NEW YORK — One of New York City’s congressional primaries is among the progressive movement’s best hopes for a repeat of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez‘s upset win in 2018. Another could deal a blow to that movement.
In one district that touches the north end of the Bronx, a three-decade incumbent, white congressman will have to fend off a challenge from a progressive, black candidate just weeks after getting caught on a hot mic saying he “wouldn’t care” about speaking on the city’s civil unrest if he didn’t have a primary to win.
About a mile away, a conservative Democratic minister with a long history of homophobic remarks appears to have a slight edge in a crowded race with far more liberal contenders, including a young, gay progressive once labeled a “rising star” in Democratic politics.
As the city careens from a crippling pandemic to civil unrest, the events of the past three months have upended — and largely overshadowed — the House primary races that would otherwise have dominated New York’s political calendar and attracted national interest. Democratic voters will cast their ballots on June 23 for the primaries, which often are the deciding contests in this liberal city.
With the virus still spreading, most voters are likely to vote by mail — creating significant uncertainty around turnout as the traditional rituals of in-person campaigning have been abandoned.
In the 16th Congressional District in the north Bronx and part of Westchester, Jamaal Bowman is taking on Rep. Eliot Engel, the 73-year-old, 16-term incumbent who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Hammered by his primary opponent for holing up outside Washington for much of the pandemic, Engel appeared at a press conference in the Bronx this week, pleading for a chance to speak, saying, “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.”
Bowman’s campaign reported raising more than $107,000 the day of the flub.
“It’s disgusting. It’s abhorrent. It’s unfortunate, and it’s disappointing. But it’s not surprising,” Bowman said. “We’ve been very critical of Congressman Engel’s absence from the district during this pandemic. We’ve been very critical of his absence during his 31 years in Congress.”
Bowman, a former middle school principal who is backed by the Justice Democrats, got another boost this week when a fellow progressive challenger dropped out of the race and lent his support. Andom Ghebreghiorgis said Bowman had the best chance to “deliver a progressive win and unseat Representative Engel.” On Wednesday he was endorsed by Ocasio-Cortez as he executes a similar playbook to the one that led her to victory over Joe Crowley in 2018.
Bowman said he has retooled his campaign during the pandemic to focus in part on mutual aid, including getting food to seniors who need it. “If you’re not here in the district you cannot feel the pain and the struggle people are going through,” he said. “He’s taken the voters for granted for far too long.”
At a virtual debate this week, Engel touted his ability to secure health care and education funding for the district and his role in the impeachment of President Donald Trump.
“I have been one of the real pains in the neck to Donald Trump in Washington,” he said. “I’ve now had lots of seniority, being in Congress a long time, and I have the clout. I bring home the bacon. I bring home the money. I can do those kinds of things. That’s not something a freshman can do.”
That seniority and clout were cited by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi Thursday who endorsed Engel. He also has the backing of Rep. Gregory Meeks, head of the Queens Democratic party, and the Congressional Black Caucus.
And the district is far different than that won by Ocasio-Cortez. While touching urban areas like the Bronx and Yonkers, it also encompasses Scarsdale and Bronxville, some of the wealthiest towns in America, where Bowman’s progressive message may not be as welcome.
Meanwhile, in New York’s 15th Congressional District in the South Bronx, Pentecostal Rev. Rubén Díaz Sr. — a bombastic social conservative who opposes abortion rights and was censured last year for saying his City Council colleagues were controlled by the “homosexual community” — appears to be out front in the race to replace Rep. José Serrano, who is retiring after three decades in office.
Among the other candidates is Ritchie Torres, the city’s first openly gay Latino Council member. A 2016 profile in the New Yorker titled “Fighting for the Poor Under Trump” labeled him a rising star. Now he’s fighting a Trump-friendly Democrat for the party nomination.
A super PAC backed by LGBT donors was launched to oppose Díaz Sr. and is running ads urging voters to choose “#anyonebutdiaz.” Reproductive rights groups like Planned Parenthood’s political arm are opposing his candidacy.
“Rubén Díaz is a Republican look-alike who would side with Donald Trump,” said Eric Koch, a strategist for the PAC, Bronx United.
But the anti-Díaz forces are fractured, with a host of prominent Democrats still in the running and dividing progressive support. A dozen candidates are expected to appear on the ballot.
Torres is the fundraising leader and has the support of national LGBT groups. But community activist Samelys López is the favorite of Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic Socialists of America and the Working Families Party.
Traditional polling groups have not surveyed the primary races, so far. But according to a poll conducted by the left-leaning group Data for Progress, 22 percent of voters in the district said they would vote for Díaz Sr. while 20 percent picked Torres. All the other contenders were in single digits, though more than a third of voters said they weren’t sure who they’d support.
“The more crowded the race, the more advantage to Rubén Díaz Sr. Candidates who have no path to victory are unwittingly aiding and abetting the election of Rubén Díaz Sr.,” Torres said. “It would be one of the greatest tragedies and perversities in the history of Bronx politics to have a Trump Republican represent the most Democratic district in America.”
His rivals generally agree with the latter statement, but there’s been no move to consolidate behind any one candidate.
Mark-Viverito targeted Díaz Sr. with calls to drop out of the race, calling him a “fraud.” But she said her name recognition as the former Council speaker makes her the “most viable candidate” to defeat him.
Díaz Sr., a former state senator whose son is the borough president, has enviable name recognition himself. He did not respond to requests for comment.
Suraj Patel is again running against Maloney, while Adem Bunkeddeko is mounting another challenge to Clarke — but in both districts, one-on-one contests in 2018 have given way to primaries with multiple challengers this year, making it more difficult for one candidate to break through.
In Brooklyn, Army veteran and DSA member Isiah James is running to the left of Bunkeddeko, while City Council Member Chaim Deutsch has jumped into the race as a conservative Democrat with support in the Orthodox Jewish community.
Besides Patel, Maloney’s challengers include Lauren Ashcraft and Peter Harrison.
Ocasio-Cortez faces her own Democratic challenger, former CNBC anchor Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, after City Council Member Fernando Cabrera dropped out of the race.
Democratic primaries dominate the calendar in the city, but on Staten Island, Republican Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis is up against former prosecutor Joseph Caldarera for the chance to take on freshman Rep. Max Rose.
All the candidates have been forced to adapt with the traditional subway canvassing, door-knocking and hand-shaking off the table.
“We had to adapt rapidly and switch to an all-remote, all digital operation,” said Patel, who suffered his own bout with coronavirus along with his two brothers. His campaign commissioned 100,000 calls to district residents and said it wasn’t hard to convince supporters to host Zoom parties. “People are so bored at home, and want to do something.”