A Rumble in the Bronx


The contest for power between six-term congressman Eliot Engel and State Senator Larry Seabrook in the Bronx’s 17th Congressional District took a moral nosedive last week, becoming one of the nastiest and most racially charged in this year’s primary season.

The most recent feud between the Bronx elected officials began in early June after Bronx Democratic county leader Roberto Ramirez’s controversial decision to endorse Seabrook, an African American insurgent, over Eliot Engel, the Jewish incumbent. But this electoral battle began years before. “[The war] started in 1994 when they were doing reapportionment,” says Seabrook. “At the time, we were fighting to ensure that there would be a congressional seat. I was very active in saying that there needed to be more minority representation. Some people urged me to run against him then.”

“He has been attacking me and using racial code words like lazy, and with these words he has exemplified real racial profiling.”

Seabrook labeled Engel’s actions in the campaign as extremely negative. “Desperate men do desperate things,” says Seabrook. “He injected [race baiting] when he sent out the first racially coded message in his second piece of literature.

“He has been attacking me and using racial code words like lazy, and with these words he has exemplified real racial profiling.”

Ramirez says: “The problem here is that you have a well-heeled incumbent who’s been in Congress for 12 years . . . and can only point to three pieces of insignificant legislation as an accomplishment; [he’s done] nothing on welfare reform, homelessness, housing, or immigration. All he can do is hope to win by destroying Seabrook’s campaign.”

Al Sharpton, who has publicly vowed to devote more time to Seabrook’s campaign, accuses Engel of “throwing mud” by exposing the senator’s sealed divorce records, which prompted allegations of tax fraud and fresh skepticism about his candidacy. Sharpton calls Engel’s tactics an “outrage,” comparing them to the mayor’s handling of the Dorismond case.

“Whether people want to say this latest action was low or not, it’s part of American politics,” says well-known Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf. “It is obvious that someone hired an opposition researcher to get this information. [It is the] custom for opposition researchers to be hired to dig up dirt.”

Sheinkopf also derides the idea that Seabrook had taken the high ground in the election by having sent out only one piece of campaign literature so far. “Seabrook has no money,” he says. “That’s the issue.” Engel’s campaign coffers are nearly triple Seabrook’s.

“It’s no secret that negative campaigning works,” says a high-ranking Democratic official about the barrage of literature Engel has mailed describing Seabrook’s purportedly abysmal legislative attendance record and connection to the North East Bronx Redevelopment Organization, which was under federal investigation for possible misappropriation of funds for youth programs. “The real question is, where is the rank and file in this race? Is the Bronx county organization going to provide the muscle for Seabrook’s campaign? The battle is going to come down to who can win votes in Co-op City and Mount Vernon,” both areas with records of large voter turnouts.

Assemblyman Keith Wright, who has lent his support to the Seabrook campaign, says that Seabrook may pull off a win similar to his 1984 victory against Vincent Marchiselli in the 82nd Assembly District. “If Seabrook can turn out his theoretical base—because we are talking about a lot of folks that have not voted for him before—he could win,” says Wright. “But it can’t be won unless he forges a real coalition between blacks and Latinos.”

On the face of it, this coalition has already formed. So far, an impressive assemblage of African American, Latino, and Jewish leaders have come out in support of Seabrook. These include Assemblyman Ruben Diaz Jr., State Senator Efrain Gonzalez, Councilman Wendell Foster, Assemblyman Stephen Kaufman, Assemblywoman Gloria Davis, Assemblyman Jose Rivera, and of course, Roberto Ramirez.

“Political support is valuable only in the following ways: Are they out on the streets with him? Are they knocking doors with him? Are they holding rallies for him? Are they turning their own operative screws for him? Or, are they standing there giving lip service?” says Sheinkopf, who pointed to the Bronx Democratic organization as being key to churning out a victory for Seabrook.

However, in a recent interview, Ramirez avoided making concrete promises of providing organizational muscle to Seabrook’s campaign. He said instead that it was ultimately up to Seabrook to get out the volunteers and generate the numbers to beat Engel in the primary. “Mr. Engel has lost the trust and support of the officials he was supposed to work with. At the end of the day, if he wins, I’ve got to tell you that the day I decided not to support his candidacy, I won.”

Eliot Engel did not return Voice calls to answer questions about the current campaign or his congressional record, residency status, or campaign finances.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 5, 2000

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