastructure deal Hillary Clinton backs Shontel Brown in Ohio congressional race MORE (D) stunned House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe CrowleyJoseph (Joe) CrowleyIt's time to respect artists Longtime Illinois Rep. Danny K. Davis gets Justice Democrats-backed primary challenger Joe Crowley to register as lobbyist for recording artists 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 JeffriesDemocrats seek staffer salary boost to compete with K Street Congress tiptoes back to normality post-pandemic White House to Democrats: Get ready to go it alone on infrastructure 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 MeeksHouse votes to repeal 2002 Iraq war powers Fresh hurdles push timeline on getting China bill to Biden White House pressed on evacuating Afghan allies as time runs out 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.

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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 LoweyLobbying world Progressives fight for leverage amid ever-slimming majority Biden needs to tear down bureaucratic walls and refocus Middle East programs 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 ClarkeTSA working on additional pipeline security regulations following Colonial Pipeline hack School districts struggle to defend against rising ransomware attacks Hillicon Valley: Democrats urge Facebook to abandon 'Instagram for kids' plan | 'Homework gap' likely to persist after pandemic MORE (D) — who only narrowly survived her own primary challenge in 2018 — Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerSenate on collision course over Trump DOJ subpoenas Black Democrats press leaders for reparations vote this month House Judiciary to probe DOJ's seizure of data from lawmakers, journalists MORE (D) and Carolyn MaloneyCarolyn MaloneyHow ERA is good for the economy Wray suggests limits on FBI social media tracking a 'lesson learned' after Jan. 6 Trump, allies pressured DOJ to back election claims, documents show 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 CuomoNew York City moving thousands of people from hotels back to shelters Bank of America: All vaccinated workers to return to office after Labor Day US Open allowing 100 percent spectator capacity at matches MORE and Sen. Charles SchumerChuck SchumerCentrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting Five takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision Senate confirms Chris Inglis as first White House cyber czar 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 SandersCentrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting Democrats facing tough reelections back bipartisan infrastructure deal The Hill's Morning Report - ObamaCare here to stay MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenCentrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting Democrats have turned solidly against gas tax Overnight Health Care: Takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision | COVID-19 cost 5.5 million years of American life | Biden administration investing billions in antiviral pills for COVID-19 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. 

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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 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 (D-Ill.) in a Southside Chicago district. He is overwhelmingly likely to win the Yonkers-based district in November. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine Monica Lewinsky responds to viral HBO intern's mistake: 'It gets better' Virginia governor's race poses crucial test for GOP 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.”