The progressive Justice Democrats group that propelled Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) into office in 2018 at the expense of influential establishment veteran Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY) has another Old Guard target in sight. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), who has held his seat for over three decades, is facing a stiff challenge from a young upstart cut in the same mold as Ocasio-Cortez. And Engel just made the progressive rebels’ job a lot easier with a spectacular gaffe into a hot mic.
Embedded in DC Too Long?
Engel has come under fire repeatedly of late, accused of being out of touch with his Bronx constituents. A May 14 article in The Atlantic criticized Engel for remaining in Washington during the Coronavirus crisis, which hit his urban congressional district particularly hard. Engel’s communications director, Bryant Daniels, told reporter Edward-Isaac Dovere that Engel had “remained in Washington since passage of the CARES Act.” Dovere noted that that act had passed March 27. “When I pressed for when Engel was last in the district, Daniels stopped responding,” Dovere wrote.
Engel has claimed a tax break meant for permanent residents on his posh residence in the wealthy enclave of Potomac, MD, for the past ten years, The New Yorker reports. In many ways, he is a perfect caricature of the enmeshed Swamp political figure.
So it is no wonder Engel was particularly eager to make his face seen before the voters when he appeared at a June 2 news conference on the protests surrounding the death of a black man in Minneapolis under police custody. The careerist Democrat was devastatingly caught on a microphone saying to Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who was organizing speaking slots for the event, “if I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.”
Talk about playing into the hands of your opposition’s framing. The quote went viral and Engel, 73, came across as your classic conniving, opportunistic politician looking to placate the peasants in an election year. Ocasio-Cortez lost little time in pouncing. The next day, she endorsed Engel’s primary foe, Jamaal Bowman. The primary is June 23.
Foreign Policy or Domestic Change?
Adding to Engel’s problems is the fact that progressives are uniting behind Bowman in their bid to unseat him. Leftist candidate Andom Ghebreghiorgis announced he was exiting the race on June 1 and threw his support to Bowman. The contest should interestingly highlight the conflict between the younger would-be usurpers and aging establishment Democrats on foreign policy. The national party leadership has shifted to a more hawkish stance on U.S. military interventionism abroad since the election of populist Republican Donald Trump as president in 2016. Engel is a staunch advocate for Israel, hardly surprising for a New York Jewish representative, while Bowman has expressed support for Palestinian rights, though he has emphasized his support for “a quality relationship with Israel” as he has done so. Bowman has ripped Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his “aggressive policies toward the Palestinian people, particularly around occupation, annexation and the detaining of Palestinian children,” the website Jewish Insider reports. “I may be just more open to having those conversations about the humanitarian crisis happening in Palestine than Eliot Engel has been all through his career,” he said.
Engel has used Bowman’s call for placing conditions on U.S. aid to Israel to harshly attack him on the issue. “I would certainly regard him as anti-Israel,” the congressman told Jewish Insider. “This nonsense about conditioning aid is a bit arrogant,” he said, “because we’d essentially be telling Israel, if you don’t toe the mark, if when we crack the whip you don’t jump, we’re gonna pull it away from you. That’s not how one ally treats another ally.”
Given the current climate of unrest in America today, however, it’s going to take a lot more than painting Bowman as anti-Israel in a New York City election to earn Engel a 17th term in office. The George Floyd protests, accompanied by looting and violence, and the social and economic upheaval inflicted by Coronavirus lockdowns have only further whetted progressive demand for radical change. Old Guard Democrats like Engel are increasingly seen as being in the way. Bowman knows he has been dealt a strong hand and is playing up the notion of Engel as being well past his political expiration date for all it is worth. He has been able to paint Engel as a metaphor for government failure across the board. In 2020, that is an argument worth its weight in gold.
“It’s disgusting, it’s abhorrent, it’s unfortunate, and it’s disappointing, but it’s not surprising,” Bowman told POLITICO of Engel’s brutal hot mic moment. “It just exemplifies and shows everything we already knew. “To say if I didn’t have a primary I wouldn’t care, it captures everything not just wrong with him but the political system.”
Read more from Joe Schaeffer.