Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel caught on hot mic amid unrest: 'If I didn't have a primary, I wouldn't care'

Rep. Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat facing a tough primary challenge and questions about his absence from his district, was caught on a hot mic at a district event responding to unrest saying twice that he only wanted press coverage because of an electoral threat.

“If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care,” Engel said to Ruben Diaz Jr., the Bronx borough president, at a Tuesday press conference responding to unrest and vandalism in his district related to the recent death of George Floyd.

Diaz worried about having too many elected officials speak, but Engel pleaded with him for coverage.

“I cannot have all the electeds talk because we will never get out of here,” Diaz said.

The moment was captured on a hot mic by a local television station and quickly went viral in a tweet that has nearly 1 million views as of Tuesday evening.

It comes as Engel has faced his toughest primary since being elected to Congress in 1988. He represents New York’s 16th Congressional District, which includes portions of the Bronx and Westchester as well as Mount Vernon, Yonkers and New Rochelle, which was one of the epicenters of the COVID-19 outbreak. Engel has faced growing criticism about his lack of presence in his district, particularly since the beginning of the pandemic, and now given the demonstrations and vandalism in his district.

Engel explained his comments in a statement to NBC News on Tuesday.

“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,” he said. “Of course I care deeply about what's happening in this country, that's what I wanted to convey. 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.”

After the hit mic moment surfaced, one of Engel’s main Democratic challengers, Jamaal Bowman sharply criticized Engel, saying in a tweet, and later in a statement, it was “incredibly painful to watch.”

“This is so incredibly painful to watch fromRep. Eliot Engel,” Bowman said. “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 inNY-16.”

His other primary challengers also criticized him. Sammy Ravelo, a retired NYPD lieutenant, called Engel's comments a "dereliction of duty." Chris Fink, a lawyer, called it opportunism.

LEAP Forward, a New York-based gun safety organization, also rescinded its endorsement on Engel on Tuesday.

“Police reform is one of the central issues LEAP Forward tracks and grades candidates and lawmakers on,” the organization said in a tweet. “Voting records are fine, but to make necessary reforms we need leaders leading EVERY DAY.”

New York's primary is scheduled for June 23.