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House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel arrives at the Rayburn House Office Building before a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Capitol Hill May 14, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Clamoring for Mic at Black Lives Matter Event, Rep. Eliot Engel Admits "If I Didn't Have a Primary I Wouldn't Care"

"Frankly," said a representative for Engel's progressive challenger Jamaal Bowman, "we couldn't have made the case more clearly ourselves that after 31 years, it's time for change."

Julia Conley

Progressives called on Rep. Eliot Engel to end his re-election bid after a viral video Tuesday afternoon showed the 16-term congressman saying he only wanted to speak to his constituents about the racial justice protests happening all over the country because he has a primary challenger this year.

"It's clear that we need new leadership."
—Jamaal Bowman

The congressman made the comments during a rare appearance in the Bronx at a press conference regarding the protest movement that has spread across the country in the past week. Engel has drawn criticism during the election for living full-time in Maryland while representing New York's 16th district, which includes the northern Bronx and southern Westchester County, and for not returning to the district during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, who led the event, told Engel there wouldn't be time for him to give an unplanned address to the crowd because of the number of elected officials who showed up.

"If I didn't have a primary I wouldn't care," Engel said. 

New York Times reporter Shane Goldmacher called the video "a hot-mic moment for the ages." 

With New York's primary election coming up on June 23, Engel's remaining challenger is educator Jamaal Bowman, a progressive who has won endorsements from Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party by pledging to fight for Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and "jobs and education, not bombs and incarceration."

On Monday, a second challenger, Andom Ghebreghiorgis, suspended his campaign and threw his support behind Bowman. An early poll taken last fall by Data for Progress showed 29% of respondents backing Engel versus 10% who said they would support Bowman—"a relatively slim lead for such an entrenched incumbent," wrote Akela Lacy at The Intercept. The survey also showed half of registered Democrats in the 16th district "were not sure how to describe Engel's political viewpoint."

Bowman on Tuesday described Engel's acknowledgement that he wanted to engage with constituents on Tuesday only in light of his upcoming election as "so incredibly painful."

"We need to be taking care of our  communities right now—whether it's election season or not," tweeted Bowman. 

"I appreciate Congressman Engel's honesty," said Bowman's campaign manager, Luke Hayes, in a press statement. "Frankly, we couldn't have made the case more clearly ourselves that after 31 years, it's time for change."

Journalist Jeremy Scahill wrote on social media that the most effective way for Engel to show leadership would be to drop out of the race and endorse Bowman. 

"He's scared of Jamaal Bowman and he should be," Scahill added.

Other progressive leaders said Engel's remark demonstrated why he is unfit to represent the 16th district.

Engel is scheduled to face Bowman in a debate Tuesday evening. 

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