Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Elizabeth Warren are leading the charge by Democratic progressives to topple an establishment veteran in New York’s primary Tuesday, a race that’s become the latest front in the battle over the party’s future and direction.
The outcome of the contest between 16-term Representative Eliot Engel and political newcomer Jamaal Bowman will ripple well beyond New York’s 16th Congressional District, which includes parts of the Bronx and Westchester County.
Having come up short in the party’s presidential nomination contest and in other congressional races around the country, the progressives are looking to prove that the upset victory of Ocasio-Cortez’s in a neighboring district two years ago was the beginning of a movement.
For House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has endorsed Engel, and the Democratic old guard, the contest is about keeping control of the party’s agenda heading into the 2020 general election for the White House and Congress and denying Republicans an opening to paint Democrats as beholden to the left.
“There’s no doubt that after Bernie Sanders went down to defeat progressives are looking for a statement win,” David Wasserman, House editor for the non-partisan Cook Political Report, said, referring to the Vermont senator who, along with Warren, lost to former Vice President Joe Biden in the party’s presidential primaries.
The Engel-Bowman contest is the highest-profile race in New York’s Democratic primary, which also include multi candidate scrums for the safe Democratic seats being vacated by veteran Representatives Nita Lowey and Jose Serrano. There also is a long-shot challenge to Ocasio-Cortez from former CNBC anchor Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, who’s drawing support from Wall Street donors including Blackstone Group Inc. co-founder Stephen Schwarzman and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Chief Executive Officer David Solomon.
Engel, 73, easily turned turned back challengers in the past but suddenly finds himself vulnerable to the bid by Bowman. The 44-year-old former middle school principal took a page from Ocasio-Cortez’s playbook casting himself as the champion of working-class voters and campaigning on racial and economic equality in a district that is 63% non-White. Engel is White and Bowman is Black.
The campaign has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic as well the upheaval and renewed focus on racial inequities following the death in police custody of George Floyd, an African-American man in Minneapolis.
Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime New York Democratic strategist who isn’t working for either candidate, said the Engel-Bowman race illustrates the challenge to the Democratic Party’s establishment from younger, more left-leaning activists who are demanding new approaches on issues from the environment to law enforcement to higher education.
“The country is in transition, and Engel happens to be in a district that reflects that,” said Sheinkopf, who is working on Caruso-Cabrera’s campaign.
Two other Democrats also are running to unseat Engel, Christopher Fink, a managing director at Bank of America Corp., and Sammy Ravelo, a retired New York City police lieutenant.
Both Bowman and Engel have compiled lists of prominent endorsers, reflecting the keen interest outside the district.
Along with Pelosi, Engel’s backers include the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate and former New York Senator Hillary Clinton; New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo; Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, also of New York; New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer; and Representative John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights icon.
Aside from Ocasio-Cortez and Warren, Bowman has received endorsements from progressive heavyweights like Sanders, Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts; and national progressive groups like the Justice Democrats, a political action committee that helped propel Ocasio-Cortez to her stunning defeat of House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley in 2018
Bowman also is competitive in fundraising — no small feat against a powerful committee chairman. He out-raised Engel from April through June 3 — $431,000 to Engel’s $389,000. Engel, though, has much more in the bank — $826,000 to Bowman’s $345,000 as of June 3 — and Democratic donors have come through for him as the race tightened.
In the period from June 14-18, Engel took in $288,000 to $80,575 for Bowman.
Wasserman, of the Cook Report, said Bowman at this point is the front-runner. The challenger has benefited from Engel’s somewhat lackluster campaigning — and his missteps.
After New Rochelle, a Westchester city within the district, became a hot spots of the coronavirus outbreak, the Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party, partnered on a $500,000 ad blitz criticizing Engel for spending more time at his home in the Washington suburbs than in his district.
Bowman seized on the opening.
“I’ve been on the ground for the last year,” Bowman said at a June 2 online debate. “He is not even in this district doing the work with our people.”
Engel argues that his seniority gives him clout in Congress, which the district would lose if it elects Bowman. “I bring home the bacon. I bring home the money,” he said. “That’s not something a freshman can do.”
But a well-publicized “hot mic” episode at a news conference on police brutality didn’t help his efforts to deter criticism that he was out of touch with his constituents. Engel was overheard asking for a chance to speak, saying “if I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.”
Adding to the uncertainty in Tuesday’s primary is the anticipated surge of absentee voting driven by concerns about casting ballots in person while the virus is still circulating. Statewide requests for mail-in ballots are seven times the number from four years ago, according to the New York Board of Elections.
Those don’t have to be postmarked until Tuesday, so final results in close races may not be known until later in the week. There’s little data on what type of candidate might have an advantage.
Among the other New York races drawing attention is the primary challenge to Ocasio-Cortez in a district that encompasses parts of the Bronx and Queens. There are several candidates but the main contender is Caruso-Cabrera. Despite her support from Wall Street and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Ocasio Cortez is the favored to win.
Seven candidates are battling to succeed Lowey in New York’s 17th District, which is north of Engel’s.
Ocasio-Cortez has backed attorney Mondaire Jones, who initially challenged Lowey from the left before she announced her retirement. More than $7 million has been spent on the primary, $4 million of it by Adam Schleifer, a former federal prosecutor and son of a co-founder of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc., Leonard Schleifer. Other candidates include Evelyn Farkas, a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense in the Obama administration, New York State Senator David Carlucci, and Assemblyman David Buchwald.
In the Bronx, another clutch of politicians are vying to succeed Serrano, who is retiring. Candidates include City Councilman Ruben Diaz Sr., a Pentecostal minister running as an anti-LGBT-rights candidate in the most Democratic district in the country. Fellow City Council members Ritchie Torres and Ydanis Rodríguez, as well as former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, are also in the running.
Wasserman said that Democrats nationally aren’t moving as far left as the high-profile bids by progressives might make suggest, as shown by Biden’s performance over Sanders and Warren in the presidential race.
While some urban districts may be trending that way, there is no imminent threat to the establishment or any penalty for Pelosi to stand by political allies like Engel.
“If Engel goes down to defeat — as we might expect today — she will be quick to congratulate Bowman,” Wasserman said.
— With assistance by James Rowley
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