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Eliot Engel faces potential upset from progressive primary challenger

New York Congressman Eliot Engel's last competitive primary was in 2000, when he beat then-state Senator Larry Seabrook by 9 points. Seabrook portrayed his incumbent as out of touch with the district's issues.

Twenty years later, Engel has a challenger in Jamaal Bowman who is not only looking to portray him as out of touch, but also physically out of reach for his constituents in the northern Bronx and southern Westchester. 

In May, an Atlantic reporter rang the doorbell of his Maryland home and caught Engel in a lie about being in the district for a coronavirus-related face mask giveaway. A couple weeks later, Engel was heard on a hot mic asking to speak at a presser related to protests over police brutality in the district, "If I didn't have a primary, I wouldn't care," he pleaded with Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.

The moment was a boon for Bowman, a black Bronx school principal running to Engel's left. Within 72 hours of the viral video, Bowman raised $264,000 and picked up the endorsement of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York progressive who knocked off longtime incumbent Joe Crowley in 2018. 

Bowman has crossed over the $1 million fundraising mark and has received endorsements ranging from Senator Bernie Sanders to Bronx native and television host "Desus Nice." On June 12, The New York Times endorsed Bowman, writing "in a district that needs new energy, Mr. Bowman will bring it." Engel, for his part, said in early June he would have rejected the Times' endorsement after the newspaper printed the controversial opinion column by Senator Tom Cotton and he released a video touting an endorsement by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Engel tried to explain that "in the context of running for reelection," he thought it would have been important for people to know where he stood on the protests. "I would not have tried to impose on the Borough President if I didn't think it was important," he said in a statement. 

Corey Torpie Photography

The perception that Engel is an absentee congressman is the crux of Bowman's campaign and is similar to the playbook run by Ocasio-Cortez's successful campaign in Brooklyn. 

"When I started talking to people about Representative Engel, the word that I heard most often was 'absent,'" Bowman told CBS News.  "He's never here. He is not present. He is not engaged. It's time for a change. And this was before the pandemic."

The district encompases parts of Bronx and Westchester County, where more than 80,000 have been diagnosed with COVID-19. New Rochelle, the country's first pandemic "hot spot," is in Engel's district. 

Pressed about his absence during a primary debate on Tuesday, Engel touted his work in passing the CARES and HEROES Acts, which included $5 billion in funding for New York's hospitals and another $5 billion for the education system. 

"If I'm not in Washington, I should be criticized. If I am in Washington, I'm doing my job," he said. "I've now had a lot of seniority being in Congress a long time and I have the clout. I bring home the bacon, I bring home the money. I can do those kinds of things — that's not something a freshman can do."

"Congressman Engel says he brings home the bacon, but we have people in this district that are starving. They were starving prior to the pandemic, they're starving now. So where is this bacon to feed the community?" Bowman responded. 

Speaker Pelosi and Bipartisan Congressional Delegation Speak On Liberation of Auschwitz Anniversary
FILE: Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY) speaks about a trip to Israel and Auschwitz-Birkenau as part of a bipartisan delegation from the House of Representatives on January 28, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Samuel Corum / Getty Images

Engel's supporters point to his role as chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, where he helped the investigation of President Trump during the impeachment investigations. Donato Vaccaro, a Democratic district leader in Eastchester, called Engel's influence and work on impeaching Mr. Trump "huge."

"He was really visible this past twelve months with the impeachment proceedings," he said, adding, "That's a significant thing." 

Pelosi also backs Engel, along with the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, which Bowman called "disappointing but not surprising." Congressmen Adam Schiff of California, Hakeem Jeffries of New York and Jim Clyburn of South Carolina have also endorsed Engel. One notable omission from his list of endorsers is Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, who was removed from the list online after telling reporters he hadn't actually endorsed. 

New York political consultant Hank Sheinkopf said while Engel's seniority could help bring home more funds and programs, most voters aren't focused on that. 

"Voters aren't saying, 'By the way, if I elect the long-term incumbent whose party happens to be in power, my life will be better.' Were that the case, Joe Crowley would've been re-elected. Seniority doesn't matter, so much as what people know or don't know about you," he told CBS News. 

The primary, including two other candidates in addition to Engel and Bowman, takes place June 23 and has switched to a mail-heavy format with absentee ballot applications being sent to every registered voter. In-person early voting sites open June 21. 

Bowman has campaigned on economic, housing and healthcare inequity in the district to challenge Engel. Just south of this district is New York's 15th, which has the highest poverty rate of any congressional district in the country. But within the 16th is the Rye neighborhood, one of the richest in America. 

Bowman has compared the rapid response in New Rochelle, an upper middle-class suburb, to the slower response in Co-op city, a more minority-heavy area that has the largest naturally occurring retirement community in the nation.

"We knew Co-op City was vulnerable and it took twenty three days after the New Rochelle case to get resources in Co-op City. That's unacceptable. The Trump administration obviously dropped the ball, but our infrastructure was weak to begin with," he told CBS News. 

Progressive groups such as the Justice Democrats have backed Bowman, and Guy Cecil, chair of the largest Democratic Super PAC Priorities USA, has endorsed Bowman, too.

On trademark progressive policies, the two candidates are ideologically similar, with both supporting "Medicare for All" and the Green New Deal. But there are differences.

Daniel Altschuler, the managing director of the Make the Road Action group, said Bowman's fight for rent cancellation and recurring cash payments is one thing that set him apart. 

"We need Democrats to fight a hell of a lot harder… unfortunately there are too many Democrats who fail to fight for those things," he said. 

On the subject of police reform in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, Bowman is calling for demilitarizing and defunding of the police, citing his own run-ins with police profiling growing up as a black child.

Engel favors reform and backed House Democrats' Justice in Policing Act, which bans chokeholds and creates a new prosecutorial standards in police brutality cases but does not address police funding. However, in a debate on Tuesday, he said he'd be open to using some of the police budget for other community programs and policing methods. While he espoused the need for a "structure of a police department, that doesn't mean we have to go with the model we've been using for years and years and years," he said.  

Sheinkopf said it's possible that outrage over the pandemic and police brutality could boost support at the polls for Bowman. 

"Sometimes in politics, people tend to think the conditions around them are not related to what occurs," Sheinkopf said. "But in fact, in this race, the anger of large portions in this district that are minority-based, may in fact take over the incumbent." 

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