Introducing himself during a primary debate for a New York congressional district that covers parts of the Bronx and Westchester, left-wing insurgent Jamaal Bowman cut right to the issue that’s at the center of his challenge to Rep. Eliot Engel: reliance on campaign contributions from corporate interests and the defense industry. “He’s taken more money from weapons manufacturers than 144 Republicans in the House,” said Bowman during the debate that took place on Zoom and was aired by News 12 New York on Tuesday. “He’s completely funded by corporate PACs and big donors.”
Engel has been in Congress since 1989 and has served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which he currently chairs, since 2009. Throughout his tenure, he has established a reputation as one of the most hawkish Democrats in Congress, particularly with regard to Israel. His campaign is funded with major contributions from right-wing, pro-Israel groups like NORPAC, as well employee political action committees for the world’s largest weapons manufacturers and defense contractors, including Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, and Raytheon. Defense PACs have contributed about $23,000 to Engel’s campaign this cycle, and more than $200,000 over the course of his career. Pro-Israel groups, meanwhile, have contributed $177,685, and more than $1.2 million throughout his three decades in Congress.
He is now facing his first competitive primary challenge since 2000, and his appearance at the Tuesday debate — which happened after Bowman challenged him to a series of debates — is a sign that he’s taking it seriously. While Engel’s campaign is by far the best funded (he’s raised more than $1.6 million to Bowman’s $540,330), Bowman has generated grassroots energy in the district and around the country, and racked up more than 40 endorsements, including from leading national progressive groups like Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement.
Bowman, who was a public middle school principal in the district for 10 years before resigning last December to focus on his campaign, is running on new deals for housing and education, and a platform built around “anti-poverty and anti-racist policies,” he told The Intercept last year. His platform includes support for Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and criminal justice reforms, and his campaign is not accepting corporate PAC money.
Progressive Andom Ghebreghiorgis, a former special education teacher, is another challenger who is focused on Engel’s hawkishness, tying the nation’s massive defense budget to deepening economic insecurity in the district. Sammy Ravelo and Chris Fink are other challengers who participated in the debate, though their campaigns have not gained much traction.
“A big complaint about Crowley in 2018 was that he also didn’t live in the district. That’s something that voters care a lot about.”
Engel’s challengers are also narrowing in on his absenteeism from the district throughout his decades in Congress. “I ask voters about our current Representative, Eliot Engel, and I hear one word: Absent,” said Bowman in a press release accompanying a new ad this week, pointing specifically to Engel’s absence from New York amid the coronavirus pandemic. “This is the worst crisis since the Great Depression and people don’t know where their Congressman is. After 31 years of the same, it’s time for a change.”
It’s an issue that hurt former Rep. Joe Crowley, who represented a neighboring New York district but lived outside Washington, D.C., and was unseated by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018.
“The congressman hasn’t set foot in the district since the pandemic hit,” said Waleed Shahid of Justice Democrats. “A big complaint about Crowley in 2018 was that he also didn’t live in the district. That’s something that voters care a lot about.”
The incumbent, seemingly realizing that his absence during the pandemic could be a liability ahead of the June 23 election, lied about it to The Atlantic, claiming falsely that he had been splitting his time between New York and his home in suburban Maryland
“He takes every campaign seriously,” said Tom Watson, Engel’s campaign spokesperson. “He’s never lost one.”
As the Democratic Party moves to the left on the U.S. relationship with Israel, Engel remains one of its most steadfast supporters. Last year, he called on Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar to apologize over remarks on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, describing her comments as a “vile, anti-Semitic slur,” and he spoke at an event hosted by the Zionist Organization of America, a right-wing, pro-Israel group led by Mort Klein, whom The Forward reported was the first Jewish leader to meet with the Trump Organization after Donald Trump’s inauguration. This month, 200 student leaders called on the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to censure ZOA and Klein, citing “a pattern of racist and Islamophobic behavior.”
On the issue of Israeli settlements in Palestine, which the international community has recognized have no legal validity, Engel has remained staunchly on the right. The United Nations has said that the settlements exist in “flagrant violation” of international law. At the very end of Barack Obama’s presidency, the United States supported a U.N. resolution criticizing settlements for the first time — a position Trump has since reversed.
Engel said in a 2017 Jerusalem Post interview that he does “not believe that settlements are a major obstacle to peace,” and co-sponsored a 2015 resolution opposing European Union efforts to label products as coming from a settlement. In a 2009 interview with The Observer, Engel criticized the Obama administration’s policy on Israeli settlements, saying that he didn’t think there should be new settlements but that the administration’s “ironclad clamping down on natural expansion of settlements is misguided.”
