Hillary Clinton Endorses Eliot Engel, pro-Israel Congressman Facing Tough Primary Challenge

16-term elected official in fierce race against the more left-wing Jamaal Bowman, endorsed by Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and The New York Times

Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
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Eliot Engel speaks during a media briefing in Washington, U.S., October 31, 2019.
Eliot Engel speaks during a media briefing in Washington, U.S., October 31, 2019. Credit: REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri

In her first endorsement of the Democratic primary season, Hillary Clinton announced on Monday that she is backing embattled Jewish Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel, who is facing a strong challenge from the left in New York’s 16th district.

Clinton said she had “worked with Eliot Engel as first lady, as senator from New York and as secretary of state” in a statement published by The New York Times. “Every step of the way, his No. 1 priority has always remained the same: delivering for his constituents.”

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As the fiercely contested race for this district approaches, Engel, 73, is in danger of being unseated in the June 23 primary by Jamaal Bowman, who has been endorsed by Senator Bernie Sanders and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. A loss by Engel would be something of an echo of Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 primary defeat of 20-year incumbent Joe Crowley – a high-profile, pro-Israel lawmaker being ousted by a younger, more left-wing opponent.

This March 4, 2020 file photo shows former secretary of state Hillary Clinton at the premiere of the Hulu documentary 'Hillary' in New York.
This March 4, 2020 file photo shows former secretary of state Hillary Clinton at the premiere of the Hulu documentary 'Hillary' in New York.Credit: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File

Warren’s endorsement of Bowman, which came a day after Clinton backed Engel, made it even more clear that the battle for the 16th is not just a local contest, but a microcosm of the larger battle over control of the party.

Bowman said in reply to the news of the endorsement that he’s “thrilled” to have Warren’s support, describing her as “a fighter for workers and an economy that doesn’t just serve those at the top. She knows it’s not enough to keep electing Democrats who will only nibble around the edges. I'm running to make big, structural change.” 

The 16th Congressional District has constituents ranging from low-income minority communities in the Bronx to more affluent residents in areas such as Riverdale and New Rochelle, also home to large Jewish communities.

This undated photo, provided by his campaign, shows Jamaal Bowman.
This undated photo, provided by his campaign, shows Jamaal Bowman.Credit: Corey Torpie via AP

Engel, a 16-term elected official, has represented the district since 2013 and has served in Congress since 1989. But Bowman has accused Engel of being “absent.”

“The truth is, he’s never really in the district,” Bowman says in a campaign ad. “He’s taken us for granted.” Facing accusations of being out of touch, Engel’s reelection campaign took another hit earlier this month when a microphone caught him pushing to speak at a Bronx news conference about Black Lives Matters protests by saying, “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.” Engel said of the incident: “In the context of running for re-election, I thought it was important for people to know where I stand, that’s why I asked to speak.”

A moderate Democrat, Engel serves as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is a leading pro-Israel voice in Congress, voting against the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. Israelן policy has not featured in the primary race, but his ouster would be a triumph for many progressives who want the party to adopt a more critical position on Israel. If elected, Bowman would join those in the party who identify as democratic socialists and who break with traditional party members on a variety of issues, including Israel-related policy.

Clinton’s endorsement is all the more significant for Engel, as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who has endorsed Engel in past races, appears to be holding off. Bowman, however, has not only the endorsements of Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, but also that of The New York Times’ editorial board, which wrote that “in a district that needs new energy, Mr. Bowman will bring it.” Perhaps most significant, though, was the endorsement Bowman received last Thursday from Priorities USA, a Democratic Super PAC that is affiliated with former President Barack Obama.

Amir Tibon contributed to this article. 

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