In NY primary, insurgent Dem takes commanding lead over pro-Israel stalwart
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In NY primary, insurgent Dem takes commanding lead over pro-Israel stalwart

AOC-backed Jamaal Bowman beating veteran Congressman Eliot Engel by more than 20 percentage points; mail-in ballots still to be counted

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

Pat Ennis Engel, right, stands with her husband Congressman Eliot Engel as he prepares to cast votes for primary elections Tuesday, June 23, 2020, (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews).
Pat Ennis Engel, right, stands with her husband Congressman Eliot Engel as he prepares to cast votes for primary elections Tuesday, June 23, 2020, (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews).

WASHINGTON — Insurgent progressive candidate Jamaal Bowman took a commanding early lead over veteran Congressman Eliot Engel Tuesday night, in a hotly contested Democratic primary.

As of Tuesday night, Bowman led by more than 4,000 votes in New York’s 16th Congressional District, which encompasses parts of the Bronx and Westchester County.

While state officials have not yet declared him the victor — largely because of tens of thousands of mailed-in ballots that have yet to be counted — the early returns showed Bowman leading by a 61 to 39 percent margin.

The 44-year-old former middle school principal gave a triumphant victory speech Tuesday night, pledging to fight against “sexism, racism, classism, xenophobia” in Washington. “You know what Donald Trump is afraid of more than anything?” Bowman said. “A black man in power!”

The 16th district is heavily Democratic, and the winner of the primary is unlikely to have a competitive general election.

Jamaal Bowman speaks to attendees during his primary-night party Tuesday, June. 23, 2020, in New York. Bowman was running against Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., in the primary. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)

Engel, who has held his seat for more than 30 years, is the current chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee and is known as one of Capitol Hill’s pro-Israel stalwarts and one of the most hawkish Democrats. He voted against the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and for the George W. Bush administration’s Iraq war.

The Jewish anti-occupation group IfNotNow endorsed Bowman two weeks ago, saying Engel “spent the last 30 years on the wrong side of history — from mass incarceration, to deregulating Wall Street, to supporting the Iraq war and opposing President Obama’s Iran Deal.”

Bowman also had the support of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and progressive leading light New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortex, who shocked the political world with her upset victory over another longtime incumbent — and pro-Israel stalwart — in a nearby district two years ago.

Engel, 73, had the support of much of the Democratic establishment, with endorsements from Hillary Clinton, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Senate Democratic Minority Leader Charles Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Engel ran into problems, however, when an Atlantic reporter discovered last month that he was spending the COVID-19 pandemic in his Potomac, Maryland, home and not the district he serves.

He also attended a Bronx event and got caught on a hot mic asking to give some remarks. “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care,” he said. Engel’s opponent immediately pounced on the incident, saying he had “completely lost touch” with the district.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 24, 2011, prior to addressing a joint meeting of Congress. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Less than a week before the election, a Riverdale rabbi wrote an open letter to Bowman in The Riverdale Press asking him to clarify his position on whether the US should condition aid to Israel based on its human rights record.

Rabbi Avi Weiss also criticized Bowman for criticizing Israel but not Palestinian violence, citing a Riverdale native, Ari Fuld, who was knifed to death in the West Bank by a Palestinian terrorist.

Bowman responded by penning an open letter back to Weiss.

“I believe firmly in the right of Israelis to live in safety and peace, free from the fear of violence and terrorism from Hamas and other extremists, and support continued U.S. aid to help Israel confront these security challenges,” he wrote. “I also believe that Palestinians are entitled to the same human rights, safety from violence and self-determination in a state of their own.”

The candidate added that he opposed the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign against Israel, but would support Americans’ First Amendment right to support it. He also said he was against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank.

Final results for the NY16 primary likely won’t be known for more than a week, as mailed-in ballots continue to be delivered and counted.

Still, US analysts thought it was unlikely that voting patterns would change dramatically enough for Engel to make a comeback.

“At this point, I’d be massively surprised if Jamaal Bowman (D) doesn’t beat #NY16 Rep. Eliot Engel (D),” tweeted Dave Wasserman, US House editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

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