Progressive Democrats are hoping to replicate their success in making a political star of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the Bronx by challenging a veteran moderate in a neighbouring New York district.
Ms Ocasio-Cortez, who beat 10-term congressman Joe Crowley in a Democratic primary in the 14th congressional district two years ago, has joined Bernie Sanders and other progressives to orchestrate an upset in the 16th district on Tuesday, when Democratic voters select their candidate for November’s general election.
They are backing Jamaal Bowman, a 44-year-old former middle school principal, in his challenge against Eliot Engel, 73, the incumbent who has been in Congress for more than three decades. The House district includes parts of the Bronx as well as the leafier suburbs of Westchester county.
Progressives have endured a series of setbacks in 2020, most notably the failure of Mr Sanders to capture the Democratic party’s presidential nomination. Most primary challenges from the left have also come up short, bar Marie Newman’s win over incumbent Dan Lipinski in Illinois in March.
But Mr Bowman’s supporters believe the Covid-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately affected black and Latino Americans, along with the protest movement following the death of George Floyd, have underscored voters’ desires for younger, more progressive leadership — especially in an increasingly racially diverse district such as Mr Engel’s.
A poll conducted last week by Data for Progress, a progressive pollster, gave Mr Bowman, who is black, a 10-point lead over Mr Engel, who is white, with 41 per cent of likely Democratic voters saying they would back the challenger, compared with 31 per cent who supported the incumbent. Just over one in four were undecided.
“In moments like this, people are more engaged with politics than they tend to be otherwise, and they want to see change,” said Waleed Shahid, communications director for Justice Democrats, a progressive group. “Jamaal could be one of the first candidates who is swept into office from this latest wave of protest.
“People want a leader who is present,” he added.
Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, with Jerry Nadler, left, and Eliot Engel, following the House vote to impeach Donald Trump in December © Sarah Silbiger/Getty
Mr Engel’s presence in the district, or lack thereof, has become an issue in the race.
Last month, the Atlantic magazine reported that the congressman had claimed to have returned to New York after the coronavirus outbreak began when he had actually sheltered in place at his home in Washington’s Maryland suburbs.
More recently, Mr Engel was caught on a “hot mic” at a press conference in the Bronx amid protests over Floyd’s killing. In a clip that went viral, the congressman asked a local official if he could address the crowd, saying: “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.”
The congressman’s critics leapt on the comments, saying Mr Engel, a close ally of House speaker Nancy Pelosi, was more concerned with Washington than his own constituency.
Ms Pelosi publicly endorsed Mr Engel this week, as did House majority whip Jim Clyburn, House Democratic caucus chair Hakeem Jeffries and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
Luke Hayes, Mr Bowman’s campaign manager, said the endorsements demonstrated the congressman’s “state of mind”, adding: “He needs to call in favours from colleagues who otherwise wouldn’t wade into a Democratic primary.”
Sean McElwee, executive director of Data for Progress, likened Mr Engel to Mr Crowley.
“The biggest argument against Crowley was he was a ‘doesn’t show up at home’ type congressman. Famously, he sent a person in his place to debate with AOC [Ms Ocasio-Cortez],” Mr McElwee said. “This is a really deadly look for a Congress member.”
Mr Engel’s campaign rejects the comparisons to Mr Crowley.
“It is a different year. It is a different district . . . Congressman Crowley had not been present in many parts of his district. That is not the case with Congressman Engel,” said Tom Watson, Mr Engel’s communications director, who pointed out the congressman maintained three offices in the district.
When asked about Mr Engel’s decision to stay in Washington during the pandemic, Mr Watson said his candidate had been on the “legislative front lines to fight for more federal resources for the district”.
“He won $6bn in additional funding for New York hospitals, extra supplies for frontline workers, funding for community health centres, which are so important to neighbourhoods that need them,” Mr Watson said. “That is all important work.”
Mr Bowman greets New Yorkers outside a subway station in the Bronx on June 17 © Jeenah Moon/Getty
Mr Watson described Mr Engel as a “stalwart” of the Democratic party, adding Mr Bowman had only registered as a Democrat in 2018.
Many voters, however, say they are ready for a change.
Josephine M, a 32-year-old human resources director, said she had been turned off by Mr Engel’s disparagement of Ilhan Omar, a congressional ally of Ms Ocasio-Cortez, and reports about the amount of money he had received over the years from corporate lobbyists, money she said had not flowed to her as a “Latina in the district”.
“He’s been in office as long as I’ve been born,” she said. “That’s nuts.”
Federal Election Commission filings from the beginning of June showed Mr Engel had raised nearly $2m for his re-election bid, compared with Mr Bowman’s $966,000.
Nearly all of Mr Engel’s money came from large donors and Pacs [political action committees] — his two biggest backers are pro-Israel groups — while almost half of Mr Bowman’s fundraising has come from donations of $200 or less.
In an update last Monday, Mr Bowman’s campaign said it had raised more than $750,000 in the first two weeks of June alone, from more than 25,000 donors.
Maria Colletti, a horticulturalist and educator who has lived in the district for most of her life, said she had long supported Mr Engel, but decided in recent weeks to back Mr Bowman.
“Maybe it’s time for a younger generation to jump in there,” she said. “He’s a black man . . . He lives those issues and knows the community.”
But Mr Engel continues to enjoy strong support from many locals.
Judy Fletcher, who has been a teacher in the Riverdale neighbourhood of the Bronx for more than four decades, said Democrats were unfairly targeting Mr Engel, whom she described as a longtime progressive on issues ranging from climate change to women’s rights.
“I’m all for young blood, maybe my age shows,” she said. “But I think we need a mix of the AOC firebrands and the people who have been there a long time and know how to make the system work.”