Last Saturday afternoon, I drove out to a well-kept Washington suburb, where the coronavirus had closed the local farm stand but flower planters were on display outside the hardware store. Down the road is a modest brick house with a silver Chrysler in the driveway, New York plates, with a novelty THE BRONX license plate propped up in the back window.
Inside was Eliot Engel, the Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He represents the Bronx and Westchester, including the town of New Rochelle, which was the epicenter of the original outbreak in New York.
A member of Congress since 1989, Engel is facing his first serious primary challenge in years, in a district next door to the one where Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated another longtime incumbent in a primary two years ago. Yet Engel hasn’t been in his district since at least the end of March, according to his communications director, Bryant Daniels. The congressman himself told me that he has been in New York, after I covered my nose and mouth and rang his doorbell in Potomac, Maryland.
“I’m in both places,” Engel said.
“You are?” I asked.
“I sure am,” he said.
“You’ve been quarantined in both places?”
Daniels later told me, “He’s remained in Washington since passage of the CARES Act.” The CARES Act passed on March 27. When I pressed for when Engel was last in the district, Daniels stopped responding.
Few congressional districts in America have seen more COVID-19 infections and deaths than Engel’s, and outside of Washington State, no district has been dealing with the response for as long—Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on March 3 that a lawyer who lived in the suburbs of New Rochelle had become the state’s first recorded case, and by then, the man was in a medically induced coma. A hotspot was declared. A containment zone was set up. Engel was not there.
The House has been in session for only a few hours since the pandemic hit—for the CARES Act vote on March 27, and another vote on April 23. It is expected to come back into session soon, though exactly when is not clear. And although many Americans are avoiding travel during the pandemic for health reasons, most members of Congress have been making brief visits to Washington—whether that has involved driving for hundreds of miles, or taking flights in face masks. Grace Meng, who represents a nearby district in Queens, told me in an interview for The Ticket in March that she’d reluctantly flown back and forth to Washington on the same day to vote on the last COVID-19 relief bill. Lawmakers shuttle back and forth between their districts and D.C. because they have responsibilities in both places—and because they know that during campaign season, residency issues can become liabilities. Even the powerhouse Republican Senator Richard Lugar lost his 2012 primary after news broke that he no longer had a home in Indiana.
So most of Engel’s House colleagues have spent most of their time living among their constituents, experiencing the panic and confusion and boredom alongside the people they represent. Many of them, like other elected officials around the country, have transformed their offices into community help centers, and thrown themselves into makeshift social-work efforts. That includes several who are close in age to Engel, who is 73, and is therefore considered high-risk.
“We have done food giveaways, sanitizer giveaways, mask giveaways. We have been trying to deal with the needs of our community quite a bit. It’s been good, as far as trying to help our constituents,” says Michael Benedetto, a 72-year-old state assemblyman who represents part of Engel’s district and has endorsed him for reelection. When I asked Benedetto about Engel’s presence, he told me, “I can’t say I’ve seen the congressman. I don’t keep track of when I see all my representatives. When we see them, we see them.”
Last week, Engel’s office advertised that he would be part of two such events. He wasn’t. I asked Engel about one notice I’d seen on his campaign’s Twitter account: an announcement that “Congressman Engel will be joining” other officials for a face-mask giveaway at the city hall in Mount Vernon, New York, on the afternoon of May 8, the day before I showed up at his door.
“Which event?” he asked.
“They were handing out face masks in the district,” I said.
“I was part of that,” he said.
“But you weren’t there?” I said.
“I was not there, no,” he said.
Daniels suggested to me that other committee chairs stayed in D.C. after the CARES Act passed. But I checked, and Engel is the only committee chair in the New York delegation who has remained in Washington the entire time since that vote. Jerry Nadler, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, has been in his district, in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Carolyn Maloney, who chairs the Oversight Committee, has been in her district, in Manhattan and Queens. Nydia Velazquez, who chairs the Small Business Committee, has been in her Brooklyn district—and after recovering from COVID-19 herself, delivered personal protective equipment to others. Nita Lowey, who represents a district next to Engel’s and chairs the Appropriations Committee, has been in Westchester and Rockland Counties. Other members of the New York delegation who are not chairs have been back home as well, doing their committee work remotely and abiding by social-distancing rules.
Engel has four primary challengers. The one who’s attracted the most national attention, a local middle-school principal named Jamaal Bowman, has been appearing at some events in the district and calling in to others via videoconference, as he and other candidates across the state try to wage campaigns ahead of the June 23 vote.
Several local elected officials in New York privately expressed surprise that Engel has not been in the district.
Engel and his staff say that his reasons for staying in Potomac are all work-related. Daniels defended his decision to stay in the Maryland home where he has long spent most of his time—for years, he identified it as his “primary residence” for tax purposes, until the state told him to stop in 2013.
“Being in Washington,” Daniels told me, “also allows him to have access to classified facilities and sign subpoenas, which require his actual signature.” He said that the notices advertising Engel’s participation in events were wrong, and he hadn’t been scheduled to attend.
“There have been a lot of public Teams/Zoom/conference calls in addition to teleconferences with other elected officials, hospital workers, union members, etc. It’s hard to list them all,” Daniels said in an email. He added in a subsequent message, “There are shelter in place orders across the east coast; everyone should be doing what they can to stay indoors. Do you find it problematic that the chairman is not out taking photo-ops during a global pandemic?”
“The work being done on behalf of his constituents is what counts and to that end Mr. Engel has been very effective,” Daniels said, noting that staff members were helping “hundreds of people with [Paycheck Protection Program] applications, stimulus checks, and unemployment benefits.”
State Senator Jamaal Bailey, whose district also overlaps with the congressman’s, tweeted last week that he had been “joined by” Engel at a food giveaway in New York’s Co-Op City. When I pointed out that in fact Engel had not joined him, Bailey told me that he meant some of the congressman’s aides had been there, and that he hadn’t seen Engel in person since the pandemic hit. (Engel’s office did not respond when I asked why he felt comfortable sending staff out to events that he didn’t attend himself.)
Bailey said he appreciated the help that Engel has been providing remotely in helping understand what kind of resources are available from the federal government.
It wouldn’t make a difference to have the congressman there in person? I asked.
“I can’t say it doesn’t make a difference,” Bailey said, “but he’s able to do his work on a Zoom, telephonically, where we’re in a new age.”