An interview with Pat Engel, President of the Congressional Club in Washington DC
By Ruben Avxhiu
Most people in our Albanian-American community know Patricia Engel only as the wife of US Congressman Eliot Engel. What is less known is her work as the President of the Congressional Club in Washington DC. An organization in which hundreds of spouses of US Senators and House members participate and which has become a force in its own in Washington DC.
Pat, as most of her friends call her, has just returned from her first trip to Kosova and the Balkans was kind enough to share some of her impressions from her visit and to talk about her work and life in the capital during an interview with Illyria newspaper.
She spoke also about the current political situation in America, the expectations for 2020, and her favorite candidate among those running in the Democratic Party primary.
Maybe it is my impression and correct me if I am wrong, but we have gotten to see much more of you in the last decade. You are more present in rallies, events, and meetings of the community. What has changed?
Your observation is exactly correct! Now that our three children are grown adults, and I have retired from working outside of the home, I have been able to participate more, as I once did before the children came along.
It has certainly been a pleasure having you in our community events. It was a highlight when you were honored last year by the Albanian American Women Organization. You made a great speech and we learned that Kosova was a dear household name for everyone in your family, not just for Congressman Engel. This is not necessarily common with the families of members of US Congress. How strong is the connection in your family with Kosova and the Albanians in general?
Thank you. It was quite an honor to receive an award from the Albanian American Women’s Organization.
May I say, as one who became aware of the awful atrocities happening to Kosovars, I became very concerned about the Albanian people. At that point, the children were made aware of the terrible ways humans mistreat others. As my husband’s work and involvement increased, the children and I became more knowledgeable and more concerned about the Albanian families.
We also are very fortunate to have some very special Albanian friends in America (especially the Bronx and Westchester) and in Kosova.
This has given all of us insights into the culture, traditions and values of Albanian people everywhere. This community has very rich traditions and values, and most importantly, close familial ties. As the country was established and elections were held, we stayed very tuned in to the formation and events in this very new nation.
I had no idea you were the President of the Congressional Club until Gena Bajrami told me. This is amazing. When were you elected and what are some of the activities that come with this title?
The Congressional Club, established in 1908, started as a social organization. As time, and wars and various needs of the community became apparent, the Club adjusted and began and continues to perform charitable events from packing bandages to Holiday parties to packing arts and crafts supplies for hospitalized children. It is also a place for newer and more experienced spouses to exchange ideas or discuss decisions to be made as the newer people adjust to this new Congressional life, which brings its own special set of circumstances to manage.
I was elected at the end of 2018 to a two-year term. A Republican will be the next President, as we take turns. We do things together that most of us don’t find time to do alone: tour museums, host authors and guest lecturers. And we get it done well before the kids get home from their school day 😉
Were you involved in the past with the Congressional Club?
Yes, but not as much because the children were younger, and I was working. So my participation was minimal, sporadic at best. However, I count myself fortunate to have made some good friends along the way.
Do all the spouses get involved sooner or later in this organization?
Yes, I think as life changes, each of the spouses becomes more or less involved. It depends on family needs and professional duties at certain moments in the life of a spouse. Each family is different; decisions are made with varying degrees of emphasis on each factor involved. The amount of time a spouse has may determine how involved he or she can be in the Club activities.
I assume the congressional club was initially made only of women. But now as the number of women who are elected to Congress increases, are men participating in the congressional club or is this remaining a “women club”? What is the dynamics there in this context?
Some of the male spouses attend events, mostly the bigger, more widely attended events. Our First VP is the spouse of a Senator from West Virginia. He is a valuable part of the Club and participates as much as he can while he is still working full-time. His name is Charlie Capito; his spouse is Senator Shelley Moore Capito.
Charlie has been on the Board for about 4-5 years, and has excellent background experience that has been very helpful to the Club.
This one is more delicate. What happens in case of divorces or separations? Because the tie to the club is via their relationship to a member of Congress. I don’t mean to enter in the gossip lane here. The question remains the same about how the spouses cope when members of Congress resign, go to prison, or die suddenly…
There are rules about this in the Club’s by-laws. Spouses who are divorced from the elected spouse are encouraged to remain as members of the Club. This holds true for other reasons for a change in status. This is not a place where people are shunned or punished. It is a friendly, social place where members and close friends can comfort each other in difficult times and celebrate in happy times.
To what extent politics affects personal relationships of spouses or better their work relationship in the framework of the club?
