Hawkish Democrat Rep. Eliot Engel Is Facing Two Primary Challengers

Jamaal Bowman and Andom Ghebreghiorgis have both launched progressive challenges to Engel, citing the New York representative’s record on foreign policy.

Ranking member of the House Foreign Relations Committee, Rep. Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY), who is a leading candidate to take over the panel, poses for a portrait in his office on Capitol Hill November 15, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP)        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Ranking member of the House Foreign Relations Committee, Rep. Representative Eliot Engel in his office on Capitol Hill on Nov. 15, 2018. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

New York Rep. Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is facing two primary challengers whose newly launched campaigns feature a number of progressive policy priorities. Jamaal Bowman, a middle school principal and educator, and Andom Ghebreghiorgis, a special education teacher, have both narrowed in on Engel’s foreign policy, which is to the right of most Democrats, in their challenges to the 16-term representative.

The race in New York’s 16th District is a top priority for Justice Democrats, the grassroots group that helped bring Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Congress; it is the second 2020 primary challenge the group has waded into so far. The group had several conversations with Ghebreghiorgis, a 33-year-old educator from Mount Vernon, New York, before deciding to endorse Bowman, who announced his campaign on Tuesday. Engel, who was first elected to represent New York’s 19th District in 1988, is out of touch with an increasingly diverse electorate, his critics say, pointing to the fact that the 16th District has a majority nonwhite, working-class population.

“Our grassroots movement shocked the country last year with AOC’s upset victory and we are prepared to do it again in New York’s 16th District,” Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats, said in a statement. “It’s time to usher in a new generation of progressive leadership into the Democratic Party.”

“My opponent has been in office for over 30 years,” Bowman said in his campaign’s launch video. “Over those 30 years, my opponent voted for an unjust war in Iraq, deregulating Wall Street, school privatization, and building more prisons. While the very few at the top continue to build their wealth and power, the majority of us continue to struggle.”

Engel is a member of the New Democrat Coalition, the Wall Street-friendly wing of the party, and less than 1 percent of his total fundraising throughout the 2017-2018 cycle came from small-dollar donors. According to OpenSecrets.org, his campaign received more than $150,000 from “pro-Israel” political action committees and individuals combined. Bowman and Ghebreghiorgis, meanwhile, are refusing all corporate PAC and lobbyist money.

The 30-year representative, who initially opposed the Iran nuclear deal — he now supports it — and withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, has foreign policy positions that are further to the right of the majority of Democrats, particularly when it comes to Israel. He also joined the recent pile-on against his colleague Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., demanding that she apologize for her comments on the country’s political alliance with Israel, which he characterized as a “vile, anti-Semitic slur.”

Ghebreghiorgis, a second-generation American of Eritrean descent, supports the cornerstones of the progressive agenda, including Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He is campaigning against Engel’s foreign policy record and what he calls a “history of militarism” at a time when communities in his district were suffering.

“I taught in some of the most underfunded schools that one could ever imagine,” Ghebreghiorgis told The Intercept. “The vast majority of the schools’ budgets were coming from property taxes. You see some of the challenges that these schools are faced with: overcrowding, violence, administrative neglect. And it was very challenging teaching in these environments and to know that you have someone like Engel who’s not garnering votes from the majority working-class people of color areas of the district, which are actually the majority, and actually amplifying a very, very hawkish foreign policy record that’s been very, very disturbing. To be able to live in a community that’s been disinvested in for so long, and to see that we’re spending billions of dollars a year to kill people abroad.”

Bowman, too, is campaigning on his history as an educator. In 2009, he founded the Cornerstone Academy for Social Action, a public middle school in the Bronx, where he implemented “a restorative justice model at his middle school in order to combat the school-to-prison pipeline,” according to a Justice Democrats press release. In an interview, Bowman told The Intercept that he supports a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, criminal justice reform, and other “anti-poverty and anti-racist policies,” which, he said, are all “interconnected to what’s happening in public education.”

He admitted that he’s more focused on domestic policy than foreign affairs, despite challenging the Foreign Relations Committee chair, but he said there are certain foreign policy issues he feels strongly about. “First of all I’m against the oppression of any people in any nation across the globe. So when I see what’s happened in Yemen and our support of Saudi Arabian weapons and their infliction of pain and suffering on Yemeni people, specifically Yemeni children, I strongly oppose that especially when we have children here in America suffering and thus not investing in their education and health care here or jobs in the communities here,” Bowman said. “So I’m completely anti-war, against any form of physical aggression against any nation, and I wish that we would use our power in our platform as a country to build more humanity across the globe and really helping humanitarian efforts.”

Just last week, Justice Democrats announced its first candidate of the 2020 election cycle. The group recruited and endorsed Jessica Cisneros, an immigration and human rights lawyer, in her race against Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar, who votes with President Donald Trump nearly 70 percent of the time. Cisneros raised more than $80,000 from individual donors in the first 24 hours of her campaign, according to the group, more than her opponent had raised from small donors in 2017 and 2018.

Update: June 18, 2019, 2:34 p.m. ET
This article was updated to include an interview with Jamaal Bowman. 

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