If the polling is accurate, Rep. Jamaal Bowman is the heavy underdog in Tuesday’s Democratic primary for New York’s 16th Congressional District.

The topline story of the race is, understandably, pro-Israel groups’ record-breaking spending against Bowman, a passionate pro-Palestinian advocate who has dubbed Israel’s invasion of Gaza a “genocide.” Super PACs backing Bowman’s challenger, Westchester County Executive George Latimer, have outspent pro-Bowman super PACs on the airwaves by a 9-to-1 margin, helping make it the most expensive House primary in history. The independent spending arm of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee alone has spent $14.6 million on television, digital and direct-mail advertisements.

“They are so afraid of us — those who oppose the working class, multiracial, multieconomic, multicultural democracy that we are trying to build,” Bowman told volunteers getting ready to canvas the Bronx’s Co-Op City neighborhood on May 26. “They’re spending more money in this race than they have ever spent in the history of any race. That’s how afraid AIPAC is.”

It is impossible to predict the results of a counterfactual scenario where Bowman did not face this kind of spending. But while he would have undoubtedly fared better if he were not up against an avalanche of super PAC money, his problems predate the lopsided advertising blitz.

Bowman, 48, was trailing Latimer, 70, by 17 percentage points in early April, before advertising began, according to a poll commissioned by the Democratic Majority for Israel PAC, which is supporting Latimer. The mid-April internal poll released by Bowman’s campaign, by contrast, had him up by one percentage point.

The Latimer campaign’s own internal polling in January, reviewed by HuffPost, was somewhere in between those two surveys, showing the county executive ahead by 10 points. Latimer was also more popular according to their own polling, with 67% of district voters having a favorable view of him and just 12% having an unfavorable view, compared with 49% favorable and 38% unfavorable for Bowman. Bowman’s team, for its part, highlighted voter support for a cease-fire in the region as evidence that his positions remain popular. (Bowman called for a cease-fire on Oct. 16.)

Bowman’s support in the district, which includes a sliver of the northeastern Bronx and all of lower Westchester County — a mix of diverse working-class cities and leafy, affluent suburbs — has been tenuous from the moment he won in 2020. His vote against the bipartisan infrastructure bill in 2021 and his pulling of the fire alarm in Congress this past September further undermined his standing with many moderate-to-liberal Democrats. Following the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, 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.

“I was always having to be his defender. And I could no longer defend his behavior.”

– Danielle Tagger-Epstein, former Bowman supporter and donor

“I was always having to be his defender,” said Danielle Tagger-Epstein, chair of the Rye City Democratic Committee and a Bowman donor as recently as January 2023. “And I could no longer defend his behavior.”

Before Oct. 7, Tagger-Epstein had been frustrated with Bowman’s failure to follow through on her efforts to arrange conversations with her rabbi and other Jewish friends, as well as his July 2023 decision not to attend Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s speech to Congress. (Bowman cited Herzog’s failure to do more to protect Palestinian human rights; however, critics note that Herzog is a figurehead rather than a political leader.)

“After October 7, I couldn’t even look him in the face,” said Tagger-Epstein, who is also active in J Street, a liberal pro-Israel group.

All of those factors created an environment where Latimer, a 35-year veteran of suburban politics with a strong local base for support and a reputation as a detail-obsessed incrementalist, felt comfortable entering the race with AIPAC’s support. Before any money even hit the airwaves or mailboxes, the Latimer campaign and allied groups used a steady stream of opposition research about Bowman’s past and present views — standard fare in any campaign — to paint him as a radical activist rather than an effective lawmaker.

“He’s really his own worst enemy,” added a J Street activist who requested anonymity to protect their relationship with Bowman in the event of his victory. The voter, who sees AIPAC as bad for both U.S. political integrity and Israel’s long-term interests, lost patience with Bowman’s most anti-Israel comments and stances after defending the congressman to the person’s coreligionists for so many years.

“He created alliances that shouldn’t be created. I shouldn’t be allying with an AIPAC candidate,” the J Street activist said.

A New York Democratic strategist supportive of Bowman’s bid had a similar assessment.

“AIPAC was going to make a lot of noise regardless. He made it a lot easier. He became a bogeyman,” said the strategist, who asked for anonymity for professional reasons. “I’m upset that AIPAC is going to get wins this cycle from people who had already written their death sentences for lots of other reasons.”

