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NY Rep Engel, Primary Opponent Bowman Engage In Heated Debate

The Democratic primary in New York’s 16th Congressional District is being closely watched as veteran Congressman Eliot Engel faces a challenge from Jamaal Bowman and others. Observers say it could be a second AOC election, referring to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset of New York City Democratic Congressman Joe Crowley in 2018. Her race started a wave of primary challenges from those to the left of entrenched congressional Democrats. WAMC’s Hudson Valley Bureau Chief Allison Dunne reports on Wednesday night’s debate, where a big focus was on the recent protests and institutional racism.

NY1’s video-conferenced debate that aired Wednesday night was the final debate before the June 23 primary. Engel, who has served in Congress since 1989, faces a challenge from educator Jamaal Bowman, tax attorney and municipal power expert Chris Fink and retired police officer Sammy Ravelo, who could not participate in the debate. The 16th Congressional District contains parts of the Bronx and lower Westchester, including New Rochelle, Scarsdale, Rye and Yonkers. Here’s Engel in his opening remarks:

“The country has changed in the past few weeks, and I really want to address that,” Engel says. “I want to address the fact that Black Lives Matter. I want to address the fact that there’s been a tremendous outpouring of young people and old people and middle-aged people, and our country will never be the same.”

Bowman responds:

“You mentioned that things have changed over the last few weeks, but if you’re African-American in this country, things have not changed at all. We deal with institutional racism on a daily basis, and I’ve dealt with police brutality and police harassment my entire life,” Bowman says. “The first time I was beaten by police, I was 11 years old. A few years later I was smacked around by police just for being a boisterous young man. And it’s something that we consistently deal with.”

“When I said, mentioned change, obviously we’re not going change in a week or in two weeks or three weeks, but I think this country is changing in terms of realizing how horrific this is and being aware,” says Engel.

Engel, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is a co-sponsor of the recently introduced “Justice in Policing Act.” Endorsements, or lack thereof, have made headlines in recent weeks. Notably, Senator Charles Schumer’s endorsement was scrubbed from Engel’s website after Schumer said he wouldn’t intervene in the race. And Engel took opportunities throughout the debate to highlight who has endorsed him.

“I always like to quote a, and I’ll do this fast, I always like to quote a saying that my good friend  Congressman John Lewis, who is a civil rights activist who’s endorsing me for reelection, he says, we may have all come here on different ships, but now we’re all in the same boat together,” Engel says. “We, as Americans, are all in the same boat together.”

Bowman takes issue:

“And when you say we’re in the same boat, we’re not in the same boat. People of African descent are more likely to live in poverty, they’re more likely to be killed by the police, they’re more likely to be incarcerated, more likely to live in areas where housing has been neglected,” Bowman says. “So we have to have real conversations and direct conversations to deal with institutional racism and institutional classism. And we can’t say it’s going to take a long while. The whole country is rising up because we’re tired of waiting. We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Then came debate over the issue of Engel’s presence in the district during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The initial epicenter of the virus was in New Rochelle, in the 16th District.

“You know, he reported via his social media that he would be giving out supplies in Mount Vernon and in Co-op City. He put out multiple tweets that we would be there doing so and, in fact, he was in Maryland at his home, and a reporter knocked on his door, and Congressman Engel answered the door,” says Bowman. “So he lied to the constituents in this district by saying he was going to be here giving out supplies when he was not.”

“Mr. Bowman, that is so ridiculous on its face,” says Engel. “I work in Washington. Maryland is right across the river from Washington.”

Engel says he’s had a house in Maryland since he was first elected to Congress. And he talked about the measures he pushed for in the various federal coronavirus relief packages.

“It’s so ridiculous. I live in Riverdale. Everybody knows I live in Riverdale. I’ve lived there for, for a long, long time,” Engel says. “I’m sort of like the mayor of Riverdale, so for anybody to imply, it just goes to show, Mr. Bowman, how much you don’t know the district because everyone in Riverdale knows me. Very few know you because you really haven’t been in the district. You just decided that you were going to move in and run for office.”

Again, Bowman, who has been endorsed by U.S. Senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“He said he was going to be in the district and he was not in the district, so that is misleading, that is a lie, that is taking your constituents for granted,” Bowman says.

“No, the only one misleading the voters right now is you. This was a food giveaway by Senator Bailey, Jamaal Bailey, who, by the way, a state senator who is supporting me, and by Assemblyman [Michael] Benedetto, who is supporting me, and the three of us were giving food to the people,” says Engel. "I couldn’t make it so the two of them gave it, and I wasn’t there. My name there. I was a sponsor, I was listed on there, whether I was physically there…”

“You tweeted that you were going to be there,” Bowman says.

“No, no, no, no, I sponsored it,” Engel says.

“It’s, it’s, it’s on the record,” says Bowman.

The debate over the issue continued. More debate came later over who is accepting campaign money from whom, with Engel charging that the so-called Justice Democrats are aiding Bowman’s campaign. Chris Fink:

“Numbers don’t lie. Mr. Engel gets 87 percent of his campaign contributions from outside the district. Very clear, we file with the FEC [Federal Election Commission], that number is there. Mr. Bowman gets 94 percent of his from outside the district, and that’s not even counting the $500,000 he’s getting from AOC. He gets more money from Brooklyn — $30,000 in contributions — than he gets from our district, where he only has $21,000. This is disclosed in the FEC filings,” Fink says. “So they’re both financed from outside the district. I’m not.”

When offered a rebuttal, Bowman declined. The spotlight is also on the neighboring 17th Congressional District, where 16-term Democrat Nita Lowey is not seeking re-election. The Democratic primary field there is larger.

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