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Sen. Bernie Sanders backs Rep. Eliot Engel’s primary challenger Jamaal Bowman

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks to supporters during a rally on March 9, 2020 in St. Louis. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Tuesday backed Rep. Eliot L. Engel’s (D-N.Y.) leading primary challenger Jamaal Bowman, calling the former middle-school principal “someone we can trust to be a powerful advocate for a progressive agenda in Congress.”

The endorsement comes amid a wave of liberal support for Bowman, who last week was endorsed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

“Jamaal understands that low-income families are locked out of opportunity and a decent life due to a system that is rigged to benefit the wealthy,” Sanders said in a statement. “In Congress he will lead the fight for investing in our public schools, ending mass incarceration, and addressing the housing crisis.”

Bowman praised Sanders as “not just a leader of our party, but the leader of a movement” and called his endorsement “such a validation of the hard-work of our grassroots campaign.”

As the nation heads into the general election, a number of progressive candidates are trying to triumph in the primaries to ensure their movement remains alive. (Video: The Washington Post)

Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is serving his 16th term in the House. He has reported raising more than $1.6 million through March — about three times as much as Bowman — but is facing a spirited June 23 primary amid criticism that he has not spent enough time in the district.

Engel’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Last week, Engel generated headlines after he repeatedly asked to speak at a Bronx news conference on protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, then said near a live microphone, “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.”

Bowman cited the statement as a sign that it’s time for Engel to leave Congress. Engel sought to clarify his remarks later in the day, saying in a statement that he had wanted to convey that he cares “deeply about what’s happening in this country” while he seeks reelection.

The endorsements by Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez pit both lawmakers against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who last week voiced her support for Engel and noted that the longtime congressman “has a unique privilege” in that he is both chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

“That wouldn’t happen again — that’s a lot of power,” Pelosi said, praising Engel as a lawmaker who “does a great job for New York.”

Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez have a mixed record on endorsements this election cycle. One candidate they supported, business executive and activist Marie Newman, succeeded in her primary challenge against Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.). But another challenger they backed, Jessica Cisneros, lost in her bid against Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.), one of the most conservative members of the House Democratic Caucus.

John Wagner contributed to this report.

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