Engel’s Primary Fight Exposes Fissures That Fueled Ocasio-Cortez

After 16 terms that lifted him to a powerful House committee chairmanship, Rep. Eliot Engel is the latest Democrat from New York fighting for his political life as the progressive movement’s biggest names brawl with the party establishment’s largest figures.

Outside groups lining up behind Engel, 73, and his top opponent, 44-year-old political novice Jamaal Bowman, have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars advertising in the days leading up to Tuesday’s primary.

Bowman, a Black former middle school principal in the Bronx, presents himself as the champion of working-class voters in New York’s racially and economically diverse 16th District. That’s the strategy the then-unknown Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez used in 2018 to stun then-Rep. Joe Crowley in an adjcacent district. The primary is essentially the deciding contest because of the district’s overwhelmingly Democratic registration.

While a Bowman victory “would be stunning” because Engel has been in office so long and has a huge fundraising advantage, it “would be a reflection of the energy on the progressive side, which is very real and is palpable,’’ said Jeanne Zaino, a political scientist at Iona College in New Rochelle, part of the district.

Engel outspent Bowman 2 to 1 in the previous two months and still had $826,000 as of June 3, the end of the pre-primary reporting period, compared to $345,000 in the challenger’s till. But Bowman outraised Engel by $42,000 in April and May — more evidence “there is a lot of energy’’ around his campaign, Zaino said.

Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), left, faces a challenging primary Tuesday.

Bowman is also endorsed by two former Democratic presidential hopefuls, Sens. Bernie Sanders(I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), as well as Ocasio-Cortez, among others.

The 16th District includes public-housing projects in the Bronx, Yonkers and New Rochelle, as well as affluent enclaves such as New York City’s Riverdale and the Westchester County suburbs of Scarsdale, Larchmont and Rye. Black and Hispanic residents make up more than half the district’s population.

“People think that the district can do better,’’ said Joe Dinkin, national campaigns director for the Working Families Party. It “deserves somebody who is really going to be a champion for what working people in the district are going through.”

Attack Ads

Progressive organizations like Justice Democrats PAC and the Working Families Party have helped Bowman make up the campaign’s financial disadvantage by partnering on an independent $500,000 ad blitz against Engel. The ads focus on Engel’s decision to stay in his home in Potomac, Md., while his constituents were living in what initially was a U.S. epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.

That attack theme is also reminiscent of Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 campaign against Crowley, who chaired the House Democratic Caucus and was considered a possible successor to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“I’ve been here on the ground for the last year,” Bowman said at a June 2 debate at which the candidates appeared online. “Congressman Engel lived in Maryland for 27 years. He is not even in this district doing the work with our people.”

Engel replied that he was ”at my home in the Bronx right now. My home is here, not in Maryland.”

A Bronx native and a former New York City public-school teacher, Engel served almost a dozen years in the New York Assembly before his election to Congress in 1988.

The Foreign Affairs Committee chairman points to the legislative influence he wields as one of the most senior House Democrats, a point Pelosi made when telling reporters why voters should send the incumbent back to Washington. In more evidence of Engel’s vulnerability, he was endorsed this week by Hillary Clinton and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

”I have the clout, I bring home the bacon,” Engel said in the debate. “That’s not something a freshman can do.”

Engel’s clout argument is enhanced by the pending retirements of two other influential New York Democrats: Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey, from Westchester County, and Jose Serrano, a senior appropriator from the Bronx.

‘Hot Mic’ Moment

A ”hot mic” moment after Engel’s return to the district gave Bowman another opportunity to accuse the incumbent of indifference to his district.

Before a press conference with local officials about police brutality, the congressman was caught pressing Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. for a chance to speak. ”If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care,’” Engel said.

The digital ad wars have heated up since then.

The Democratic Majority for Israel’s political arm has spent more than $600,000 this month to help Engel, one of Israel’s staunchest supporters in Congress. That should help Engel with affluent, Jewish voters in Westchester.

New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson calls Engel “a forceful, reliable advocate” to help local governments “secure the resources we need.”

The mayor rejects the notion Engel is disconnected from the district.

“I found Eliot very approachable” and “in a field where many people have big egos, there is a certain humility to Eliot that I find appealing.”

To contact the reporter on this story: James Rowley in Washington at jrowley@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bernie Kohn at bkohn@bloomberglaw.com; Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com

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