Eliot Engel’s Hot Mic Moment: ‘If I Didn’t Have a Primary, I Wouldn’t Care’

Representative Eliot L. Engel, a New York Democrat who is facing a serious primary challenge this month and questions about his lack of presence in his district, arrived on Tuesday at a Bronx news conference about local vandalism with a determination to speak.

But shortly before the news conference began, Ruben Diaz Jr., the Bronx borough president and organizer of the event, ran through the list of planned speakers to the assembled politicians. The microphone was already broadcasting.

“I cannot have all the electeds talk because we will never get out of here,” Mr. Diaz said.

Mr. Engel pressed his case for a turn. “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care,” he said, repeating, “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.”

First elected to Congress in 1988, Mr. Engel, who is the chairman of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee, will face voters again in New York’s primary elections on June 23. His opposition began to consolidate this week as one of his leading rivals, Andom Ghebreghiorgis, dropped out and endorsed Jamaal Bowman, a Bronx school principal.

The same day, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee announced its endorsement of Mr. Bowman, who has the support of several local progressive leaders, as well as the Working Families Party and Justice Democrats, a group that supports insurgent progressives.

Mr. Engel has faced questions about his absence from New York during the coronavirus pandemic, especially after an article in The Atlantic detailed how he had stayed in Washington.

Mr. Bowman responded to Mr. Engel’s comments on Tuesday, saying they were “painful to watch.”

“It’s clear that we need new leadership,” Mr. Bowman said.

In a statement after the event, Mr. Engel explained his push for time before the cameras.

“In the context of running for re-election, I thought it was important for people to know where I stand, that’s why I asked to speak,” Mr. Engel said. “Of course I care deeply about what’s happening in this country, that’s what I wanted to convey. I love the Bronx, grew up in the Bronx and lived here all my life. I would not have tried to impose on the borough president if I didn’t think it was important.”

The candidates to represent the district, New York’s 16th Congressional, which includes parts of the northern Bronx and southern Westchester County, debated on Monday, and the recording was to appear on Tuesday evening on bronxnet.tv.

Entering April, Mr. Engel’s campaign had just over $1 million in the bank, after spending $761,000 since the beginning of 2019. Mr. Bowman had raised $540,000 in total and had $216,000 remaining.

Back at the news conference, Mr. Diaz looked surprised by Mr. Engel’s demand for speaking time.

“Don’t do that to me,” he shot back. Looking at the politicians surrounding him, he added: “Everybody has a primary. You know, I’m sorry.”

Mr. Engel persisted. “Ruben,” he said, tapping Mr. Diaz on the shoulder. “As long as we’re announced.”

“Of course, I’ll do that,” Mr. Diaz replied.

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