As soon as Congressman Eliot Engel uttered the words “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care,” he should have been left to face the consequences of his remarks without the powerful rallying around someone so unworthy.
By then, he was already facing a serious primary challenge from Jamaal Bowman, a longtime educator and organizer, which means when Engel stood before constituents who had already been questioning his whereabouts, that’s the last thing he should have said to anyone. Yet he did. Not once but twice.
Engel didn’t intend for audiences to hear him—he was caught on a hot mic—but we heard him. That means voters, as well as Engel’s congressional colleagues, had a choice: stand by a man elected to represent a district he only cares about in the context of preserving his own power or embrace his challenger. Unfortunately but not at all surprisingly, many Democrats rallied behind Engel.
Former Secretary of State and 2016 presidential Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton offered her first congressional endorsement of the 2020 cycle to Engel, writing in a statement to The New York Times: “I have worked with Eliot Engel as first lady, as senator from New York and as secretary of state. Every step of the way, his No. 1 priority has always remained the same: delivering for his constituents.”
I try to give Clinton country—particularly as she complains about the 2016 presidential election in that well-done documentary on Hulu—but this is one of the multiple reasons why, fair or not, she lost and will likely never be an elected official again. And while she is free to say whatever she wants, we can all stand to listen less—if she’s going to be releasing statements like this anyway. To release this statement as a cover for that man reminds me of stories in 2016 where Clinton’s campaign was warned about having a problem with Black voter turnout and doing nothing about it.
Thankfully, the next day, Senator Elizabeth Warren did the right thing and embraced Bowman.
“He is exactly the kind of person we need in Congress fighting for big, structural change,” Warren said in a statement. “Whether it’s fighting for high-quality public schools, affordable housing, or rooting out systemic racism, Jamaal Bowman will be a champion for working people in Washington.”
Others who embraced Bowman included Senator Bernie Sanders and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This alignment makes sense given Bowman is a progressive, but I have to admit even if I know not all Black Democrats are progressive, it was frustrating to watch many of them lend their names to not simply the status quo, but a person who literally embodies the stigma many longtime Democrats rightfully can’t escape: They don’t give a damn about working people, especially if they’re Black.
I wish I hadn’t seen so many members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) go out of their way to back Engel. None of them singled out Bowman, but that doesn’t negate the sin. If anything, that makes the choice all the more frustrating.
Engel has served in the House since 1989, so understandably, he has made some friends. However, when the man is caught on a hot mic saying not once but twice that he only cares to speak before his desperate constituents in the middle of a pandemic, that “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care,” how can you still lend your name to that man? Who cares if he serves as chairman of the House Foreign Services Committee when he has seemingly failed as his basic job as elected official?
As others have noted, the CBC endorsements of Engel recalls “an unspoken rule on Capitol Hill: Establishment Democrats, including most members of the Black Caucus, tend to put aside other considerations—age, race, region, ideology—and protect their own from outside challenges.”
True enough this emphasis on incumbency and seniority benefits all elected officials including veteran Black members of Congress, but it’s a way of doing business that comes at the expense of bettering the lives of Black folks. Aren’t we tired of folks doing that whether their Black, White, Latinx, Asian, Native, Mariah Carey or some other kind of biracial butterfly? I am.
In an interview with the Washington Post’s Eugene Scott, Bowman said of Engel: “Congressman Engel had a reputation quite frankly for being absent from the community, being disengaged and not being a leader or fighter on the issues that matter most, and that’s not just rhetoric. People saw the contrast, and I think that’s why they chose to go with us.”
Bowman’s win is a resounding one, which just goes to show it is a new day, and if you are found not to be in service of your community, your connections won’t save you.