Democrats Face Foreign-Policy Reckoning in New York Race

Powerful House committee leader Eliot Engel confronts a progressive challenge that has split the Democratic Party.

Rep. Eliot Engel
Rep. Eliot Engel speaks to media in Washington on Oct. 26, 2019. Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

A powerful Democratic lawmaker at the center of congressional investigations into U.S. President Donald Trump’s foreign policy is fighting for his political life in a primary against a progressive insurgent, a potential bellwether race in the fight to frame the party’s approach to the world.

After 31 years in office, Rep. Eliot Engel, a centrist New York congressman and the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is neck-and-neck in the polls with Jamaal Bowman, a progressive 44-year-old Bronx middle school principal in his first run for office, ahead of the June 23 New York primary election.

The race is in many ways a microcosm for the continuing rift between centrist and progressive arms of the Democratic Party, which some analysts describe as a worrisome sign as the party is desperately trying to come together behind presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden in the November election.

“Progressives are trying to make a blue seat bluer and see this as a prime opportunity to make a statement,” said Joel Rubin, the former director for Jewish outreach on the presidential campaign of former candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders and a deputy assistant secretary of state during the Obama administration. “Whatever happens on Tuesday, it’s going to cause heartburn in both directions.”

The congressional contest comes with an added layer of foreign-policy weight considering Engel’s influential perch on a powerful congressional committee and his reputation as a stalwart supporter of Israel on the left. 

If Engel is unseated, the Democrats will lose a seasoned veteran of grueling political battles with the Trump administration on Capitol Hill. Engel helped lead the House impeachment probe and has repeatedly locked horns with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during other oversight investigations into alleged malpractice and mismanagement by the administration’s foreign-policy team.

Engel and Bowman have each reportedly raised about $2 million in the hotly contested election, and both are relying on endorsements from different factions of the Democratic Party to help gain an edge ahead of Tuesday’s primary vote.

Bowman netted endorsements from the leading progressive lawmakers, including Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, as well as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Centrist stalwarts including former presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, Sen. Chuck Schumer, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi endorsed Engel.

“I have worked with Eliot Engel as first lady, as senator from New York and as secretary of state,” Clinton said in a statement to the New York Times on June 15. “Every step of the way, his No. 1 priority has always remained the same: delivering for his constituents.”

Engel comfortably won his reelection race in 2018, carrying the district by over 70 percent of the vote in the primary and facing no Republican challenger in the general election. But this year, New York’s 16th District—and the national political landscape—could be shifting under his feet. 

Bowman and his progressive allies have seized on Engel’s stumbles and absence from the district after a reporter from the Atlantic found him at home in Maryland while New York became a hot spot for the coronavirus pandemic. Before a news conference this month, Engel was caught on a hot mic pressing for a turn to speak at a political event in the Bronx, telling another speaker, “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care,” a clip that went viral on social media. Defending himself at a June debate, Engel insisted that he was in Washington “doing my job.”

Bowman’s ascent is also fueled in part by the nationwide reckoning on racial injustice and police violence following George Floyd’s killing and ensuing worldwide protests, political analysts say. Bowman, who is Black, initially launched his campaign on these issues and has gained considerable momentum and funding in the final stretch of the primary. His campaign said on Friday that it raised $1 million during June alone.

But the prospect of progressive newcomers knocking off two party kingpins in just two election cycles—after Ocasio-Cortez defeated former Rep. Joe Crowley, the former chairman of the House Democratic Caucus—has also raised fears among Democratic faithfuls of a new insurgency within their ranks. “What we’re seeing is that [just as] the Republicans experienced their Tea Party … the Democrats have their AOC and those new young faces in Congress who haven’t been there,” said one former congressional staffer. 

