Engel’s War Record Draws Red Flagg
By ALEX KRATZ
Democratic anti-war candidate Jessica Flagg is dead broke. She has no job. Four months ago, she was almost kicked out of her Riverdale apartment. She’s borrowing money from her family just to survive and keep her shoestring Congressional campaign afloat.
On top of all that, she’s challenging incumbent Eliot Engel in the Democratic primary in the 17th Congressional District on Sept. 12. Engel, who represents Norwood and Bedford Park, is just finishing his 18th year in the House, has spent almost half a million dollars on his campaign this past fiscal year and still has over a quarter million left in his war chest.
Flagg, 52, insists she never wanted to run in the first place. Two years ago, when she ran to protest Engel’s support of President Bush’s plan to invade Iraq and won 11 percent of the vote, Flagg had a horrible experience in her first foray into electoral politics.
“It was very physically demanding and it took its toll,” Flagg said about the 2004 race. “It was extremely stressful and painful.”
She was campaigning full-time and caring for her father, who was suffering from late-stage Parkinson’s disease, and slept poorly.
So why on earth would Flagg want to subject herself to another punishing campaign?
At a meeting organized by the liberal activist group MoveOn.org last March, Flagg crammed into Engel’s Bronx office with 40 other constituents to ask her congressman why he wasn’t backing resolutions that would bring about a swifter end to the war in Iraq. (Flagg supports an immediate withdrawal from Iraq and wants Bush impeached for lying to make his case for war. Engel adamantly refutes her claim that he’s a Bush apologist, but doesn’t support an immediate pullout of troops, saying it would be “irresponsible.”)
When Flagg accused Engel of giving pat answers that could have come from a Bush administration spokesman, Flagg says the veteran lawmaker responded by asking her if she was giving a campaign speech. Flagg says she just wanted answers from her representative, but a seed was planted. Two months later, Flagg threw her hat back in the ring.
“Poverty be damned,” Flagg said. “I’m going to do this.”
In a phone interview from his office in Washington, Engel, a 59-year-old former teacher and state assemblyman, says he can’t understand why Flagg is running. Engel says she’s attacking his initial war support to jump into Congress without paying her dues on the local level. Today, Engel says he would have voted differently if he knew what he knows now about Bush’s faulty intelligence.
“She has to find some kind of reason for her candidacy,” Engel said. “I don’t doubt that she feels passionate about certain issues,” he added.
Flagg, a marketing consultant (with no current clients) who became a pro-democracy activist in 2000 after the Bush-Gore election debacle, says she wouldn’t be sacrificing her time, employment and possibly her health if she weren’t displeased with Engel.
“I wouldn’t waste five minutes on this campaign if I didn’t believe in it,” Flagg said.
“I’m sick to death of machine politics,” Flagg said, adding that she believes Engel is part of a national political machine beholden to big corporations. As for Bronx politicians, Engel is only one of two elected officials who operate almost entirely outside the fold of the borough’s regular Democratic apparatus (Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz being the other). Fund-raising gives Engel a huge advantage during the campaign, Flagg says, but ultimately causes him to fall on the wrong side of key issues.
Flagg points to Engel’s support of a controversial telecommunications bill that passed the House in June. The Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement (COPE) Act of 2006, authored by Joe Barton (R-Texas), would allow phone and cable companies to enter the broadband market and offer TV, voice and Internet services without receiving local approval.
Phone companies, including Verizon and AT&T, poured millions into lobbying for the bill, which passed. Verizon and AT&T are big contributors to Engel’s campaigns. In 2005-2006, Verizon contributed $32,000, more than tripling the amount given by any other individual donor. In total, Engel received $44,000 from telephone utilities over the past year. Only nine other lawmakers received more money from phone companies. Only four of the top 20 recipients of phone company funds are Democrats.
Engel said COPE promotes competition between cable and phone companies, resulting in lower prices for consumers. He said he voted for an amendment — which wasn’t included in the final bill — that would have protected net neutrality. Internet providers (including Verizon) want to end net neutrality, which assures Internet surfers equal access to each and every site on the web, so they can charge corporations that want speedier access to their sites. Engel is also supported by cable company unions, he said, which are against the bill.
Engel says Flagg’s attack on his telecommunications stance is misplaced. Flagg’s a political novice, he says, and doesn’t understand how huge bills like the COPE Act work. Compromises must be made on a bill like that, Engel said. “There are a million different pieces,” he said. “You aren’t going to ultimately agree on all of them.”
(Jose Serrano, Engel’s neighboring colleague in Congress, voted against the bill, as did Jerry Nadler, an Engel ally from Manhattan whom Engel often compares himself to. Joseph Crowley, the other Bronx congressman, voted for the bill.)
In defense, Engel says he never lets corporate donations sway his decisions. If it were up to him, Engel says he would love to have publicly financed campaigns that weren’t influenced by private donors. But this is the big time, he says, and campaigns cost money.
Engel’s unlikely to lose. A firefighter, Kevin McAdams, was much better financed and able to field an organizing staff when he lost big to Engel in 2004 (McAdams barely doubled Flagg’s 11 percent). Engel says he’s brought in more than a hundred million dollars in federal money for projects and programs in his district, which stretches over three counties. He consistently receives high grades from liberal Democratic organizations. He’s pushing the Fuel Choices for American Security Act, which aims to make the U.S. less dependent on foreign oil. Plus, he has seniority, which he believes will give him tremendous clout if the Democrats take over the House.
But Flagg sees a career politician who’s gotten too comfortable in office.
Nevertheless, both candidates say the country is on the wrong track. Engel blames the Bush administration. Flagg blames the Administration, Republicans and the Democratic “machine.”
Engel has a raft of endorsements, including The United Federation of Teachers and the Working Families Party. Flagg has been endorsed by anti-war mom Cindy Sheehan.
As it happens, the candidates bumped into each other outside a Riverdale CVS recently. Engel was with his teenage son, Flagg with a supporter. Flagg told Engel she admired what he had done in Washington, but that she wanted her opportunity to do good things as well. Engel said, “Don’t you think we agree on 95 percent of the issues?” Flagg said, “Well, probably more like 90.”
Later, talking about the interaction, Flagg said, “But the 10 we’re different on are really different.”
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