House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn and Rep. Adam Schiff are endorsing Rep. Eliot Engel, the pair of Democratic heavyweights offering their full support as the embattled New Yorker fights to hold onto the seat he’s represented for more than three decades.
Clyburn, the No. 3 House Democrat, and Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, have considerable influence within Democratic politics. Both men praised Engel for his longtime service to his Bronx district and tenure as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in statements exclusively obtained by POLITICO on Sunday.
“Let me be blunt: We need leaders in Congress with proven records of standing up for civil and human rights,” said Clyburn (D-S.C.), the highest-ranking African American in Congress. “Eliot Engel is not new to the fight for justice and equality — he's been in the fight his entire life, and I have worked with him on these issues for almost three decades.”
Clyburn's support comes as Democrats prepare to move a police reform bill through the House this month, sweeping legislation that’s been offered in response to the national outcry over the police killing of George Floyd. Engel is an original sponsor of the police reform bill.
Schiff, the lead prosecutor in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, said Engel’s leadership as Foreign Affairs Committee chairman was “invaluable” during Democrats’ investigation into whether the president abused the power of his office.
House Majority Whip James Clyburn of S.C., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill Thursday, April 30, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
“Ever since Trump took office, Eliot has helped expose the abuses of his administration, and hold this lawless president accountable,” Schiff continued. “Eliot is a dedicated and talented public servant who knows how to get things done for the people of his district, while working diligently to protect our democracy. He has my full support for his reelection.”
Their endorsements come one day after another prominent lawmaker, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), announced he was endorsing Engel as well. Jeffries served alongside Schiff as an impeachment manager.
But it’s unclear if the cadre of powerful Democrats will be enough to save Engel, who faces off against middle school principal Jamaal Bowman on June 23.
The support of Clyburn and Jeffries, two senior members of the Congressional Black Caucus, is especially notable after the CBC’s political arm came under fire for supporting Engel, who is white, over Bowman, who is black.
Senior members of the CBC have defended the decision, citing Engel’s longtime tenure, representing his district for 31 years. The CBC is a fierce defender of seniority within the House Democratic Caucus and has in the past endorsed white incumbents over black primary challengers.
“During the South Carolina primary several months ago, I endorsed our party's presumptive nominee, Joe Biden for President, because of his long and distinguished record of standing with us,” Clyburn said in a statement. “The same goes for Eliot Engel.”
But Bowman has racked up his own string of high-profile endorsements, including from progressive leaders like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), whose district borders Engel’s. The New York Times — Engel’s hometown newspaper — endorsed Bowman over the weekend, another blow to the longtime lawmaker.
And Engel has had multiple missteps in recent weeks, drawing unwanted attention to himself and giving his opponent plenty of fodder in the run-up to the primary.
Engel came under fire last month after the Atlantic reported he was hunkered down in his Washington-area home as the coronavirus pandemic ravaged his district — particularly New Rochelle, one of the hardest-hit areas in the country and ground zero for the outbreak in New York.
Engel has since traveled back to his district. But two weeks ago, Engel triggered another round of bad headlines when he was caught on a hot mic as he pressed to speak at a press conference in his district. After being rebuffed by Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz Jr., Engel tried again, saying, “If I didn't have a primary, I wouldn’t care.”
Jeffries defended Engel in his endorsement over the weekend, telling the New York Daily News that “an inartful statement” shouldn’t undo Engel’s three decades of “committed compassionate on-the-ground service to the community."
The race has become something of a proxy war between the Democratic establishment — most of which is lined up firmly behind Engel — and insurgents like Ocasio-Cortez and Justice Democrats, a progressive group that is backing Bowman.
Ocasio-Cortez shot to fame after unseating Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), then the House Democratic Caucus chairman, in a stunning upset in 2018. Ocasio-Cortez was also backed by Justice Democrats, which has drawn the ire of senior Democratic lawmakers for it practice of targeting longtime incumbents.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who could face his own progressive challenger in 2022, declined to endorse Engel earlier this week. But most Democratic leaders, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have publicly supported Engel in recent weeks.
“Chairman Engel is the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. He also has unique privilege, which is unique and it wouldn’t happen again ... he is also not only the chairman of Foreign Affairs, he is a senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee,” Pelosi told reporters last week.
“That wouldn’t happen again — that’s a lot of power,” Pelosi added.