NEW YORK — For years, Rep. Eliot Engel was best known outside his district for an annual ritual: He would camp out for hours to claim a prime aisle seat in the House chamber before the State of the Union speech and position himself for a televised handshake with the president, Republican or Democrat.
Times have changed.
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Engel abandoned the across-the-aisle routine after a 29-year streak, citing disgust over President Donald Trump. But his own Democratic Party began moving away from bipartisan gestures even before Trump was elected. Engel, who represents the Bronx and Westchester County and is chairman of the influential House Foreign Affairs Committee, faces at least two primary challengers on his left who argue he is out of step with the increasingly progressive face of the party. They cite his more conservative stances on Israel, education and the Middle East as examples.
While Engel is no stranger to primary challenges, his fight on the left follows Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez‘s upset win last year against incumbent Joe Crowley — another powerful New York Democratic congressman who critics said had lost touch with his district.
The “AOC effect” appears to have had some staying power. Just last month political newcomer Tiffany Cabán delivered another blow to the Democratic establishment in Queens, appearing to have defeated party pick Melinda Katz in the Queens district attorney race.
Andom Ghebreghiorgis, a teacher who’s touted “Medicare for All,” and the Green New Deal, is also looking to challenge Engel from the left.
But Jamaal Bowman, a middle school principal who recently launched his primary campaign against Engel, has garnered the most attention with a coveted endorsement: the Justice Democrats — the group that helped propel Ocasio-Cortez to her upset victory in a nearby district.
“We’ve seen a lot of energy in the Democratic base for a different kind of leadership,” said Waleed Shahid, the Justice Democrats communications director. “Success begets more success.”
However, Engel’s district lies in the north Bronx and Westchester County, including Riverdale, Yonkers and Scarsdale — distinctly different turf from the gentrifying neighborhoods of western Queens that helped propel Ocasio-Cortez to victory.
Engel faced three challengers last year and easily dispatched with them in the majority black and Hispanic district, garnering 74 percent of the vote.
“It’s a much different kind of district. It doesn’t mean a challenger can’t win, but they’d have to put together a different kind of campaign, a different kind of constituency,” said political consultant Jerry Skurnik.
Last year, state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi toppled Jeff Klein, who had been the leader of the Republican-aligned Independent Democratic Conference, in an overlapping district.
Bowman has been a vocal proponent of the movement to opt out of standardized tests, and supports progressive priorities like free college and universal childcare.
He is going after Engel for being out of touch with his district, the same criticism that damaged Crowley in his failed re-election race against Ocasio-Cortez.
Engel, for at least 10 years, claimed a home in the Maryland suburbs as his primary residence to get a tax credit, which was revoked in 2009.
Bowman hit the foreign affairs chair for his “constant focus on foreign policy and war abroad, while children are suffering from poverty here.”
“Congressman Engel is currently disengaged and doesn’t interact with the people throughout the district,” Bowman said. “Quite honestly, I’ve never seen him, never ran into him, never met him.”
Arnie Linhardt, a campaign consultant for Engel, said the criticism is off-base, noting Engel has been described as the “mayor” of his district, and takes an active interest in issues as picayune as the placement of stop signs.
“Do any of these candidates scare him? Of course not. We don’t take anybody for granted, but we don’t say, ‘Oh my God, the sky is falling,’” he said. The campaign did not make Engel available for an interview.
Engel’s district, Linhardt said, has not seen the influx of newcomers that was key to Ocasio-Cortez’s victory.
“Do we see this big sweeping change sweeping across the north Bronx and southern Westchester? The answer is no,” he said. “The template of AOC cannot be duplicated everywhere else.”
Since Engel took over the foreign affairs committee, it has shown some results in its oversight role. It’s precisely his bipartisan approach that has helped the committee conduct probes into the president’s foreign policy that have won the support of Republicans and Democrats.
But Bowman and his allies are going after the congressman’s foreign policy views, including his vote for the Iraq war, opposition to the Iran nuclear deal (a position he has since changed), and staunch support for Israel.
“I think the Israeli government has moved very far to the right, and many of their policies have become very oppressive to the Palestinian people, to the point where a two-state solution is becoming more challenging each and every day,” Bowman said. “The government there needs to be scrutinized.”
Progressives are also criticizing Engel’s support for the Bush-era No Child Left Behind education law, the 1994 crime bill, and the repeal of a bank regulation law.
Engel, though, has embraced progressive priorities like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.
“He’s begun to lean in a more progressive direction because he sees which way the winds are blowing, but he hasn’t really led as a progressive for the last 30 years,” said Shahid, of the Justice Democrats.
But Linhardt said the “left wing of the party” is focusing on internal divisions at the expense of the bigger picture.
“They’re painting with a very broad brush. Jerry Nadler is the enemy? I don’t think so. Congressman Engel is the enemy? I don’t think so,” he said. “It’s like the flavor of the week or the flavor of the month. Well, the flavor of the month is happening here in the 16th congressional district.”