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Updated Jun 24, 2024, 8:02pm EDT
politics

A struggling Jamaal Bowman hopes to stave off a devastating loss for the left

REUTERS/Joy Malone
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The Scene

HASTINGS-ON-HUDSON, NY – On Friday afternoon, before he brought Bernie Sanders onstage at a riverside rally, Rep. Jamaal Bowman introduced the crowd to Mayor Nicola Armacost.

“When I got into office, she opened this municipality to me,” said Bowman. “What’s this, a village? A village! She opened this village to me.” He praised her courage, her experience, and her willingness to stand up to his challenger, Westchester County executive George Latimer.

“And that’s it,” Bowman said. “We ain’t got no more local endorsements.”

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David’s view

Elected in 2020 after ousting a longtime Democratic incumbent with a surge of progressive votes, Bowman is heading into Election Day on Tuesday as an out-spent underdog.

Just four years ago, he was part of a successful progressive strategy, kicked off by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her nearby Bronx district, to vault the left into greater political relevance. With the help of groups like Justice Democrats, activists targeted safe blue seats held by longtime moderates and recruited allied candidates to build a growing “Squad” in Congress. Momentum was on their side.

This year, the same movement is playing defense instead and Bowman’s race is seen as a potential turning point. The congressman and his allies describe his race as a test of whether the most expensive House primary in history — more than $21 million on Latimer’s behalf, $14.5 million of it from the pro-Israel group AIPAC’s super PAC — can break what the left spent years building.

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“It is one of the most significant elections in the modern history of this country,” said Sanders. “This election is about whether billionaire super PACs can buy our democracy.”

If Bowman wins this primary, he’ll have overcome nonstop negative ads, abandonment by some former supporters, and a turnout effort that’s driven out votes in Latimer’s best areas. If he loses — as no member of the extended Squad ever has — the progressive effort to humble AIPAC, which they’ve tried to define as a pro-Republican front group, will absorb a massive defeat.

No Democrat has made that argument as consistently and passionately as Bowman. According to him, Latimer is both an “anti-Black racist” and an “anti-Muslim racist.” The evidence: His tongue-tied comments about the “ethnic” advantage Bowman has with Black voters, and his comment that Bowman’s “constituency is Dearborn, Mich.,” not Westchester County. (Latimer has since explained that he was talking about Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American who represents Dearborn, raising money for Bowman.)

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“I’m an outspoken Black man,” Bowman said at the close of his final debate with Latimer, explaining why AIPAC had targeted him. “I fight against genocide in Gaza, and I fight for justice right here.” When I asked Bowman what he’d say to AIPAC if he won his race, a question I asked AIPAC target Dave Min a few months ago, Bowman said he wouldn’t call the group at all.

“I think the win will speak for itself,” said Bowman. “I think what we have to do is double down and continue to organize the grassroots, and labor, and the American people, to save and preserve our democracy.”

That worked in April, when Pennsylvania Rep. Summer Lee fended off a challenger who criticized her support for a ceasefire and accused her of being an anti-Biden chaos agent. AIPAC stayed out of that race, surmising that Lee couldn’t lose; Lee made moves to keep them out, backing out of an appearance at a Muslim event after learning that one speaker made positive comments about Oct. 7.

Pro-Israel groups focused on this race instead. Bowman spent most of it on his back heel, buffeted by negative stories that no one had written in 2020, and abandoned by some endorsers, like the progressive pro-Israel group J Street, over his louder criticism of Israel. He told Democratic Socialists of America that he now supported the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, reversing his 2020 position; he accused Latimer of supporting “genocide,” and called AIPAC a “Zionist regime.”

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Know More

The strategists at participating PACs are confident that they’ll beat Bowman, whose grasp on the 16th Congressional District was shaky before a dollar was spent this year. Two years ago, as an incumbent seeking his first re-election, Bowman won just 54% of the primary vote — a landslide in the small Bronx portion of the seat, and a weak performance in Westchester.

“The hatred against the congressman was just phenomenal,” said Brook Packard, a local who canvassed for Bowman that year in Rye, where Latimer lives. “People slammed the door in our face. They said they were disgusted with him and the Squad. It wasn’t so much that they loved his opponents. They were anti-Bowman.”

Over the next year, the anti-Bowman resistance mobilized. After Hamas’s attack on Israel, the congressman called for an immediate ceasefire and accused the country of peddling “propaganda,” telling a crowd that “there’s still no evidence of beheaded babies or raped women” — comments he’d retract months later as reports of sexual violence continued to emerge. Days before the 10/7 attack against Israel, Bowman was caught on camera pulling a House office fire alarm, which he called a mistake, generating what-was-he-thinking coverage back home that had nothing to do with Israel. He later pleaded guilty to a related charge and was censured on the House floor.

