Pro-Israel Democrat Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) Draws Primary Challenge

Are progressive party politics transforming the Democratic Party?

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Congressman Eliot Engel, then Ranking Member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, meets with Federica Mogherini on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. November 6, 2017. (photo: European External Action Service)

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), one of Israel’s staunchest supporters in Congress, and a lifelong Jewish Democrat from New York, is facing serious trouble this election season. And not from Republicans.

A 33-year-old activist from Mount Vernon, New York has this week filed to run against Rep. Engel in the next Democratic primary. With his filing, Andom Ghebreghiorgis joins another Democratic contender already in the race for the congressional seat. 25-year old Kenny Belvin announced his run back in February.

These two progressive young Democrats are looking to repeat Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning 2018 upset victory over Democratic stalwart Joe Crowley. Crowley’s defeat, they insist, proved no one is invulnerable.

Indeed, Engel isn’t likely to be the only long-serving New York Democrat to see a primary challenge. Andom Ghebreghiorgis and Kenny Belvin are part of a larger wave of progressive challengers determined to install new leadership in the Democratic Party.

“We are trying to elect more Alexandrias. She is an example of what one victory can do. Imagine what we can do with more primary wins across the country.” — Alexandra Rojas, Executive Director of Justice Democrats

House primary challenges have in the past been relatively rare; it is not good party politics for members of the same party to pit their resources against each other, eroding the very resources needed to win against Republicans in the general election.

That there are so many primary challengers, this early in the campaign season, and in deep blue states like New York, flies in the face of media outlets loudly disclaiming any disunity among Democrats.

Does this wave of primary-challenging progressives signal a serious dissatisfaction with the status-quo of the Democratic Party?

“In deep blue states, Republicans increasingly don’t exist. We spend a lot of time thinking about why we have right-wing corporate Democrats selling out our interests.” — Sean McElwee, a co-founder of the progressive think tank Data for Progress

McElwee was instrumental in drumming up a challenger to Rep. Eliot Engel, whose three-decades in Congress and current chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee count for little in his district.

“[Ms. Ocasio-Cortez] showed there’s a hunger, especially here in New York, for representatives who reflect the changing progressive politics of their communities.” — Sean McElwee, a co-founder of the progressive think tank Data for Progress

Not even Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) is safe.

Nadler finds himself in a particularly difficult place; on one hand, pursuing an impeachment attempt against President Trump that is likely doomed to fail won’t help Nadler’s reelection chances in 2020.

On the other hand, if he fails to pursue impeachment, Nadler is almost certain to lose the financial backing of a major political donor in his district; billionaire and political activist Tom Steyer is likely to put his considerable support behind someone else.

Not every voting New York Democrat is a fan of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and her brand of politics, however.

On the contrary, her role in preventing Amazon from going ahead with plans to open a new headquarters in Queens may have cost her more than she realizes.

Losing the Amazon headquarters, which would have brought 30,000 well-paying jobs and billions in tax revenues for NYC, still rankles the largely Democratic communities hardest hit during the economic slow down of the past decade.

Which means that establishment Democrats might not be the only ones getting a primary challenge this election season.

Not every voting New York Democrat considers themselves a progressive. Nor do all lifelong liberal Democrats want to submit to idealogical ‘purity tests’ where they have to affirm every concept erstwhile embraced only by the most extreme left-leaning in the party.

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Nelson Mandela with U.S. Congressman Eliot L. Engel. Date unknown. (photo: Public Domain)

Until now, Rep. Eliot Engel has been considered a Democrat’s Democrat. Not only is he currently the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he also serves on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

He is the founder and Co-Chair of the House Oil and National Security Caucus, a group seeking clean, energy efficient alternatives to oil and coal. He also sits on the Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, the Bipartisan Task Force for Combatting Anti-Semitism, the HIV/AIDS Caucus, the Long Island Sound Caucus, and the Animal Protection Caucus

Engel is also a lifelong Jewish resident of the Bronx who grew up in a New York City housing project.

But it is Engel’s support for President Trump’s recent decision to formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and relocate the American Embassy that have put Engel in the crosshairs of progressive young Democrats who overwhelmingly favor Palestine over Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Engel’s decades of progressive bona fides seem to count for little in the minds of younger progressives vehemently opposed to anything they see as Israel-protectionism in the Democratic party.

Rep. Engel’s removal from Congress would mean one less voice speaking up for Israel, one less voice representing Jewish interests, including stamping out anti-Semitism. It would also mean the loss of an experienced statesman with a lifetime of public service.

For his part, Rep. Engel has spoken highly of his party’s “new energy” and called the young progressive Democrats intent on running against him “the beauty of our electoral system.”

“We all run for re-election. But, you know, there’s no permanent stay in a democracy. We have to try and convince the voters each time.” — Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), Jewish Insider

Engel may be taking the high road, and taking his long-time support of Israel with him if he loses in the Democratic Primary. Progressive Democratic activists aren’t as reticent and they have a message for deeply entrenched, career Democrats in Congress.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)

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