Black lawmakers rally behind Engel in primary fight

Powerful Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) members are rallying behind longtime Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) as he fends off a tough primary challenge from a progressive African American candidate, Jamaal Bowman.

Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), whose endorsement helped propel Joe Biden to the presidential nomination, and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), the caucus chairman seen as the heir apparent to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-N.Y.), threw their support behind Engel, a pro-Israel Jewish American and 16-term House veteran, over the weekend. 

So has the influential House Financial Services Committee chairwoman, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), and the CBC’s political action committee, led by another powerful New York Democrat, Rep. Greg Meeks, the Queens party boss. Engel also is backed by Carl Heastie, the first black Speaker of the New York state Assembly whose Bronx district overlaps with Engel’s. 

Black Democrats are not criticizing Bowman, whose campaign has tapped into the national anger over police brutality and institutional racism that has inspired tens of thousands of protesters to take to the streets of New York and other U.S. cities in recent weeks. 

In fact, many have praised the 44-year-old public education advocate — raised by a single mother in East Harlem before founding his own public middle school, where he remains the principal.

The CBC endorsements of Engel are more a reflection of an unspoken rule on Capitol Hill: Establishment Democrats, including most members of the Black Caucus, tend to put aside other considerations — age, race, region, ideology — and protect their own from outside challenges.

That formula — prioritizing incumbency and seniority — has paid handsome dividends for the CBC, helping the group to accumulate power in the halls of Congress. Indeed, CBC members now hold gavels on four key committees, including Financial Services, Homeland Security and Education and Labor.  

CBC voices are also pointing to another reason for siding with Engel: He was there fighting for racial justice in law enforcement, they note, long before the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked the current outcry for a criminal justice overhaul. Engel joined CBC members in a meeting with Justice Department officials after the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed black man who was shot 19 times by four white New York City police officers. And Engel spoke out prominently against the 2014 death of Eric Garner, who died on Staten Island after an officer put him in a chokehold.  

“Eliot Engel has been with us every step of the way on police brutality, on criminal justice reform. You can’t turn your back on your friend just because your friendship has become inconvenient,” said one black Democratic source familiar with the primary. 

“It’s less about Bowman and more about your friend who has been shoulder to shoulder with you through your struggle,” the source said. “That’s why you see all these CBC members coming out in support. He was there with us on all these NYPD abuse cases.”

In a statement, Bowman suggested he was unfazed by the establishment Democrats lining up behind Engel. The political upstart outraised the incumbent congressman during the last couple months, though Engel, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, is sitting on a bigger bank balance.

“I understand that senior members of Congress tend to endorse other senior members of Congress,” Bowman told The Hill, “but frankly I’m not concerned about those endorsements because we’re seeing so much energy in the district for fundamental change.”

CBC members are “missing a great opportunity to embrace a new generation of leadership in the party during this historic moment,” added Waleed Shahid of the progressive outside group Justice Democrats, which recruited Bowman to run.

Engel’s 16th District, which includes working-class neighborhoods in the Bronx and wealthier ZIP codes in south Westchester County, is a majority-minority district, where blacks and Hispanics outnumber whites.  

The June 23 primary contest offers a snapshot of a small but high-profile rift within the Democratic Caucus, the most diverse in the history of Congress, which features one of the largest — and youngest — freshman classes in the party’s history. While Democratic leaders and committee chairmen have consolidated power for years, there’s another group of young liberals clamoring for changes within the ranks — even if it means fighting for the ouster of their own colleagues. 

Leading that charge has been Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the liberal firebrand and social media superstar known as AOC who has had no qualms about endorsing progressive primary challengers pitted against more moderate sitting Democrats. In backing Bowman earlier this month, she suggested the national unrest after Floyd’s death at the hands of the police demands new ideas — and new voices — on Capitol Hill. 

“This moment requires renewed and revitalized leadership across the country AND at the ballot box,” tweeted Ocasio-Cortez, who ousted the powerful House Democratic Caucus chairman, Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), in a primary two years ago that rocked Washington and the Democratic establishment.

Lending a further boost to Bowman, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) threw his significant weight behind Engel’s challenger this month, followed shortly thereafter by an endorsement from The New York Times editorial page, which cited several missteps by Engel.

Engel, 73, has come under fire for remaining outside the district, at a residence in Potomac, Md., during the earlier stages of the coronavirus pandemic, which hit parts of his district particularly hard. More recently, Engel was caught on a hot mic asking to speak at a public event in New York decrying police brutality. The reason, he suggested, was to raise his profile amid the tough challenge.

“If I didn’t have a primary,” he said, “I wouldn’t care.”

On Monday, yet another freshman Democrat, Rep. Katie Porter (Calif.), also endorsed Bowman, citing his outsider status and vows to shake up business as usual on Capitol Hill. 

“He’ll come to Congress ready to take on corporate executives, not hit them up for donations,” she said.

Despite a handful of detractors, however, Engel has other Democratic heavy-hitters in his corner. When recently asked what she thought of AOC backing Bowman over her longtime ally, Engel, Pelosi said she was endorsing both Engel and AOC in their reelection bids next week.

“I think the people of New York are very blessed to have them both in the Congress,” Pelosi said.  

Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) a progressive favorite after leading the effort to impeach President Trump, also endorsed Engel, as have two fellow New York Democrats, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Grace Meng, a leading Asian American lawmaker who is a top official at the Democratic National Committee.

Notably, the other Democratic New York senator, Minority Leader Charles Schumer, has remained neutral in the Engel-Bowman race, saying he’s “focused on the Senate.” Some have viewed his neutrality as Schumer not wanting to upset progressives amid chatter about AOC potentially challenging the Democratic leader in 2022. 

But sources said Schumer and other senior Democrats could officially endorse Engel in the coming days.

“We need leaders in Congress with proven records of standing up for civil & human rights,” Clyburn tweeted on Monday. “@RepEliotEngel is not new to the fight for justice & equality — he’s been in the fight for his entire life & I’ve worked w/ him on these issues for almost 3 decades.”

Tags Adam Schiff Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bernie Sanders CBC Charles Schumer Chuck Schumer Congressional Black Caucus Donald Trump Eliot Engel Grace Meng Hakeem Jeffries Jamaal Bowman Joe Biden Joe Crowley Kirsten Gillibrand Maxine Waters Nancy Pelosi New York primary
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