Eliot Engel is not ashamed about the fact he’s been in Congress a long time — or the fact that voters have “renewed his contract” every two years since 1989.
Such longevity has come with a significant financial bounty for his district, which includes the northwest Bronx and some southern pieces of Westchester County. It’s also given him prominence as the chair of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee, giving him a prominent role in the impeachment of President Donald Trump — something that now feels so long ago.
In fact, Engel jokingly refers to it as “bringing home the bacon” for his constituents.
But will that be enough for voters to give him a 17th term in the U.S. House of Representatives? Jamaal Bowman, a Bronx middle school administrator who is trying to take that congressional seat away, says absolutely not.
In fact, Bowman told Engel during a primary debate that aired Tuesday on BronxNet, that it’s time to clear the cobwebs and make room for something new.
“Mr. Engel knows how to ‘bring home the bacon,’ but there are people in his district who are starving,” Bowman told debate moderator Gary Axelbank. “Where is this bacon? Especially with 30 percent of his population living in food deserts.”
Bowman — who has received some of the same ultra-progressive political backing as U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a different part of the borough — says the Democratic Party has changed a lot since Engel first went to Washington. And not in a good way.
“The Democratic Party is designed to work for working class people,” he said. “It is designed to work for the poor. It is designed to work for the general welfare of all people. But the Democratic Party has been corrupted and compromised,” especially with the introduction of larger corporations and other donors with deep pockets.
“Our campaign doesn’t take any money from corporate PACs,” Bowman added.
But it's contributions like that which help back Democratic initiatives in Congress, Engel said, especially now when many Democrats are sniping at Trump ahead of his November showdown with former vice president Joe Biden.
“We are a big tent party, and we should be a big tent party,” Engel said. “We should understand that people all over this country are hurting, and that this administration hasn’t done anything to help people. I’ve been a thorn in Donald Trump’s side.”
With large sections of the country under lockdowns beyond those caused by the coronavirus because of violence associated with the police-involved death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a lot of the debate focused on race issues, and what Democrats were doing to help solve a problem that has existed for centuries.
Most of the current argument has centered around what many have described as institutional racism in many police departments. But there are far more good cops working on the force than bad ones, said Sammy Ravelo — another Engel challenger who happened to spend his career as a member of the New York Police Department.
“I actually worked in the community for 26 years,” Ravelo said. “The police in New York City and the police in Yonkers, their hearts were in the right place. I personally believe that there are things we can change within the law enforcement community, but I know for a fact they are saddened deeply, and not everybody should pay for what that disgusting officer did.”
That officer is Derek Chauvin, who allegedly pressured Floyd’s neck with his knee during an arrest May 25, while Floyd was on the ground and handcuffed. Chauvin — one of the four police officers involved in the death who were immediately fired by the Minneapolis Police Department — was ultimately charged with third-degree murder.
Still, that didn’t stop protests in Minneapolis and in other cities across the country, including New York. Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered an 11 p.m. curfew on Monday after violence erupted in Brooklyn and then extended that curfew through the entire week, beginning at 8 p.m., after some of Midtown’s most prominent stores like Macy’s were looted.
Engel isn’t afraid to blame the higher levels of racism that seem to exist right now on Trump. But getting rid of Trump won’t get rid of the racism, Bowman warns.
“Institutional racism did not begin with Donald Trump,” he said. “Institutional racism has been embedded in the America’s DNA since slavery. It impacts all of us. It’s something we live with every single day.”
Causing some of the biggest rifts between police and people of color was the 1994 crime bill signed into law by President Bill Clinton, but also supported by Engel. Bowman blames the bill for militarizing police, creating the environment that opens the door to killing suspects in custody, even if they’re not putting up a fight.
But the crime bill also had other key components that many Democrats championed, Engel said, like the Violence Against Women Act, as well as an initial assault weapons ban.
“Look, Mr. Bowman, you’re black and I’m not,” Engel said. “I don’t pretend to be able to think that I have endured as much pain as you have and your family has. But I have many, many black brothers and sisters, and I feel their pain.
“This is happening in the country that I love, the United States of America. When will it end? We all have our work cut out for us, and of course, the African American community, they are the ones who will lead the charge.”
Chris Fink, a former tax attorney who’s also running against Engel in the Democratic primary, says what this country really needs is leadership — and it’s not getting it from Trump or Engel.
“We need leadership from both sides, not just the African American community, but the white community. That is why I’m asking my congressman to lead. There are protests ... and he should be there with the protesters.”
Ravelo, who like Fink, was getting pushed to the background in a debate that centered heavily on Engel vs. Bowman, attacked both of them, saying neither were fit to represent the congressional district during the current issues.
“Mr. Bowman, with his rhetoric, he’s dividing us,” Ravelo said. “He is planning to go to Congress to divide us and keep dividing us. He is taking away from the important issue that we have the murder of Mr. George Floyd.
“And obviously, Mr. Engel lets people push him around to make decisions, like putting out tweets that actually stokes division rather than unity.”
Democratic voters will have a chance to decide between Engel and challengers Bowman, Ravelo and Fink on June 23. The winner of that contest is expected to easily win in November, considering the congressional district is solidly Democratic.
“We are all Americans, and we are all working to make our country better,” Engel said. “I’ve been elected and re-elected many times, and there’s a reason for that: I am effective.”