Bowman speaks at a rally in November convened by left-wing Jews calling for a cease-fire in Israel's war in Gaza. He is up against Westchester County Executive George Latimer in Tuesday’s Democratic primary for New York’s 16th Congressional District.
Bowman speaks at a rally in November convened by left-wing Jews calling for a cease-fire in Israel’s war in Gaza. He is up against Westchester County Executive George Latimer in Tuesday’s Democratic primary for New York’s 16th Congressional District.

Celal Gunes/Anadolu/Getty Images

Out Of The Frying Pan And Into The Fire

Bowman, who was first elected in 2020, won reelection easily in 2022. But he benefited greatly from his opponents’ inability to unite behind a single challenger: Westchester County legislators Vedat Gashi and Catherine Parker, who both ran against him, split the anti-Bowman vote.

As a result, his margin of victory obscured the simmering frustration with him among registered Democrats. Bowman would only receive 54% of the total ballots cast.

It’s the kind of thin majority that might have served as a warning about the precariousness of his standing in the district.

But considerations of political self-interest on the topic of Israel were far from Bowman’s mind at the start of his second term. His trip to Israel in 2021 had actually made him less confident in Israeli leaders’ willingness to make the compromises necessary to create a Palestinian state, leading him to lean in to his pro-Palestinian convictions.

In addition to boycotting Herzog’s speech, Bowman co-sponsored Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s (D-Mich.) resolution recognizing the “nakba,” or catastrophe, the Palestinian term for the mass expulsion Jewish forces inflicted on them during the creation of Israel. The resolution rankled some local Jewish leaders because it endorsed a right of return for Palestinian refugees to Israel’s internationally recognized borders, which would make Jews a minority in Israel and which even its proponents admit would end Israel as a specifically “Jewish” state.

That was all before the current war. The Palestinian group Hamas’ deadly attack on Oct. 7 and Israel’s ferocious response in the eight months since have hardened views on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including for many in the United States. In Westchester County, where some 130,000 residents are Jewish — a little over one-tenth of the population, who comprise a relatively larger share of the Democratic primary electorate — the international situation has added volatility to an issue where Bowman already did not see eye to eye with many Jewish constituents.

On Oct. 7, the Hamas-led attack killed 1,100 Israelis, mostly civilians, and captured 250 hostages. For the broad mainstream of pro-Israel U.S. Jews, the impact of the day has been lasting and radicalizing, conjuring memories of anti-Jewish violence and persecution from the days of the Holocaust.

In response, Israel launched a military operation in Gaza, which has killed more than 37,000 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians; laid waste to the built infrastructure of the region, displacing almost all 2.1 million Gazans; and precipitated severe shortages of food and basic medical supplies. For progressives and other Americans sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, this has been a criminal war of annihilation — the capstone of decades of oppression, including ethnic cleansing in 1948, a military occupation of Palestinian lands since 1967 and a blockade of Gaza since 2007.

Bowman’s response to the violence was quick. He condemned Hamas’ “horrific attacks” in a written statement on Oct. 7, blasted an Oct. 8 pro-Palestine rally where participants praised the Hamas attack, and later castigated a local chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement for lionizing the Hamas assailants.

But he is decidedly among the contingent of people who have been pushed to the left by Israel’s response to Oct. 7.

Unlike when he ran in 2020 and 2022, there is now virtually no daylight between Bowman and the activist left on the topic of Palestine. In late October last year, Bowman declined to vote for a nonbinding resolution condemning Hamas on the grounds it failed to address “the urgent need for de-escalation” amid growing Palestinian civilian casualties. Speaking at a pro-Palestinian rally in White Plains, New York, in November, he even called allegations of sexual assault during the Hamas attack unsubstantiated “propaganda.” Bowman repudiated those claims in late March when a video of his comments emerged, but the quote has made it into AIPAC’s digital ads.

Bowman has also taken heat from some Jewish voters for what many see as a lack of emotional sensitivity. Although he attended a rally for the victims of Oct. 7 in Washington and has met with the families of Israeli hostages, Jewish constituents noticed Bowman’s absence at the numerous local community vigils for the Israeli dead and hostages following Oct. 7, even as he made impassioned appearances at pro-Palestine rallies.

For Diana Lovett, a mom and small business owner from New Rochelle, New York, who voted for Bowman in 2020 and held a fundraiser for him in 2022, his absence at the various local Oct. 7 vigils — there were events all over the district — was part of the reason why she began to lose faith in him.

“There were many missed moments to be in community with and in solidarity with the Jewish community,” she said.

Latimer, by contrast, was a featured speaker at the first vigil and brought the house down with his characterization of the fight against Hamas as a battle of good versus evil. Many attendees came up to him in tears afterward, according to multiple people who were present.

