Thirty-one years is a long time to be in Congress. But Eliot Engel, the Democrat representing New York’s 16th Congressional District, would like at least one more term — a cause he’s done little to facilitate recently. At a Tuesday news conference organized in response to ongoing protests, Engel was heard, via hot mic, asking for time to speak. Ruben Diaz Jr., the Bronx borough president, can be heard telling Engel there isn’t time for him to weigh in.
Since protests began last Friday, the New York City police have been caught repeatedly brutalizing members of the public. Engel’s district has suffered severe looting. There is a pandemic. And somehow the congressman sounds bored. If he did not have a primary, where would he be? If not his district, perhaps his home in tony Potomac, Maryland, where he has claimed a tax break meant for permanent residents for ten years.
As one might infer from Engel’s tax filings, the moderate Democrat is a rare sight in his Bronx district. He’s also facing his first major primary challenge in decades, with his absenteeism a major impetus for the contest. His hot-mic moment comes one day after primary challenger Andom Ghebreghiorgis dropped out of the race and endorsed fellow progressive Jamaal Bowman, who was recruited by Justice Democrats last year. The same day, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee announced its endorsement of Bowman; the group had endorsed Senator Elizabeth Warren for president before she dropped out of the race.
Bowman, a former middle-school principal, has actively supported recent protests. “As a working-class black male educator during the entirety of Bloomberg’s tenure, I got to experience the horrors and the trauma of how his police department treated people like me,” he wrote in a recent editorial for NBCNews.com. In one incident, he said the NYPD arrested him on suspicion of stealing his own car; in the other, he said he was pulled over, arrested, and held for several hours after he failed to properly use his turn signal.
Engel has a major fundraising advantage over Bowman, as the New York Times reported on Tuesday. But money isn’t everything, even in politics. With the primary field consolidating behind Bowman ahead of the June 23 vote, Engel might wish to project more concern for his district. As matters stand, he closely resembles a fallen comrade, Joe Crowley, who lost a primary race to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018. Crowley was a powerful Democrat, a skilled fundraiser, and, like Engel, a relatively absent representative. Until he wasn’t.