After months, and in some cases nearly a year of campaigning, the primary election for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives currently occupied by Eliot Engel is just six weeks or so away, and four challengers are getting ready for the home stretch.
For Jamaal Bowman, that preparation includes looking at what hasn’t happened yet, like a political campaign mainstay — a series of debates.
Bowman publicly challenged Engel to three televised debates in an April 28 letter, which would be hosted from their own homes as New York continues to social distance in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
New York’s 16th Congressional District includes the northern swath of the Bronx as well as parts of Westchester County — including New Rochelle, one of the first “clusters” of COVID-19 infections in the state.
“Many voters I speak to say that they haven’t seen their representative in action or working to help people in the district,” Bowman wrote in his letter. “Constituents don’t know where to turn for resources or even basic necessities like food. Many feel the response from our party has been lackluster and hasn’t met the scale of what’s needed.”
A later letter from some of the organizations that have endorsed Bowman — including Make the Road New York and The Jewish Vote — sent a follow-up letter, also calling on Engel to publicly compare positions with Bowman.
Engel has represented the area for more than 30 years, which included two district line changes after various census counts. He has raised more than $1.6 million in his bid for re-election, according to campaign filings. Bowman raised about a third of that, some $500,000 for his war chest.
Bowman, a Bronx middle school administrator, is just one of four people running for Engel’s seat — other challengers are Andom Ghebreghiorgis, Sammy Ravelo, and Chris Fink.
Bowman’s debate demand explicitly excludes the others, defending such a move on the fact he’s outraised all of them. But at least two of those left out in the cold were game for a debate.
“Separately, we have been (calling for a debate) too,” said Fink, a tax attorney. “And I would absolutely love to do a debate with Rep. Engel, obviously.”
With just weeks left until the election, Fink said his team was planning on kicking into high gear their calls, email blasts and social media posts.
“The people who have taken my calls, or who I’ve talked to, the message is resonating with them,” Fink said. “That Rep. Engel hasn’t really represented them for the past, at least, 10 years. If not longer.”
He would like the opportunity to discuss his platform — like his hopes to institute a climate-neutral energy grid while increasing federal dollars to public schools — alongside his fellow challengers, he said, as well as to challenge Engel on what he has accomplished in Congress.
“Our campaign agrees that Congressman Engel needs to step up and face his challengers,” a representative for Ravelo’s campaign said via email. “We think that after 30 years, we want to know why are we still talking about better education, housing and health care.”
Ghebreghiorgis was happy to have participated in candidate forums earlier this year, he said. Yet, while Engel and other candidates were present, they did not respond or challenge each other as questions were asked.
“I don’t think that there’s any circumstance in which a group or an organization would have a debate talking about what’s happening in District 16 and have our campaign not included,” Ghebreghiorgis said. “From the very beginning of announcing, we’ve been in conversation with grassroots groups about organizing candidate forums and debates.”
Those forums and debates would expose voters to the different candidates and what they stand for, said Ghebreghiorgis, who teaches special education. Voter turnout in non-presidential primaries trends low, so even raising awareness that the election was happening at all would be an accomplishment. Although this primary was originally intended to also have a presidential component, the Democrats have since canceled it, clearly boosting former vice president Joe Biden into presumptive nominee status.
“One of the reasons I got into the race in the first place was our district,” Ghebreghiorgis said. “Our communities were disengaged in a way that should not be tolerable.
“To be honest, when we have our phone calls, we can really see that there’s a lot of confusion sometimes around the difference between local elections, congressional elections, (and) the presidential.”
Rachel McCullough, director of The Jewish Vote, said her organization decided to endorse in this House race after working to elect Alessandra Biaggi to the state senate in 2018.
The group chose Bowman, wanting a more progressive representative than what they get with Engel. That’s part of why the organization wants to see Engel debate Bowman in particular.
“We think it’s really just a very important race,” McCullough said. “And that was before (the) coronavirus. Now that the Bronx, and the congressional district in general — including parts of Westchester — are the epicenter, we’re doubling down on our efforts to send Jamaal to Washington.”
In an email, Engel said his campaign was “looking into dates for all the candidates.”
“I am working every waking hour of every day to bring as much relief to New York as we possibly can,” the representative said, referring to his work to bring funding in response to the pandemic. “I’m working with my colleagues in the delegation, with our allies in Albany — including the governor — and with the House leadership.”