In his 29 years in Congress, U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel has become famous for hearty handshakes with president after president as they walked down the aisle to address joint sessions of Congress. Not anymore.
He told hundreds gathered at the College of Mount Saint Vincent on March 5 that he had received praise from supporters for deciding not to shake Donald Trump’s hand at the president’s first speech to Congress. In fact, he started his town hall speech with an explanation of his decision, as he took the podium at the meeting organized by a group called NYCD16-Indivisible, which focuses on opposing Trump.
He discussed ways of opposing President Trump and proposed sweeping changes to the electoral system during a town hall meeting with Riverdale area residents on March 5.
“Back in 1989, my first year in Congress, I shook the president’s hand as just an accident… and I’ve done it every time since and I’ve gotten more and more notoriety as I did it,” he said. “This year I thought, ‘You know what? This really can’t be business as usual, what would be the best way of doing it?’ So, people started telling me ‘don’t shake his hand, don’t shake his hand.’”
Engel said that although he had received some criticism for his decision, most people in his district reacted positively.
“I have had some tweets and complaints or whatever of people telling me I was rude,” he said. “I wanted to grab the president of the United States by shoulders and say, ‘What are you doing?’”
In his opening remarks, Engel spoke about the importance of immigrants in American society and of his own parents who fled Europe and the Holocaust during World War II.
“We have the best and brightest coming to America, and who comes to America? Immigrants. And not lazy people, lazy people stay home. People who are industrious who sometimes have to learn a whole new language, who want to better their lives, better their families’ lives, and in doing so they better our lives,” he said. “How dare the president talk disparagingly about immigrants? How dare he?”
Engel also announced legislation he plans to introduce in the House, which would make large-scale changes to the election system, including the abolition of the Electoral College and automatic voter registration for 18-year-olds.
“When I went to school and ran for class president, the person who got the most votes became the president,” he said to a round of applause and laughter. “Now the person who got 3 million votes less than the challenger is the president.”
The congressman said he wants to introduce the bill as a constitutional amendment and as an extension of the Voting Rights Act.
“It would give Congress the express power to regulate campaign expenditures—Citizens United should go,” he said. “I want everyone to vote, even if that person is going to vote against me, I want that person to vote.”
Sharing the stage with Engel on Sunday was a group comprising educators, Yonkers elected officials, a health care expert and an Arab writer.
They each spoke briefly about their areas of expertise before an hour-long question and answer session, during which Engel and his fellow speakers fielded questions ranging from how to increase the number of young people involved in the democratic process to a special election in Georgia—a congressional race in which Democrats are trying to take control of the seat formerly held by Newt Gingrich.
“I want to thank you all for coming out,” Engel concluded. “We are going to do this again and again and again in every congressional district all across this country.”