Seldom if ever does the politics outside of the Club affect the relationships within the Club. Although I cannot tell my one incisive story to support this, it may be good for another time in the future. I can only assure you that even though things take place in public view, the relationships formed within the Club are much stronger than whatever is happening on the Hill or directly in public purview.
What are the options of socializing in the capital or in the suburbs there?
Most socializing for adults is done in or around the Capitol. Events on the Hill are either partisan or non-partisan. The options are plentiful.
Congressional families get to know each other this way, as well as with official international travel.
If you have younger school-aged children, there is some socializing among parents located in the suburbs, but it’s very minimal if your spouse is elected. It’s also a bit lonely to attend a post soccer practice pizza party without your spouse, but you get through it. At one time, I was President of the Parents’ Music Association because my daughter was in the orchestra.
Whatever the kids need, you do.
(Which goes back to a previous question. You didn’t see me because at least one parent has to stay home with the kids. They don’t raise themselves;)
You have been there a long time now, has life in the capital changed much from the time that you guys moved there? And if yes, in what ways?
Some things have changed. There are more good ethnic food restaurants; the supermarkets sell ethnic foods without putting it into the “gourmet” aisle. For the Jewish holidays, there is more availability of traditional food.
Also, divorce is no longer as shocking as it once was 😉
(I have a stories about friends who brought Italian ingredients to Potomac so I could make tomato sauce. We have another dear friend, Harry Bajraktari, who sends a “care package” of wonderful groceries from Arthur Avenue for the holidays so I can make a decent tomato sauce!)
Eliot Engel was elected this year as Chairman of the Committee of Foreign Affairs, which ranks him among the legislative greats of our modern time. Unless, he plans to become Speaker one day or run for President, this is the peak of his career. Has all this changed anything in your life?
Oh yes it certainly has! We are both much busier than ever. Especially Eliot! And remember, constituents at home need to see him as well.
So, there is much more work to do, and many more people to see. So far, it’s been going well, but my husband’s days are much longer than they used to be. From my perspective as a wife and mother, it’s a very good thing our kids are grown and living on their own. And I always ask my husband if he’s doing well, and I “nag” him to come home early- before 10 or 11pm.
Washington changes with every administration, yet it remains somehow the same. However, as almost everyone admits there has never been in the modern time a President like Trump and the partisan’s divisions has never been deeper. Do you perceive his election as an accident of history or are we entering a new epoch?
I prefer to think of this, or I hope this is a temporary aberration in American political history that the American electorate will see fit to change in November 2020.
What will happen in 2020?
After the election of 2016, I no longer prognosticate. I just remain hopeful that Democrats will be able to make the case well enough to win in 2020. We need to bring our country back on track, to be friends with our allies again, and to treat our adversaries with respectful discretion.
Do you have a preference among the candidates in the Democratic Party presidential primary and why?
I do have a preference. However, my husband is the elected official in our family and he has not made any endorsement as yet. So, for the moment, my preference will wait until we get closer to the Primary Days in 2020.
What would be the qualities that the Democratic candidate should have?
I would like someone well balanced, calm, with a good awareness of history, a sense of fairness and respect for the law, all qualities that belong in America’s Oval Office.
A good Democratic candidate will have experience, compassion, knowledge of history, and a comfortable relationship with leadership of America’s closest allies. (From that, you may be able to guess my favorite?)
It seems to me that despite the three decades in DC, you guys remain lifelong New Yorkers. What is your relationship with New York?
To me, there is nothing like New York! Except for my birth in Teaneck, New Jersey, and my long detour in the Washington suburbs,
I have never lived anywhere else!
New York is home; my family is here; my best friends are here; it’s just home.
I’ve been to visit other amazing places, but there is nothing like coming home to New York City!
I think we passed our love for our New York City to our children who, one by one, returned to live in New York!
We Engels Love New York!
You traveled with the Congressman in his last trip to Kosova, Albania, and the region. What are your impressions from this trip?
The trip to the Balkans this July was wonderful! It was great to meet so many Albanians and Kosovars. When people learned it was my first time to visit, they were even more welcoming and hospitable. The people of Kosova are that country ‘s biggest asset! I’m already looking forward to the next trip!
Are we going to see you again in future Albanian community events
here in New York?
Of course, whenever I can! And it will be my pleasure to be there!
Furthermore, did you know there is a new Albanian restaurant in Little Italy called Cka Ka Qellu on Hughes Avenue, and it is my intention to go back there to eat as many times as I can. I know this, thanks to my friend Gena Morina! The tastes and aromas of the cooking bring me back to Kosova, right here in the Bronx!