In New York’s 16th Congressional District, a Progressive Challenge to the Democratic Establishment Splits Climate Groups

Both challenger Jamaal Bowman and 16-term incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel embrace the Green New Deal, asking voters to decide what it really means to be pro-environment.

Jun 16, 2020
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) has served 16 terms for New York's 16th congressional district. Credit: Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) has served 16 terms for New York's 16th congressional district. Credit: Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

 In New York's 16th Congressional District, Jamaal Bowman's Democratic primary challenge to 16-term Rep. Eliot Engel bears a striking resemblance to the 2018 race next door in Queens between a then-unknown bartender named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and 10-term incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley. 

Bowman, 44, is a progressive political newcomer and former public middle school principal with activist roots, while Engel, 73, is a prominent establishment Democrat who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is a senior member of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee. 

The 16th district comprises the northern Bronx and the southern half of affluent Westchester County. It is majority Black and Hispanic (57 percent) and female (54 percent), based on census data, and is the second most economically unequal district in New York State, based on its score on the 2018 Gini Index, which measures income inequality.

Both candidates are "pro-environment" supporters of now-Rep. Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal legislation—Engel is an original co-sponsor—and both prioritize tackling the climate crisis in their policy platforms. 

Yet the race is emblematic of a growing schism in the nation's climate movement between establishment Democrats with consistent environmental voting records, and more progressive and activist challengers who seek more sweeping climate action, emphasize racial and environmental justice and want to change the political status quo in the process.

The same schism divides the so-called Big Green environmental groups endorsing Engel from more activist climate change organizations, including the youth-led Sunrise Movement, that are  backing Bowman, and also splits the establishment left from the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

Engel, a longtime member of the House's Safe Climate Caucus, is endorsed by the Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund, the National Parks Action Fund and the New York League of Conservation Voters.   

Julie Tighe, the league's president, said that Engel's "support of NYLCV's top priorities is why we endorsed him in his reelection." 

Engel has also been endorsed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The "unique privilege" of Engel's top-ranking committee positions makes him a key Democratic asset, she said, warning that such a confluence of power "wouldn't happen again." Hillary Clinton endorsed Engel on Monday.

Jamaal Bowman, a former middle school principal, is challenging incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel to represent New York's 16th congressional district. Credit: Jamaal Bowman for U.S. Congress

Jamaal Bowman, a former middle school principal, is challenging incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel to represent New York's 16th congressional district. Credit: Jamaal Bowman for U.S. Congress

Bowman enjoys the strong backing of the Sunrise Movement, which helped Ocasio-Cortez trounce Crowley two years ago, and community-based groups like Bronx Climate Justice North and North Bronx Racial Justice, not to mention Ocasio-Cortez herself and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, as well as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. 

Stevie O'Hanlon, the Sunrise Movement's communications director, credited Bowman for his "willingness to fight" for big solutions and said that his sense of urgency around climate action, as well as his ability to "put economic and racial justice at the core of climate policy," distinguishes his support for the Green New Deal from Engle's. 

"We have a lot of people who say, 'we need to take action on climate change,'" O'Hanlon said. "We don't have a lot of people who are ready to actually fight for the scale and scope of solutions that we need."

Activists Felt Engel Was Slow Embracing Green New Deal 

Engel saw the activist challenge coming shortly after Ocasio-Cortez took office in 2019 and, along with Sen. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, put forth sweeping resolutions in the House and Senate that codified the Green New Deal, which the Sunrise Movement had played a key role in crafting. 

It included a 10-year transition to 100 percent renewable energy, plans to create millions of new "green jobs," and a call to "promote justice and equity" among indigenous people, communities of color and migrant communities. 

Engel was among the 67 original House co-sponsors of the Green New Deal. But Jennifer Scarlott, a Bowman supporter who is a coordinator with Bronx Climate Justice North and North Bronx Racial Justice, said she and other constituents initially had to "plead" with Engel to support the resolution. Frustrated by what they saw as his inaction, both organizations represented by Scarlott and four other community organizations scheduled a protest outside his Bronx office on Feb. 6, 2019.

When Engel announced on Feb. 5 that he would co-sponsor Ocasio-Cortez's resolution, Scarlott said Engel's director of community outreach, Lisa Tannenbaum, informed organizers of the congressman's decision and said the community groups no longer needed to hold the rally.

They went ahead with it, anyway.  

Thirty local activists and community members, some with armfuls of petitions, others clutching handmade signs, showed up outside of Engel's small red-brick office on Johnson Avenue in Riverdale. They called on him not only to support a Green New Deal, but to focus on the needs of the marginalized communities most impacted by the climate crisis.  

