In the June 23 Democratic primary, three candidates are challenging 16-term incumbent Congressman Eliot Engel to represent District 16, which comprises parts of the Bronx and Westchester, including most of Scarsdale.
Jamaal Bowman, Chris Fink and Sammy Ravelo are taking on Engel, the 73-year-old chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, founder and co-chair of the House Energy and National Security Caucus, and member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Gun Violence Prevention Task Force and Bipartisan Task Force for Combatting Anti-Semitism, among others.
In the June 7 online forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Westchester, “I agree with what everyone else said” was a recurrent phrase among the Democratic primary candidates. All four contenders want a Green New Deal, improved infrastructure, health care reform, secure voting, job creation and an end to institutional racism, but some differed on how to achieve those goals.
The candidates fielded four questions from the LWVW, four submitted in advance by viewers, and four “lightning round” questions from the LWVW. Each candidate was allowed 1.5-minute responses, opening and closing statements, and two 30-second rebuttals.
Engel focused his opening statement on the nationwide reaction to the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25.
“George Floyd in death made us so much more aware that black lives matter,” said Engel, 73, a Bronx resident. “We can’t continue with business as usual in this country.”
Fink, 61, a Pelham Manor resident, called for leadership on the climate crisis, infrastructure and systemic racism, noting his 30 years advising state and local governments on infrastructure projects, and referenced his SEE Forward plan to address social, economic and environmental issues.
Yonkers resident Jamaal Bowman, 44, an African American educator, talked about neglect of minority communities, and his personal experience with police brutality at age 11. Bowman is the founder and principal of Cornerstone Academy for Social Action (CASA), a Bronx middle school.
Ravelo, a 50-year-old retired New York City police lieutenant who lives in New Rochelle, also took up minority neighborhoods, calling for increased housing subsidies and an infrastructure bill to bring back jobs. He repeated his remarks in Spanish.
The LWVW’s first question, about election reform and voting rights legislation, prompted Ravelo, Engel and Bowman to decry foreign interference. All four candidates want easier, safer voting, achieved through paper ballots, automatic registration at 18, and early and absentee voting. Bowman also would hold social media accountable for allowing foreign entities to extract user data. Fink wants Election Day to be a federal holiday.
Each candidate was then asked how he’d address issues of social and racial inequality.
Bowman replied that underserved communities need more investment in schools, housing and jobs, and noted that during the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created jobs for the unemployed.
“Our district is an example of inequality,” Ravelo pointed out. “We have the super-rich in Scarsdale, and low-income housing in the Bronx.” He advocated for a $15 minimum wage and increasing taxes on the “super-rich.”
Fink stated bluntly, “Equal opportunity was never a reality in the U.S., unless you were a white man.” He said that as a parent of four white children and one black child, “the conversation I have with my black child is different from the conversation with my white children, and that shouldn’t be.” He proposed hate crime legislation targeting police using unreasonable or excessive force.
All the candidates vowed to repeal the $10,000 cap on the state and local property tax deduction (SALT) for homeowners, passed as part of the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.”
Immigration policy was most salient for Ravelo, who left the Dominican Republic in 1984 at age 16 to join his mother in the Bronx, achieving citizenship in 1988.
“We have people who have lived here their entire lives, and there’s no legal status for them,” he said. “I champion DACA immigrants because of my own personal story. The hardest workers are the illegal community. They’re doing jobs nobody else wants to do.”
There was agreement among the candidates on abolishing ICE, defunding the border wall, ending family separations and creating a path to citizenship for “Dreamers.”
Fink noted that the current ban on Muslim travelers is also racist, and said U.S. border security should target criminals, not families. Bowman proposed a “21st Century Marshall Plan” for Latin American countries.
Engel described visiting the U.S.-Mexico border with a camera and documenting the sight of children in cages, “so they [the Administration] can’t lie and say the cage wasn’t there.”
The candidates repeatedly expressed the need for improving infrastructure, training displaced workers and creating long-term jobs. Fink added that his professional work developing non-fossil-fuel energy plants gave him experience in creating jobs.
Regarding health care policy, Bowman backs Medicare for All. Fink specified that those who are satisfied with their private insurance should be able to keep it; he and Ravelo, who favors a public option built upon the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), mentioned the dilemma of the unemployed whose health insurance was tied to their jobs.
Engel replied that Democrats don’t have enough votes in Congress to pass alternatives to current health care, but stated, “We need to make this an all-out battle… we need a whole new structure, not just patchwork like we’ve been doing decade after decade after decade.”
Asked about remedying pay inequity and other bias against women, Engel suggested forming a new panel to find ways to ameliorate the situation.
Bowman wants a federal policy assuring equitable pay and imposing penalties on CEOs and corporations that violate the policy; Ravelo called for “a federal bill that has teeth.”
Ravelo’s closing statement, delivered in English and in Spanish, was, “We have a clear choice: continue with business as usual, or elect a leader that can get things done.”
Bowman again called for investment in education, the environment, housing and job training, saying his vision would move the district forward.
Fink affirmed, “We’re not that different on a lot of these issues… The climate crisis is my No. 1 issue. If we don’t get that right, we’re doing everything wrong,” and added with humor, “I love the fact that you all support the Green New Deal — that means you think I should be the one elected.”
In Engel’s closing statement he referred to himself as “a hometown boy,” and recited some of his congressional responsibilities, including chairing the House Foreign Relations Committee. “No problem is too big or too small to help you … It’s an honor to do the job,” he concluded.
Video of the forum is available online at lwvw.org.