Throughout his career, Engel has also taken positions more in line with Republicans than Democrats. In a 1999 interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity, Engel bragged that he was “one of those Democrats that crossed party lines and supported George Bush in the House vote in Operation Desert Storm.”
He later voted in support of the 2002 Iraq War authorization, while most House Democrats opposed that measure after voting for the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force in Afghanistan (California Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee was the only member of Congress to vote against the 2001 AUMF). In 2012, he was one of 79 Democrats who voted against Lee’s 2012 amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would have withdrawn U.S. troops and contractors from Afghanistan, which ultimately failed by a 113-to-303 vote. In 2015, asked about drawing down troops in Afghanistan, Engel said that both Afghanistan and Iraq still needed “to have some troop presence there.”
More recently, he initially opposed the Iran Nuclear Deal, which was supported by most Democrats, saying that he thought it could actually strengthen Iran’s position and would not succeed in stopping development of a nuclear weapon. Engel came around to supporting the deal in 2017. After Trump’s 2018 decision to withdraw from the deal, Engel said he would rather keep it “and sanction the hell out of Iran,” Roll Call reported. (In a now-deleted 2015 tweet following Engel’s vote against the Iran deal, Watson, Engel’s current spokesperson, wrote that he would “back a primary challenge to my current Congressman, @RepEliotEngel – time for a change.” Asked about the tweet, Watson said, “One vote that I disagreed with doesn’t wipe out a lifetime of progressive votes that Congressman Engel has taken to fight for the people of our district,” noting that Engel later reversed course on the deal.)
Over the last couple years, Engel has taken a more progressive approach to foreign policy. Most notably, he teamed up with California Rep. Ro Khanna last February to lead the passage of a new war powers resolution effectively ending U.S. military intervention on behalf of Saudi Arabia in Yemen’s civil war. Engel had changed his tune from 2016, when he was one of only 16 House Democrats, including current Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland and then-Foreign Affairs Asia Subcommittee Chair Brad Sherman of California, to oppose a resolution to ban the sale of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia.
He also joined with most Democrats in opposing Trump’s abrupt announcement that the U.S. would withdraw some troops from Syria and Afghanistan in late 2018, saying, as did many other members, that it needed to be done tactically.
His campaign said his biggest accomplishments as Foreign Affairs Committee chair included helping to lead the impeachment investigation into Trump, leading the House in opposing U.S. involvement and arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition operating in Yemen’s civil war, bringing attention to Trump’s aid cuts to Central America, and passing his House bill to authorize both future assistance and sanctions in the region. With powers conferred by his seniority and position as chair, Engel also helped to secure $5 billion in coronavirus relief funding for New York hospitals, Watson said.
The campaign also noted Engel’s recent work to address corruption and the humanitarian crisis in Central America, where he was instrumental in leading 2009 efforts to reevaluate drug policy in the hemisphere.
“Engel’s hawkish record has never been aligned with the values and priorities of our progressive district. His response to the coronavirus pandemic shows how totally out-of-touch he is with our needs,” Ghebreghiorgis said in a statement. “In our District’s most urgent time of need, Rep. Engel is not fighting for us.”
Watson said that Engel has been using his perch on the Foreign Affairs Committee to pursue accountability in the wake of the pandemic. “As chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Congressman Engel has been very busy,” Watson said, listing two committee briefings Engel led “on China and authoritarianism during the pandemic.” Engel has also recently launched two oversight inquiries dealing with the Trump administration’s mishandling of the pandemic, Watson added, saying that Engel was also in frequent conversations with House leadership and other committee chairs.
Engel’s absence from his district — one of the areas of the country hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic — in recent weeks is perhaps the most egregious recent example of his absenteeism, but it’s an issue that goes back more than 10 years. Like most members of Congress, he maintains a home near Washington, D.C. — but he repeatedly got in trouble with tax officials for claiming a tax credit using his Potomac, Maryland, home as his primary residence. To qualify for the credit, a person must live in Maryland at least half the year, have a state driver’s license, and vote and pay income taxes in the state. Engel had a New York license and voted and paid taxes there, the New York Times reported in 2009.
State tax officials revoked Engel’s tax credit in 2005. Engel contested his primary-residency status and had the credit reinstated, but state officials revoked it again in 2009. That same year, the Office of Congressional Ethics investigated Engel and three other representatives for similar violations but ended up dropping the investigations. Maryland officials revoked his residency status for a third time in 2013.
Despite his appeals, Engel appears to have taken the warnings from regulators seriously: He has not claimed the homestead exemption since 2008, according to Montgomery County property tax records.
Update: May 27, 2020
This article has been updated to include Watson’s 2015 tweet calling for a primary challenge to Engel.