David Knapp, an organizer with Northwest Bronx Indivisible, said Tannenbaum had told him in the days preceding the rally that Engel was not "late" to show climate leadership. But in his mind, her comment on the rally being unnecessary revealed how "threatened" Engel's office felt by the activists and the negative publicity they could generate.

While Engel's record may satisfy "Big Green" groups like the League of Conservation Voters, Scarlott said, she doesn't think "anybody in the climate justice movement sees him as at the leading edge of climate justice or environmental justice work." 

Tom Watson, a spokesman for the Engel campaign, said the only pressure the congressman felt to sponsor the Green New Deal "came from his own conscience and deep commitment to fighting climate change, as well as the inspiring words of his friend Ed Markey."

While Engel is "always happy to listen to the words of activists," Watson added, local organizing did not spur his support.

Engel: a 100 Percent Environmental Rating From 'Big Green' 

As a longtime representative and member of the Safe Climate Caucus in the House, Engel boasts an impressive record when it comes to the issues central to green voters' concerns. According to his campaign site, he has an "100 [percent] rating from the League of Conservation Voters, Clean Water Action, the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund and the National Parks Action Fund." 

For Watson, it is this record of accomplishment that primarily distinguishes Engel from Bowman. As for the Green New Deal, Watson said that Engel "regularly cites the importance of an overarching economy that supports climate change action, creating jobs, and investing in renewable fuels and clean energy to break the dependence on fossil fuels." 

He noted that Engel plans to leverage "his seniority in the Democratic leadership to pursue these goals." 

Engel, who has spent the last 31 years in Congress, is the grandchild of Ukranian Jewish immigrants. He was born in the Bronx, raised in public housing, and earned his bachelor's and master's degrees at the City University of New York, and his law degree at New York Law School. 

After starting his career as a teacher and guidance counselor in South Bronx public schools, Engel was elected to the State Assembly in 1977, where he held office until 1989. In the House, he has twice been named among the top 10 most effective Democratic Members of Congress by the Center for Effective Lawmaking.  

Watson also emphasized Engel's support for youth environmental leaders. "Congressman Engel supports every youth action imaginable to battle climate change and shift our economy to one that reduces consumption and builds jobs," he said, citing Engel's invitation of climate activists, including Greta Thunberg, to testify at a hearing on the global climate crisis last year. 

Bowman: A Bellwether for More Radical Change

Also born and raised in New York City, Bowman is clearly seen as a bellwether for more radical and systemic change by the Sunrise Movement and the other community-based climate justice activists rallying around him. 

"I could tell you all about him, but he tells the story better himself," Ocasio-Cortez said in a June 3 tweet endorsing Bowman amidst city and nationwide protests for racial justice following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Sanders endorsed him a week later.

"Environmental racism, economic inequality, housing insecurity, [and] healthcare are all interconnected," said Bowman. "I see this everyday in NY-16."

Bowman spent part of his childhood in public housing and began his career as a public school teacher in the Bronx. He later founded and became principal of a public middle school, the Cornerstone Academy for Social Action. There, he helped lead the opt-out movement from state standardized tests.

As an African American man, he has been outspoken about the "horror and trauma of how the [New York] police department treated people" of color during the Bloomberg administration and has made racial justice the centerpiece of his campaign. He prioritizes confronting environmental racism in his support for the Green New Deal. He also emphasizes "holding corporate polluters accountable," a "federal jobs guarantee," and a global version of the Green New Deal.

Andem Ghebreghiorgis, who dropped out of the primary on June 1 and later endorsed Bowman, cited Bowman's support for investing in more energy-efficient and climate-resilient public housing as indicative of a focus on justice and low-income people. In such a racially and economically diverse district, Ghebregiorgis said, that understanding matters. 

Bowman called the 16th district "one of the most unequal congressional districts in the country, and climate change will only exacerbate these crises." 

Bowman v. Engel: The State of the Race Is Now Anyone's Guess

Engel's perceived vulnerability has driven hopes for Bowman's campaign from early on in the race. A poll conducted by Data for Progress last September found that half of registered Democrats in the district could not ascribe an ideology to Engel, and only 29 percent said they would vote for him if the New York Congressional primary was held that day. 

With the June 23 primary approaching, both campaigns are ramping up their operations. A pressing question for both is voter turnout. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, getting people to vote in many cases means making sure they meet the state's June 16 deadline to request absentee ballots

Though Ghebreghiorgis initially thought the pandemic and fears about voting in person would act as an "incumbency protector," he now thinks it's up to the success of the campaigns' outreach to shape the election's results, leaving the race a toss-up. 

