Rep. Jamaal Bowman is poised to face a serious Democratic primary challenge in his bid for a third term next year. | Francis Chung/POLITICO
ALBANY, New York — The battle over the Israel-Hamas war has divided Democrats across the country. Now the tension is set to be on display in a suburban New York House seat.
Westchester County Executive George Latimer will launch a challenge against Rep. Jamaal Bowman on Wednesday in a district with one of the nation’s largest Jewish populations. Latimer is staunchly pro-Israel, and Bowman, a member of the liberal Squad, has largely supported pro-Palestinian stances.
With pro-Israel groups looking to back Latimer, the race is likely to become one of the country’s top battlegrounds for Democratic angst over how full-throated the party’s support for Israel should be.
“Rather than standing with President Biden and the overwhelming pro-Israel Democratic majority, Representative Bowman has aligned with the anti-Israel extremist fringe,” AIPAC spokesperson Marshall Wittmann said Tuesday. “Democrats in this district deserve a representative who stands by the mainstream view, which supports the US-Israel relationship.”
The state’s organized left is not taking the challenge lightly.
As Latimer plans run — he filed paperwork Monday to start raising money for a campaign — supporters, including fellow Squad member Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the Working Families Party have rolled out a series of early Bowman endorsements.
“It would be a tremendous loss to lose the voice of someone so grounded and so unique in Congress,” state WFP co-director Ana Maria Archila said of Bowman. “There aren’t many people like Bowman who grew up in public housing, who are the children of postal workers, who spent their adult life as teachers and principals, and who actually represent the experiences of working class people because they’ve lived those experiences.”
Latimer will be the most formidable primary challenger against an incumbent member of Congress in New York in modern history. He has been elevated to higher office four times since he was elected to Rye’s City Council in 1987, racking up an 18-0 record while repeatedly running against some of the state’s best-funded Republicans.
And while it’s rare for New York’s party establishment to openly embrace primary challenges against incumbents, Latimer should have strong support from top local Democrats throughout the region.
“If George runs, I will be with him from day one,” said Assemblymember Amy Paulin (D-Scarsdale). “I will be among many.”
He’s also poised to receive the backing of local and national Jewish leaders, who are already criticizing Bowman’s stances on Israel.
AIPAC, for instance, cited a long list of actions outside of the party’s mainline on Israel, including Bowman’s boycott of President Isaac Herzog’s speech to Congress over the summer.
Latimer toured Israel last week, just days before he filed with the FEC.
In an interview with POLITICO when wrapping up that trip, the county executive shared his views on the ongoing hostilities in the region. They were markedly different from those expressed by Bowman, who has been a leading advocate for a ceasefire in recent months.
“You can’t take hostages, keep them, then say ‘OK, let’s negotiate now, let’s be nice, let’s have peace now,’” Latimer said. “It just seems logical to me the first thing you’ve got to do is release hostages.”
Latimer said that Israel would be a “big issue” but “not the whole issue” in a race. He said a run will largely focus on his record of progressive accomplishments.
And he would focus on his willingness to do the kind of “grunt work” that can get bills passed. He would attempt to present himself as a more serious alternative than Bowman — who received a misdemeanor charge for pulling a fire alarm in the Capitol before an October budget vote.
But even if Latimer doesn’t plan to make Israel the main focus of his messaging, it’s clear that others will.
Bowman is already warning of massive AIPAC spending campaign next year.
“Jamaal was one of the first representatives to support a ceasefire,” a Facebook ad from the Bowman campaign that began running on Monday says. “But because of his calls for peace, AIPAC is flooding his district with nasty attack ads. Chip in to keep Jamaal in office, defending our values and pushing to save lives.”
On Tuesday, Bowman deferred comment on the looming race to his campaign, which has not responded to a request for comment.
Bowman is in his second term after defeating longtime Rep. Eliot Engel in 2020 and seemed to solidify his control of the seat when he was handily reelected two years later.
But he started facing more headwinds in recent months for his lack of vigorous support for Israel, and the fire alarm incident didn’t help his standing.
Bowman will also likely be attacked for an issue similar to one that helped him win in 2020 — Engel’s decision to spend more time in Washington than in the district.
“Jamaal Bowman does not represent the congressional district,” Paulin said. “He’s rarely in it, except maybe his house. You never see him at events, you never see him doing anything. Repeatedly, constituents come over to me and talk about how his office does not return their calls.”
There’s also the complexity of redistricting if the state’s highest court orders drawing new lines.
Bowman’s district currently includes the northernmost tip of the Bronx and the southern half of Westchester County, including places like Yonkers, White Plains and New Rochelle.
But the lines could change in a bid to help Democrats farther north — where Republican first-term Rep. Mike Lawler is seeking a second term in 2024. An attempt to add more Democrats to Lawler’s district could result in the addition of towns in places like northern Westchester to the Bowman district, which would have the effect of making it a bit more moderate.
Whatever the district looks like, it’s clear that issues surrounding Israel will be at the forefront.
“As the eighth-largest Jewish community in the country, it’s vital that Westchester has a congressperson who fully represents our interests to the U.S. government,” said Rabbi Howard Goldsmith of Rye’s Congregation Emanu-El, who was one of 26 rabbis who publicly urged Latimer to run in October.
Emily Ngo and Katelyn Cordero contributed to this report.