The sizable investment from the Working Families Party and Justice Democrats, which recruited Bowman to run, aims to help close the funding gap between the candidates in a closely watched race in which Engel looks increasingly vulnerable.
Bowman’s bid to unseat Engel in the June 23 primary for New York’s 16th Congressional District is one of the left’s last chances to unseat an incumbent congressional Democrat in an election cycle where progressive activists have thus far succeeded in ousting just one.
“This is one of the best opportunities this year to elect a transformative progressive voice to Congress,” said Joe Dinkin, the Working Families Party’s national campaigns director.
Engel, who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is best known for his hawkish foreign policy stances, including his opposition to the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. But he has also accrued a more progressive record on domestic policy, backing single-payer health care and the Green New Deal.
There’s a difference between lip service and actually being committed every single day to the issues you say you’re fighting for. Helen Brosnan, Justice Democrats
Helen Brosnan, a spokesperson for Justice Democrats’ independent spending arm, said the group sees Bowman, a Bronx middle school principal, as someone who would fight more passionately for the priorities that Engel has formally endorsed. She noted that Bowman, unlike Engel, is refusing to accept donations from corporate political action committees.
“We need a real progressive champion,” she said. “There’s a difference between lip service and actually being committed every single day to the issues you say you’re fighting for.”
The two organizations backing Bowman are using independent spending entities to promote Bowman in cable television and internet ads, as well as a robust paid phone-canvassing operation. The independent nature of the spending prevents the groups from coordinating with Bowman but frees them of campaign spending limits and the need to disclose individual donors before the primary.
Phone banking is particularly important for an insurgent candidate like Bowman, who would typically benefit from volunteer canvassing but cannot do so because of public health restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The phone-banking operation will also be a key way to try to educate voters about the opportunity to cast absentee ballots. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) issued an executive order allowing all New York voters to cast absentee ballots regardless of their health. The state is sending all voters absentee ballot request forms, but voters must complete the request forms by June 16 to receive the ballots. They must subsequently also complete the ballots and either mail them to the state by June 22 or drop them off in person by the end of the day on June 23.
Engel, 73, has represented parts of the Bronx and neighboring Westchester County since 1989. As the highest-ranking foreign policy official in the House, he has been at the center of efforts to investigate President Donald Trump, including, most recently, Trump’s firing of the State Department’s internal watchdog.
But the infusion of outside cash for Bowman, 44, arrives amid growing momentum for his candidacy, including a gaffe from Engel that went viral and handed Bowman the best fundraising day of his campaign. In remarks caught on a hot mic at a Bronx news conference about police brutality and vandalism on Tuesday, Engel said he would not be so insistent on speaking were it not for his competitive reelection race.
Absent context, though, the comments sound as if Engel were admitting that he would not be as interested in appearing attentive to the community if it were not politically necessary. “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care,” he said.
By the time the video of Engel had racked up more than a million views on Twitter, Bowman and his allies had already been hammering Engel for weeks for staying at his home in the Washington suburbs during the height of the pandemic. Bowman’s presence in the New York district, by contrast, helped him win the unlikely endorsement of the New York State Nurses Association, the state’s largest nurses union.
The first TV ad that the two groups are airing focuses exclusively on Engel’s absence from the district.
A second ad combines the critique with video of Engel’s Tuesday remarks.
“Engel only came back to win re-election, to help himself ― to save his job, not our lives,” the narrator of the second ad says after the clip plays.
The 30-second spot interprets Engel’s quote liberally. Engel has never explicitly said that he only returned to New York because of his reelection. He was referring to his desire to speak at a news conference.
“I thought it was important for people to know where I stand. That’s why I asked to speak,” he said in a statement Tuesday.
Justice Democrats targeted Engel partly because of his conservative foreign policy views. He is, for example, one of the staunchest supporters of Israeli policy in Congress ― and the single biggest recipient in the House of campaign cash from pro-Israel groups this cycle.
But first, due to the pandemic, and then, in light of the social unrest over police brutality, the race to unseat Engel eventually became about whether he successfully represents his constituents.
To begin with, the demographics of New York’s 16th District, where the combined populations of Black and Latino residents outnumber their white neighbors, make Engel one of the few remaining white congressmen to represent a majority-minority district.
Engel can still point to the support he has received from his colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus.
He invoked the group’s most famous member, civil rights leader John Lewis (D-Ga.), in a debate with Bowman that aired on Tuesday night.
Referring to the need to confront racism in the country, Engel quoted Lewis, saying, “We may have come here on different ships, but now we’re all in the same boat together.”
“But we came here in chains! We came here in chains!” Bowman interjected. “It’s not the same thing. We have to address it differently ― more urgently and more aggressively.”