As of June 12, Bowman volunteers had made over 600,000 calls to district voters—a number nearly 20 times the voter turnout in the 2018 primary, according to the campaign.  

One of the most telling differences between the two candidates lies in campaign finance. Bowman's campaign said Monday that most of its funding has come from grassroots contributors, with an average donation of $35. By contrast, about 2 percent of Engel's campaign contributions have come from small-dollar donors (those contributing $200 or less), according to the Center for Responsive Politics

Activists see this disparity, combined with Bowman's statement that he "isn't taking a dime of corporate PAC or lobbyist money," as an important rejection of special interest money. Based on reporting by the Intercept, Engel has received about $23,000 this election cycle, and more than $200,000 over the course of his career, from defense industry political action committees.

The candidates' fundraising reflects a typical pattern in which challengers receive more from small donors than incumbents who, often with the aid of industry contributions, tend to raise more funds overall, said Michael Malbin, a professor of political science at SUNY Albany and executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, a non-partisan think tank.

Nonetheless, a recent boom in fundraising powered by small-dollar donations has brought Bowman's campaign to over $1.5 million, according to a statement it released on Monday.  

"Engel clearly didn't take Jamaal Bowman seriously" at first, said O'Hanlon, the Sunrise Movement's spokesman. "It looks like that's coming back to bite him now." 

O'Hanlon also said that only Bowman has signed the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge. "With people dying from climate disasters and air pollution," they said, "we need leaders like Jamaal who are ready to take on the oil and gas lobby." 

Scarlott, the coordinator for Bronx Climate Justice North, and organizers from North Bronx Racial Justice have called on Engel to immediately stop accepting campaign contributions from weapons manufacturers, and the Teamsters Union, which has supported fossil fuel infrastructure projects including the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines. 

"If I were to name any single issue that I really take with [Engel], it is the inherent corruption in, you know, saying that he's against war and taking all this funding from these warmongers from the military industrial complex," she said.

Asked about the significance of Engel's support from the defense industry, Watson, Engel's campaign spokesman, said, "The Congressman stands on his record and is not influenced by anyone's contributions."

As for contributions from oil and gas companies, Engel's website states that "he will not accept campaign donations from companies in the fossil fuel industry." 

Brian Arbour, an associate professor of political science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the state of this race is anyone's guess as a pandemic and ongoing demonstrations for racial justice dominate the news in New York, and across the nation. 

There is, he said, "lots of speculation" about, and plausible hypotheses around, how the primary will play out. He stressed that the current situation of voting in the middle of a pandemic is "new and unusual in New York, and so we don't have a lot of models to go back on." 

Arbour said that "gaffes" made by the Engel campaign would likely have an impact on voters. Chief among them: Engel asked Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. for a chance to speak during a local press conference on vandalism before commenting—on an open mic—that "if I didn't have a primary, I wouldn't care."

Arbour also noted that Ocasio-Cortez's support and donations received through Democratic fundraising platform ActBlue could help Bowman. At the same time, he emphasized that Engel remains well-known in the district, and name recognition alone plays a heavy role in elections. 

Malbin, the SUNY Albany professor, said he thought that the movement of more affluent voters out of the city—whom he imagines are more likely to support Engel—could help shape the race. Those who remain in the district, rife with inequalities laid bare by the pandemic, might have increased motivation to vote, likely in Bowman's favor, he said.

Over the past three months, Bowman has criticized Engel for remaining at his house in Potomac, Maryland, during the pandemic, and called it a clear disconnect from his constituents. 

He has suggested that Engel's industry donations have compromised his ability to show the leadership that tackling the climate crisis requires. "We need to elect better Democrats who aren't afraid to pursue policies that meet the scale, scope and urgency of this crisis," he said. 

Watson responded that the congressman has "remained on the legislative front lines" of the Covid-19 crisis, helping to secure funds for New York hospitals, community health centers, and more. 

Engel remains "dogged in his pursuit of environmental justice," Watson said, adding that any split in environmental groups' endorsements reflected no more than "primary politics." 

"We're all on the same side—and wildly so in contrast with the Republicans," he said. 

Ocasio-Cortez and her supporters in the Sunrise Movement made it clear after her election that they would continue mounting primary challenges to establishment Democrats they saw as insufficiently committed to climate change policies aimed at aggressively redressing racial and environmental injustices. The outcome of Bowman's challenge to Engel will go a long way to clarify the strength of such grassroots activism in New York City politics, and beyond.

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