Engel has cast himself as a longtime advocate for racial justice and cited his history of protesting police violence, including attending past protests and speaking at the funeral of Ramarley Graham, an 18-year-old Black man killed by police in 2012. “I’m no Johnny-come-lately on issues of social justice,” he said, as the Washington Post reported.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American in Congress, has also backed Engel’s reelection bid. “Let me be blunt: We need leaders in Congress with proven records of standing up for civil and human rights,” he said, according to an endorsement statement first obtained by Politico. “Eliot Engel is not new to the fight for justice and equality—he’s been in the fight his entire life, and I have worked with him on these issues for almost three decades.”

Both candidates have also made foreign policy an issue on the campaign trail. Long before the protests broke out, Bowman peppered Engel with a steady drumbeat of foreign-policy attacks from the left, castigating the veteran congressman for being late to the party on key progressive issues.

“You voted against President Obama’s Iran [nuclear] deal. You said on CNN just this past June that you didn’t want to tie Trump’s hands when it came to strikes on Iran,” Bowman tweeted at Engel in January, as he urged his rival to sign on to a Democratic push to strip Pentagon funding for offensive military action against Iran. “You’ve belatedly come around after being pushed by our communities and the grassroots.”

Bowman has attacked Engel for accepting campaign donations from major defense contractors, which regularly contribute to both Democratic and Republican candidates during election cycles. 

“My opponent accepts donations from corporations and arms manufacturers like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon. He supports a hawkish and costly foreign policy agenda instead of focusing on the communities in our district that have been neglected for far too long,” Bowman said.

Bowman has also linked police violence in the United States to violence against Palestinians, further differentiating himself from Engel, considered one of the strongest supporters of U.S.-Israel ties in the Democratic Party. “Just as the police force is a violent intimidating force in so many black communities, I can connect to what it feels like for Palestinians to feel the presence of the military in their daily lives in the West Bank,” he wrote in the Riverdale Press on June 18.

Progressives looking to flip blue seats say they plan to use the demonstrable momentum shift in their favor over the past month. Bowman, for instance, has gotten first-mover advantage by backing protesters’ calls to defund the police and shift resources to job creation during controversial law enforcement crackdowns on nationwide racial injustice protests, while Engel has hedged. It’s an approach that’s likely to inform Bowman’s foreign-policy thinking too, supporters say. 

“It shows the growing understanding that domestic and foreign policy are inseparable,” said one advisor to Sanders. “We see a militarized police response, we see our militarized foreign policy now blowing back through our streets, and I think Bowman has spoken to that boldly and courageously.”

Still, some of Engel’s strongest supporters on Capitol Hill have framed their endorsements around his work overseeing U.S. foreign policy and investigating the Trump administration.

“Ever since Trump took office, Eliot has helped expose the abuses of his administration, and hold this lawless president accountable,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “Eliot is a dedicated and talented public servant who knows how to get things done for the people of his district, while working diligently to protect our democracy. He has my full support for his reelection.”

Pro-Israel political action committees (PACs) have poured money into the campaign to support Engel. One PAC, the Democratic Majority for Israel, has put more than $600,000 into the congressman’s race, issuing an ad that criticizes Bowman for not paying state taxes in the past. (He has since paid them off.) Engel’s campaign told other media outlets afterward it did not coordinate with the PAC and asked it to take down the ad. 

Bowman did not respond to multiple requests for an interview from Foreign Policy. Engel’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment. 

Bowman is one of a raft of progressive candidates pushing to move the Democratic Party further to the left across the country, many buoyed by energy from the ongoing protests. In Kentucky’s Democratic Senate primary for the right to challenge Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath has seen her lead over Charles Booker, a Black man running to her left, evaporate despite her campaign breaking fundraising records. Former Democratic presidential contender John Hickenlooper has also found himself in a tight race against a progressive challenger in a Colorado Senate bid.

The rise of Bowman, Booker, and other Black candidates in this election cycle has pointed to a lack of African American representation on Capitol Hill, some Democratic congressional aides say. “There was this sense of we elected a Black president, we’re done, we checked that box,” one Senate aide told Foreign Policy. “That’s clearly not the case. You only have to look at the composition of the House and Senate to see that.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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