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New York Rep. Eliot Engel Faces AOC-style Challenge To House Seat


Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez scored the political upset of the year in 2018. The young democratic socialist and a woman of color defeated an older white establishment congressman in New York City. Now, in a neighboring district, another challenger is hoping to do the same thing this week. Reporter Arun Venugopal of member station WNYC has this report.

ARUN VENUGOPAL: Congressman Eliot Engel was elected to Congress in the 80s and now heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee, making him one of the top Democrats in Congress. And during a debate, he had this to say about his younger, never elected opponent, Jamaal Bowman.


ELIOT ENGEL: I'd like to ask Mr. Bowman, you know, where has he been?

VENUGOPAL: The debate aired on NY1.


ENGEL: We're fighting against flooding in Westchester. When we're fighting about crime or about anything, the schools - where's he been?

VENUGOPAL: It was a classic maneuver. The kind of move you often see long-standing elected deploy against upstarts, but Bowman was ready. After listing all of his accomplishments as an educator and member of the community, he turned the accusation right around.


JAMAAL BOWMAN: So, Congressman Engel, the reason why you never see me is because you're not here. You live in Maryland. I'm here. I'm principal of the school in your district. And you not seeing me says more about your absence than my absence.

VENUGOPAL: This approach has been successful, in part because of a news report in The Atlantic magazine noting that Congressman Engel wasn't in his district during the height of the pandemic. He quarantined in his suburban home outside of Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, his district was among the hardest-hit in the country. That seeming disconnect between a senior politician and his struggling constituents culminated at a press conference during the recent protests over racism and police brutality. Engel asks another official if he can address the crowd and added this, not realizing he was close to a hot mic.


ENGEL: If I didn't have a primary, I wouldn't care.

VENUGOPAL: If I didn't have a primary, I wouldn't care. The clip went viral. Afterward, Engel said he certainly cares about what's happening in this country and was hoping to convey that. As for the accusation that he's been missing from the district, Engel argued during a debate broadcast by BronxNet TV that it's all just theater.


ENGEL: If I'm not in Washington, I should be criticized. When I am in Washington, I'm doing my job. And that's something that everybody knows. And despite all the rhetoric and the silliness and the lies about it, people are smarter than that.

VENUGOPAL: Regardless, the episodes appear to have taken a toll. And David Wasserman of The Cook Political Report says he thinks it would be a pretty big surprise if Engel can hang on. And he thinks that it's in part because of the Black Lives Matter movement. He says in 2018, the winds favored progressive women like AOC. This cycle he's watching a number of young Black candidates. In addition to Bowman, there's Mondaire Jones, also in New York, and Charles Booker in Kentucky.


DAVID WASSERMAN: There are a couple races we're watching to see whether there's a pattern of support for African American candidates running in places where, typically, Democrats have nominated white candidates.

VENUGOPAL: But this isn't just about demographic change. It's about ideological change too. Take the word socialist - Jamaal Bowman says he has no problem wearing that label.


BOWMAN: If universal health care and, you know, fighting for a Green New Deal and housing as a human right makes me a socialist, then call me a socialist. Like, what are we talking about? What I'm saying is we are the wealthiest nation on Earth. We shouldn't have anyone living in poverty.

VENUGOPAL: It's a message that might just work in an urban, overwhelmingly Democratic district, a type of place where some analysts, like David Wasserman, expect to see more candidates who are self-proclaimed socialists. For NPR News, I'm Arun Venugopal in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF FENNESZ'S "PAROLES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Arun Venugopal