It was a Wednesday mid-morning in Washington, and Eliot Engel was about to take center stage. In his role as chair of the House’s powerful foreign affairs committee, the congressman hauled Assistant Secretary of State R. Clarke Cooper into a June 12 hearing and slammed the Trump administration over an arms deal with Saudi Arabia.
In defiance of a Congress that repeatedly blocked the deal, President Donald Trump declared an emergency in May over perceived Iranian hostility in order to fast track arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other regional allies. The brutality of the war in Yemen and the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi soured the American-Saudi relationship, even among more Saudi-friendly lawmakers like Engel.
“There is no emergency. It’s phony. It’s made up. And it’s an abuse of the law,” Engel said in his opening remarks. “Congress is a co-equal branch of government. We are not going to permit this to go by without a whimper.”
A staunch supporter of Israel, Engel long saw Saudi Arabia a natural ally in counteracting Iranian influence in the region, and although he now supports the nuclear deal the world powers negotiated with Iran, he originally opposed it. For progressives who would see him ousted from his congressional seat, it’s all too little too late.
As Engel sat in House chambers during that hearing last week, insurrection was brewing in his home district. Andom Ghebreghiorgis, a graduate of Ethical Culture Fieldston School, announced he would challenge Engel in the 2020 Democratic primary for New York’s 16th Congressional District. Raised in Mount Vernon, Ghebreghiorgis is a 33-year-old democratic socialist and former teacher who hopes to tie Engel with the military-industrial complex and foreign “forever wars” — while dinging him for not doing enough to invest in solutions to domestic issues like housing and education.
“Our representative’s hawkish record is clear,” Ghebreghiorgis said during his campaign kickoff speech at Mount Vernon’s Hartley Park. He rattled off key votes in Engel’s record he took issue with, including his support of the Iraq War in 2003 — a vote Engel since regretted publicly. Ghebreghiorgis called the federal budget a “moral document,” and where money is spent indicates where the nation’s values lie.
In more recent history, Ghebreghiorgis disagreed with Engel’s support of the president’s decision to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and the president’s backing of the annexation of the Golan Heights. Ghebreghiorgis spent last summer teaching English on the West Bank and says he has long opposed the “status quo” in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.
“Humanity does not benefit from these militaristic policies that we typically expect to be supported by the Republican Party,” Ghebreghiorgis said. “Our domestic policy is our foreign policy. We cannot invest in what we need to live here unless we divest from what kills there.”
The quiet, mustachioed congressman has represented portions of the Bronx and the city’s northern suburbs since 1989, succeeding an embattled Mario Biaggi, who would ultimately end up in prison. But his congressional career has been as reserved as he is. Perhaps known best for always shaking the hand of the president at each State of the Union during his career — making news only when he wouldn’t do it for Trump — Engel otherwise keeps his head down and generally toes the party line.
But the Democratic Party line is moving. At least it is in New York.
Engel made it this far in part because his district is quite liberal. Now, as another member of the Bronx congressional delegation, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, takes Washington by storm, the overwhelmingly Democratic makeup of his district might prove to be a disadvantage. Organizations like Justice Democrats, the group that backed Ocasio-Cortez and progressives like her in 2018, plans to mount primary challenges against Democrats in safely blue districts to move the party farther to the left.
Districts like Engel’s.
More than half of the district’s 460,000 voters are registered Democrats, according to a tally the state elections board published in February. Ghebreghiorgis wants to take a crack at those Democrats by convincing them progressive policies like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All would have a better shot with a Congressman Ghebreghiorgis in Washington. He also plans to spend the next year on expanding the electorate in a district where only 11 percent of Democrats voted in the 2018 congressional primary. The 2020 primary is now just a year away.
“I want to establish myself as a viable progressive,” Ghebreghiorgis told The Riverdale Press. The son of Eritrean immigrants, Ghebreghiorgis says he recognizes the significance his race and age will play when running against a 72-year-old, white Jewish man.
And while representation is important to him — last year’s election of the first congressman of Eritrean descent, Colorado’s Joe Neguse, partially inspired him to run — Ghebreghiorgis wants voters to choose him on the basis of policy.
Candidates who run on representation “without a politics which ensures that representative is actually going to advocate for people who have been historically excluded” are just figureheads, Ghebreghiorgis said. “And that’s not what I’m trying to do.”
Kenny Belvin, a 25-year-old democratic socialist from New Rochelle, announced his intention to primary Engel earlier this year, but dropped out a day after Ghebreghiorgis entered the race.
Jamaal Bowman, a middle school principal in the East Bronx who lives in Yonkers, launched his own campaign against Engel on Tuesday. A progressive who has made a name for himself fighting standardized testing, Bowman is endorsed by Justice Democrats — earning him early media attention.
Engel for his part is unconcerned. He’s faced primary challengers before and, he believes, he will face primary challengers again. He remains active in his district and says his record is “solidly progressive” after three decades in Congress.
“I don’t worry about who is running against me,” Engel said a few days after Ghebreghiorgis announced. “I suspect someone will run against me because that’s what democracy is all about.”