“And it’s all over, baby blue.” – Bob Dylan
Eliot Engel used to be the congressman who would be first in line to get a good seat for the State of the Union address so he could shake the president’s hand. But those handshakes are now long over; Engel’s last job in Washington will be turning off the lights when he leaves his office for the final time later this year.
Engel last week conceded to Jamaal Bowman, a former middle-school teacher who challenged the longtime congressman in a Democratic primary in June. Engel’s political career started in the State Assembly in 1977 when Bowman was just a baby. For more than 30 years, Engel was a fixture in Congress, where he led the House’s Foreign Affairs Committee. But Bowman successfully challenged Engel by saying he was politically and physically out of his touch with his district, not even visiting it for weeks as the coronavirus raged.
Engel’s loss is proof positive that things are changing mightily in the Bronx and that the defeat of Congressman Joe Crowley at the hands of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018 was no fluke.
It also appears that retiring Congressman Jose Serrano will be succeeded by one of the most liberal aspirants for his job – City Councilman Ritchie Torres, who was born in 1988, just two years before Serrano started in Congress.
But the changing of the Bronx guard isn’t just happening in Washington – and it isn’t just generational. Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. surprised many in the New York political world when he decided not to pursue a likely run for mayor and instead said he’s quitting politics at the ripe old age of 47. The same goes for the 39-year-old leader of the Bronx Democrats, Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, who resigned from both posts last month.
While the Bronx is the epicenter, there’s a political sea change underway in New York that has every incumbent nervously looking over his or her left shoulder. It could be the end of the summer before Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney knows if she staved off challenger Suraj Patel. And it’s likely that as many as five local state lawmakers lost their primaries and won’t be returning to Albany – a place where forced retirements usually only come in the form of an indictment or a coffin.
Every election has a different story, and it’s dangerous to generalize, but it’s clear that the Trump White House is a shot of Adrenalin to the New Left, which is arguing that the Democratic Party hasn’t done a good enough job standing up to the GOP and its policies. It’s going to take more than a widely seen handshake with a president to keep your job. Just ask Eliot Engel.
Note: An earlier version of this column said that Marcos Crespo is stepping down from the Assembly and his chairmanship of the Bronx Democratic Party at the end of the year. He resigned both posts last month.