Vol. 13, No. 16 Aug.  24 - Sept. 6, 2000


Congressman Engel Faces Fight of His Life


Running for his seventh term in Congress, Eliot Engel is facing his toughest race yet. In the upcoming Democratic primary race on Sept. 12, the lawmaker will face State Senator Larry Seabrook who has the backing of the Bronx Democratic Party and its chief, Assemblyman Roberto Ramirez.

Despite losing the machine's backing, Engel said he is optimistic, and in an interview with the Norwood News in his Kingsbridge campaign headquarters, he self-assuredly outlined his case for reelection, emphasizing his experience and his seniority in Congress.

"I'm really in a good position as a senior member in having more clout," said Engel, one of only two city congressmen on the influential Commerce Committee. "I don't think voters want to trade that in for a freshman who doesn't have clout."

Engel, a former New York City public school teacher and a member of the New York State Assembly for 11 years prior to his 1988 election to Congress, represents Norwood, Bedford Park, Riverdale, Kingsbridge, Wakefield, Co-op City and parts of Yonkers and Mount Vernon.

The Lehman College graduate is probably best-known for his work in health care, and is a supporter of a national health insurance system for Americans, along the lines of a Canadian system, that would be funded in part by the budget surplus. Engel's current efforts include co- sponsoring legislation for a Patients' Bill of Rights and the introduction of a bill for prescription drug benefits for seniors.

Health care advocates credit Engel, 53, with helping to blunt a plan to scale back funding for teaching hospitals and helping to maintain funding for home health care agencies when Congress wanted cutbacks.

"Engel has been instrumental on hospital and home health care legislation," said Steven Kroll, vice president of government affairs for the Healthcare Association of New York State. "He's a vocal leader. He initialized group meetings and brought together colleagues to advocate for health care institutions."

Steven Cooper, a former official of the Healthcare Association of New York State, also commended Engel's advocacy for healthcare. Engel's one weakness, Cooper said, is that "he doesn't blow his own horn enough [even though] he has done more for New York than most congressmen."

In fact, a search of the Lexis-Nexis database of major newspapers turned up few articles on Engel.

"I'm a workhorse, not a show horse," Engel responded. "I don't need to be up front ranting and raving. I like to work efficiently."

Engel's critics argue that during his 12 years in office he has authored few pieces of legislation. Engel responded that that's not unusual, especially for Democrats who aren't majority members. "There's not many free-standing bills that get passed," he said. "Most legislation is an amendment to a bill."

Back in 1992, Engel was successful in inserting a provision into a bill that exempted New York hospitals from the Employee Retirement Income and Security Act (known as ERISA) which would have removed a surcharge on private health care services used to fund public health care insurance. Engel negotiated a provision to exempt New York State from ERISA, a measure that saved the state from losing $1 billion for its public insurance funding pool.

Engel's political opponents also say he's not around often enough, and point to the fact that his primary home is in Maryland. But constituents say the congressmen, who also has an apartment in Riverdale does not make himself scarce. He attends various Tracey Towers cultural functions, according to tenant association president Tony Taylor. And Myra Goggins, president of the Northwest Bronx Clergy and Community Coalition, said Engel often attends important Coalition events and meetings.

Goggins also said Engel, working with the Coalition in the early '90s, was instrumental in pressuring the government to audit the quasi-public Federal Home Loan Bank Board (known as Freddie Mac) which jeopardized the stability of buildings by providing building improvement loans to landlords who were in over their heads, and failing to monitor their progress.

Ramirez has accused Engel of being out of touch with his constituents and with local issues like immigration, economic reform and social welfare, but the congressman pointed to his six re-elections and his record as proof of his commitment on these matters. Engel's voting record is consistently liberal and he gets high ratings from liberal interest groups for his strong support of gun control, abortion rights, and spending on health care and education. He has, however, voted more conservatively on issues of foreign policy (he supported the war with Iraq, for instance) and defense spending.

Engel is way ahead in the fundraising race, having received large donations from labor unions, and media interests such as Time Warner and the National Cable Television Association, and communications companies including AT&T and Verizon. But Engel would like to see a change in campaign finance. "If I could write the law ... there would be public financing of campaigns, so nobody would have to raise any money, so there would be no special interests," he said. "Then nobody would have to give the impression of being beholden to someone else."

Saying he feels "liberated" from the hold of the Bronx Democratic chief, Engel insisted he doesn't take Ramirez' endorsement too seriously. "Everybody knows this was a political deal cut in a back room," he said. "My record hasn't changed. My support hasn't changed. The only thing that's changed is that [Ramirez] cut a deal with Larry Seabrook."

Ramirez' endorsement of Seabrook, an African-American who represents the northeast Bronx, is considered by some political observers to be part of an effort to attract black support for Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer's mayoral candidacy, though Ferrer has remained neutral in the race and vigorously denies the Seabrook endorsement is part of a deal.

For his part, Engel said he doesn't think race will be an important factor in the primary. "An African-American senior citizen wants his congressman to go to Washington and fight for prescription drugs and for Medicare. So does a white senior citizen in Riverdale. So does a Hispanic senior citizen in Kingsbridge. They all want the same thing. And if they believe that Eliot Engel is doing an effective job and advocates for the things that they need in Washington, then they'll vote to re-elect Eliot Engel."

If there was any expectation that the election would split along racial lines, then Mount Vernon Mayor Ernest Davis deviated from that plan. Davis, an African-American who represents a large black community, said Seabrook has been supportive, but he endorsed Engel because, he said, "The Congressman has always delivered for this community. Mount Vernon is only 14 percent of his district, but he doesn't treat it that way." He pointed to Engel's help in securing $4 million for a sports complex and hotel development project in Mount Vernon.

Engel expects that kind of approval and his track record will propel him to victory on Sept. 12.

"This is my toughest race yet," he said. "I'm optimistic because I think I've done a good job, but I take nothing for granted."
Campaign Beat
Eliot Engel has a hefty lead in campaign contributions over his opponent, Larry Seabrook. As of June 30, 2000, Engel had raised $469,607, half of which came from the political action committees of unions and corporations. The other half came from individual contributions.
Seabrook, on the other hand, raised most of his money, about 71 percent of the total of $136,780, from individual contributions. Seabrook himself put up $36,000, or about a quarter of the funding, while less than one percent came from political action committees.

Engel got on the ballot with 13,500 signatures, Seabrook with 6,500.

Web sites
For more information on the candidate's voting records and fundraising, two Web sites provide useful information. www.vote-smart.org has information on candidates for political office across the country and www.opensecrets.org, a site maintained by the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, tracks campaign contributions to the candidates.

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