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Rep. Engel is criticized for hot-microphone comment at news conference on protests

Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) in 2019.
Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) in 2019. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) drew criticism Tuesday after he repeatedly asked to speak at a Bronx news conference on protests over the killing of George Floyd, then said near a live microphone, “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.”

Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is serving his 16th term in the House. He is facing a competitive June 23 primary, and his leading challenger, middle-school principal Jamaal Bowman, cited the statement as a sign that it’s time for Engel to leave Congress.

“This is so incredibly painful to watch from @RepEliotEngel,” Bowman tweeted. “It hurts. We need to be taking care of our communities right now — whether it’s election season or not. It’s clear that we need new leadership in #NY16.”

Engel clarified his remarks Tuesday afternoon, saying in a statement that he had wanted to convey that he cares “deeply about what’s happening in this country.”

“In the context of running for reelection, I thought it was important for people to know where I stand, that’s why I asked to speak,” Engel said. He added: “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.”

Engel made the microphone comment at a news conference led by Bronx borough president Rubén Díaz Jr. and other officials in response to the nationwide protests over the killing of Floyd. The 46-year-old black man died while in Minneapolis police custody last month.

According to footage posted online by a reporter for local television station NY1, Engel twice asked Díaz for a turn to speak at the event. Díaz appeared to rebuff Engel, telling him that there were too many others who would then want a turn at the microphone.

“Then I’ve got to then go down the list, and there’s just too many folks here,” Díaz said.

Engel twice responded by saying, “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.”

“Don’t do that to me,” Díaz said in reply.

Bowman has the backing of the Justice Democrats, a political committee that has backed liberal insurgents such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). On Monday, Bowman also received a boost when one of the other Democrats running against Engel, special-education teacher Andom Ghebreghiorgis, withdrew from the race and endorsed Bowman’s campaign.

Republicans also criticized Engel over his remarks Tuesday, even though no GOP candidates are running in the race.

“While Democrat Rep. Eliot L. Engel may have been whispering, his disgusting message was loud and clear,” Steve Guest, director of rapid response for the Republican National Committee, said in a statement. “As looting and rioting ravages New York City, Rep. Engel is only thinking of his political future.”

David Weigel contributed to this report.