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Amid a pandemic and protests, Rep. Eliot Engel is fighting for his political survival

Challenger Jamaal Bowman is well funded, backed by liberal groups

With the country reeling from a pandemic and nationwide protests against police brutality, New York’s upcoming primaries could be an early test of whether voters will direct their frustrations at current lawmakers and take chances on political newcomers. 

In the 16th District, longtime Democratic Rep. Eliot L. Engel faces a well-funded primary opponent who has the support of liberal outside groups. The deep-blue majority-minority district stretches from the North Bronx to southern Westchester County, and includes one of the early epicenters of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s also been the site of protests following the May 25 death of a black man, George Floyd, at the hands of Minneapolis police officers . 

“This district is a microcosm of economic and racial inequality,” Engel’s opponent, Jamaal Bowman, said at a candidate forum Sunday. “There’s a lot of work to be done.” 

In a normal year, defeating an incumbent in a primary is difficult. Now, challengers face an additional hurdle with in-person campaigning at a standstill amid a health crisis. New York City, though, has its fair share of insurgents willing to try. 

Ten of the 12 House Democrats seeking reelection in New York City are facing primary challenges on June 23. Seven challengers, including Bowman, had raised over $100,000 through March 31. But Bowman, a former middle school principal, has attracted the most attention from liberal groups. And his allies say he’s the right candidate for this moment. 

“What could be more fitting during a pandemic … and this national moment that we’re having on race, than for a ‘Medicare for All’ champion who’s been arrested for driving while black to be elected to Congress?” said Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which is backing Bowman. 

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Engel on defense

Much of the race has centered on who is most connected to the district rather than ideological differences. Unlike other Democratic primaries, both Engel and Bowman support liberal policies, including Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, although Bowman has highlighted the incumbent’s past support for the Iraq War and the 1994 crime bill.

“The one word I hear over and over again from voters about Congressman Engel is: Absent,” Bowman said in a statement. Neither candidate was available for an interview, but their campaigns responded to emailed questions.

The accusation has put Engel, who was first elected to Congress in 1988 and chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, on defense.

Last month, The Atlantic reported that Engel had not been back to his district since the House passed a coronavirus response package in late March. A week after the story published, Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, who has endorsed Engel, had the congressman join his regular “COVID Conversation” on Facebook Live. Engel joined from his home in Maryland and called criticism that he was in the D.C.-area “a joke.”

“For some people, you’re sort of damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” he said, before later adding, “People know I work hard for them. People know that I’m visible, I’m there.” 

Dinowitz stressed in an interview that Engel is active and well known in the district and that his seniority benefits the area. New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson, who has also endorsed Engel, also said that the congressman and his staff are responsive to constituent concerns and that Engel has been a vocal advocate for the area in Congress.

Both men also defended Engel’s comments caught on a hot mic last week when he asked to speak at a Black Lives Matter event. He was overheard saying, “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.”

Engel told News 12 his comments were taken out of context. Bowman quickly tweeted that the clip was “incredibly painful to watch.”

The clip is going to be featured in a television ad from Justice Democrats, the group that backed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her 2018 upset Democratic primary victory against New York Rep. Joseph Crowley. Justice Democrats is teaming up with the Working Families Party on the ad buy, which was first reported by HuffPost.

For Bowman and his allies, the pandemic and the recent protests have only underscored their argument that Engel is out of touch.

“We didn’t have to change the message based on the moment,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, the state director for the New York Working Families Party, who lives in the 16th District.

Outside support

The recent attention has bolstered Bowman’s campaign, which announced Monday it had raised more than $360,000 over the last week. Engel has had a financial advantage in the race with more than $1 million in his campaign account to Bowman’s $217,000 as of March 31.

Last week, Bowman was endorsed by his former opponent in the primary, the PCCC, Ocasio-Cortez and other prominent local Democrats. On Tuesday, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders also endorsed Bowman.

Justice Democrats recruited Bowman to run, and the former middle school principal has gradually earned support from other liberal groups, including the WFP and Democracy for America.

The groups have leveraged their own networks to assist with fundraising and direct volunteers to help make phone calls, a more urgent task without in-person campaigning.

“Lots of insurgent grassroots campaigns depend on their ability to canvass, knock doors, hold volunteer events in people’s homes and do rallies,” Justice Democrats spokesman Waleed Shahid said. “Ever since the pandemic hit, the campaign really went into a full virtual campaign mode.”

Bowman said the adjustment has involved ramping up phone banking efforts, with volunteers making more than 118,000 calls last week alone. He said volunteers are on track to send more than 16,000 handwritten postcards to voters in the district.

Engel campaign spokesman Tom Watson said in an email that the campaign has 500 volunteers making phone calls, sending post cards and texts and delivering lawn signs.

“It’s tough on all candidates,” Watson wrote of the pandemic’s impact on the race. “The Congressman loves to meet voters and can usually be found at dozens of in-person events each week.”

Michael Oliva, a Democratic consultant who worked on Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign, said the lack of in-person campaigning “tremendously hurts” an insurgent challenger because connecting with voters face to face validates the narratives in ads and mailers.

“If there’s a disconnect … you might say, ‘Eh, it’s dangerous times, let’s not upset the waters, let’s not upset the apple cart,” Oliva said.

But Bowman and his allies are betting that, in the midst of crisis, voters will want a change.

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