13, No. 16
24 - Sept. 6, 2000
Congressman Engel Faces Fight of
By HANNAN ADELY
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
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
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
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."
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.
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
a site maintained by the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity,
tracks campaign contributions to the candidates.
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