In January, shortly after Latimer entered the race, the county executive’s own polling showed him 10 points ahead of Bowman. Armacost, the mayor of a small, progressive village, stuck by Bowman; the mayor of Yonkers, Bowman’s home and the district’s biggest city, went for Latimer.

“AIPAC found a candidate that was willing to be bought,” said Ana María Archila, the co-director of New York’s Working Families Party, which has organized for Bowman in every race. “They haven’t been able to do that in other places.”

Since 2018, when veterans of Bernie Sanders’s first presidential bid began running progressive candidates in deep blue districts, they’d elected nine of them, from Rep. Ayanna Pressley in Boston to Rep. Greg Casar in Austin. In each race, the goal was to find a “compelling young leader that reflects the community,” as Justice Democrats co-founder Alexandra Rojas explained in 2019, replacing “an older career establishment politician that does not reflect the true diversity of that district.”

Bowman, a Black high school principal who’d never sought office before, epitomized what JD wanted. In 2020, he defeated Rep. Eliot Engel by 15 points, capitalizing on an awkward incident when the elderly congressman, who had hunkered down in his Maryland residence during COVID, pleaded for speaking time at a New York Black Lives Matter rally. “If I didn’t have a primary,” he explained, “I wouldn’t care.”

Latimer presented a different challenge — a well-liked name brand, with an electoral career in the district that he started when the 46-year old Bowman was in elementary school. Pro-Bowman media amplified his argument, that the county executive was a secret racist tasked with eliminating a Black member of Congress.

“He says I’ve taken money from Hamas,” Bowman told me. “He’s made outlandish comments about Emmett Till and Governor Cuomo. He’s taking money from a PAC which targets 85% people of color.”

In the race’s closing days, Bowman has honed that argument, asking if Westchester County really wants to oust its first Black congressman. On Saturday, when Sanders and Rep. Ocasio-Cortez rallied for Bowman in the Bronx, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said that the congressman’s enemies kept “putting this caricature on him, of an angry Black man.”

When he took the stage, Bowman rapped the first four bars of Wu Tang Clan’s “Triumph,” rolled up his shirtsleeves (“let me get the guns out”), hoisted a three-legged stool in the air, and called himself “the hip-hop congressman” who AIPAC was “scared to death” of.

“We’re gonna show fucking AIPAC the motherfucking power of the South Bronx,” said Bowman; the South Bronx is not in his district, but buses were ready to take volunteers north when it was over. “People ask me, why I got a foul mouth? What am I supposed to do? You comin’ after me. You comin’ after my family. You comin’ after my children. I’m not supposed to fight back?”

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The View From The Left

The bulk of the progressive movement, including Jewish Voices for Peace and organizations built by Sanders campaign veterans, is behind Bowman. They share his view that the race is an existential test of whether big money can remove their allies from Congress.

“Democrats always talk about how we don’t like Citizens United,” Sanders told Semafor. “I requested over a year ago, to Democratic leadership: Keep Super PACs out of Democratic primaries. That, they could have done.”

At the Bronx rally, where hundreds of progressives rallied under ruthless heat — two attendees fainted — Bowman volunteers worried that any victory for AIPAC would be seen as a warning to Democrats, that they could not criticize Israel and keep their seats.

“I am really worried about the far right and about the normalization of genocidal rhetoric in America,” said Genevieve Rand, a 27-year old trans woman who had taken a five-hour bus ride from Ithaca to canvass for Bowman. “This is the front line of that fight in this country right now.”

Others disagree. In 2020, at the height of what progressives called the George Floyd uprising, the left was united behind Bowman. This year, in addition to losing J Street, the Bronx rally was protested by drum-banging members of pro-Palestinian group Within Our Lifetime, who chanted that Bowman, Sanders, and Ocasio-Cortez were supporting “genocide” by supporting Joe Biden.

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The View From AIPAC

“Rep. Bowman’s scurrilous and shameful attacks won’t hide his record of aligning with the extremist, anti-Israel fringe,” said AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittman. “In contrast to his opponent, George Latimer is a pro-Israel progressive who stands with the Jewish state as it battles Iranian terrorist proxies.”

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Notable

  • In the Huffington Post, Daniel Marans looks at mistakes that cost Bowman some support before the spending started. “His shift away from an even-handed posture on Israel-Palestine toward a hard left-wing stance cost him some progressive Jewish support and motivated existing Jewish detractors to get more active in politics.”
  • In Jacobin, Branko Marcetic argues that Latimer’s own record, which could have been a political problem in the majority non-white district, “has largely escaped notice throughout the race.”
  • In New York, Jonathan Chait asks whether Bowman missed opportunities to reverse the trajectory of the race, such as Latimer’s promise not to raise taxes, which is at odds with the Biden agenda. “Despite making some efforts to exploit this wedge in their debate, Bowman has chosen instead to focus on AIPAC.”
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