In a district covering parts of The Bronx and the suburbs north of New York City, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Eliot Engel is facing the toughest primary of his 15-term career. The congressman came into the race with a low level of support from Democrats in the district according to a September 2019 poll, and he has recently faced criticism for his absence from the district as the coronavirus hit and for an incident in which he was overheard saying he would not care about speaking at a rally against police brutality if he did not have a primary.
Meanwhile, Democratic officials in the region who won their seats by ousting powerful incumbents have recently endorsed Engels’ opponent, middle-school principal Jamaal Bowman. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) endorsed Bowman on June 3, writing on Twitter that “this moment requires renewed and revitalized leadership,” and State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, who defeated the leader of the GOP-caucusing Independent Democratic Conference in 2018, withdrew her endorsement for Engel to endorse Bowman on June 5.
To give Engel a boost, two recently formed “dark money” groups have begun spending on ads and mailers supporting his reelection. A nonprofit called Perise Practical Inc. has spent $180,000 on digital ads, including Facebook ads that according to the social media site’s Ad Library have reached as many as 2.1 million people in New York. Several of the ads highlight Engel’s support for Medicare for All. Another nonprofit called Avacy Initiatives Inc. has spent $79,600 on mailers supporting Engel. Perise Practical’s spending was reported first on Twitter by Democratic Policy Center, a progressive nonprofit.
Perise Practical Inc. and Avacy Initiatives Inc. were both incorporated in Delaware on December 20, 2019, and neither have yet to file disclosures with the Internal Revenue Service. The only information on Perise Practical’s website is a statement that says, “we believe in and are fighting for affordable healthcare, equality, voting rights, and a better future for everyone.”
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Nonprofits are not required to disclose their donors, so Perise Practical and Avacy Initiative can spend money to promote Engel and influence elections while maintaining a level of secrecy not afforded to political campaigns and super PACs.
To produce and distribute the ads and mailers, Perise Practical and Avancy Initiatives have employed Red Mountain Media, a company established in North Carolina in February that does not have any other federal political clients, according to FEC data.
The FEC disclosures filed by Avacy Initiatives and Perise Practical are signed by David Krone, a former chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). In December 2019, Krone praised an executive order from President Trump enabling the government to withhold funds from universities that do not tamp down on Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) efforts against Israel on their campuses.
Sludge asked the Engel campaign if it was concerned about dark money impacting the race and if it would call for the groups to cease spending money on its behalf. The campaign’s spokesperson, Tom Watson, said the campaign would call for Perise Practical and Avacy Initiatives to cease their spending if the Bowman campaign first called for outside groups backing them to stop their spending.
“If Mr. Bowman demands that outside groups who are hiding their funders immediately halt their massive spending on inaccurate negative advertising against his progressive Democratic opponent in the Bronx and Westchester, the Engel campaign would certainly join him in such an ethical call for change,” Watson said.
Justice Democrats, a national progressive group with thousands of grassroots donors, has spent $280,000 on television ads that criticize Engel for being absent from his district amid the coronavirus. The group will not be required to disclose who donated to the account that was used to finance the ads until after the June 23 primary. According to a report from HuffPost, the Working Families Party is also planning to spend money backing Bowman.
The Bowman campaign told Sludge that the outside groups supporting Bowman are not comparable to Engel’s donors.
“Comparing Eliot Engel’s major support from corporate PACs and weapons manufacturers to the outside efforts of grassroots progressive organizations is desperate and insulting to voters,” said Luke Hayes, Bowman’s campaign manager. “If Engel spent more time in the district, perhaps he’d know that voters are smarter than this.”
Justice Democrats and Working Families Party did not respond to requests for comment.
In addition to the dark money groups, Engel has recently been supported by $112,000 spent by Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), a super PAC, on phone-banking and mailers. The group is closely affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which helps to fund the group by counting donations to DMFI as AIPAC donations for purposes of accruing benefits like closer access to members of Congress, according to a report from The Intercept.
As chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which oversees arms controls and exports, Engel’s hawkish foreign policy positions are to the right of most Democrats. He urged Congress defund the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in 2006, co-sponsored the Anti-Israel Boycott Act in 2017, which prohibits U.S. companies from joining boycotts of Israel called for by international organizations like the United Nations, and in 2018 backed President Trump’s decision to move the Israeli embassy to Jerusalem.
Corporate PACs that have donated to Engel this election cycle include those affiliated with major defense contractors like Lockheed Martin ($5,000), Northrop Grumman ($7,500), and Raytheon ($7,000).
“The average donation to our campaign is just $40, and we’re proud not to take a dime from corporate PACs or lobbyists,” Hayes told Sludge. “In contrast, less than 3% of Eliot Engel’s donations are from small-dollar donors. We understand why that scares Rep. Engel.”
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