“There are many Jews like me who understand the legacy of the civil rights era and the importance of not letting AIPAC distort our democracy.”

– Howard Horowitz, Bowman supporter

Bowman’s team, however, said he was discouraged from attending. When he reached out to the Westchester Jewish Council about attending the first and largest community-wide vigil for victims of Oct. 7 at a synagogue in White Plains, the umbrella group’s CEO, Elliot Forchheimer, discouraged Bowman from attending, according to a senior Bowman aide, who requested anonymity to speak freely. Forchheimer informed Bowman that he would likely be the only federally elected official there, that it was unclear how he would be received and that it would likely be better for him to skip the event, the aide added.

Forchheimer did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the conversation.

“He got beaten up by the Jewish community so much when he was trying to work in good faith,” said a progressive Jewish Democrat now supporting Latimer, who requested anonymity to protect community relationships. “Just like they were hostile to him, he was getting more and more hostile to the community.”

But Bowman retains a significant core of support from progressive Jews affiliated with the left-wing group Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, which counts 500 members in the district, and Jewish Voice for Peace, a smaller group that is explicitly anti-Zionist. In early June, JFREJ’s Jews for Jamaal initiative turned out about 100 people for a bagels event in Hastings-on-Hudson, a village in Westchester County, before heading out to canvass the district.

These Jews see Bowman as a tribune of their Jewish commitment to social justice, from the advancement of Black civil rights to the protection of Palestinian human rights.

“There are many Jews like me who understand the legacy of the civil rights era and the importance of not letting AIPAC distort our democracy,” said Howard Horowitz, a Bowman supporter and retired marketing executive from New Rochelle who is active in Jewish Voice for Peace. “I’m concerned about the future of the Jewish community and about their values.”

Iris Arno, a former school board member and climate activist from Hastings-on-Hudson who is active in Jews for Jamaal, has been frustrated with the level of rancor she’s witnessed toward Bowman from other Jews. She has seen Bowman signs around town defaced, including one where an Israeli hostage poster was pasted over his face.

“Jamaal is unfairly called antisemitic. I would not support someone who is antisemitic,” she said. “He is faulted for calling for a cease-fire early on, calling for humanitarian aid and being against the Netanyahu government, which I think many Jews are, both here and in Israel.”

Former Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), whom Bowman ousted, was a domestic liberal and uncritical Israel supporter.
Former Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), whom Bowman ousted, was a domestic liberal and uncritical Israel supporter.

Caroline Brehman/Getty Images

Navigating An Uneasy Relationship

Bowman’s challenges with the mainstream Jewish community date to his upset election win in 2020, but relations with the constituency have deteriorated since then.

Then-Rep. Eliot Engel, the three-decade Jewish incumbent Bowman unseated in 2020, was broadly popular with the district’s Jewish community. As chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Engel was both a domestic liberal and a staunch AIPAC ally who supported Israel uncritically.

“Engel was terrific. And Bowman was — he was OK. He was more J Street,” said Carole Daman, a retired lawyer and AIPAC activist from New Rochelle who has never voted for Bowman but is mobilizing against him for the first time. “But then, as time has gone on, he’s gotten more affiliated with Rashida Tlaib.”

Bowman took the challenge of addressing Jewish mistrust seriously both before and after his 2020 win. With the support and advice of JFREJ and its political arm, the Jewish Vote, Bowman cultivated a progressive Jewish constituency during his first campaign. JFREJ pioneered an ad-hoc group, Jews for Jamaal, and helped Bowman craft an Israel-Palestine policy platform that was at once authentic and worded to avoid inflaming passions. On his campaign website’s detailed foreign policy page, he backed “U.S. aid to help Israel confront [its] security challenges,” but also opposed subsidizing “the continued occupation of the Palestinian people.”

Bowman also engaged even his more conservative pro-Israel critics. He responded to an open letter criticizing him from Avi Weiss, a prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi in a Bronx neighborhood later drawn out of the district, with an open letter of his own. In it, Bowman laid out his support for a two-state solution and his opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement — which calls on Americans to divest from Israeli financial interests to pressure Israel to end its occupation and allow a right of return for Palestinian refugees — even as he connected the difficulty of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation to the racism and police brutality Black Americans experience.

“I know that we both have much to learn from each other’s experiences, and I hope that you may give me the chance,” he concluded.

Following Bowman’s 2020 victory, Mark Mellman, the Democratic pollster who founded the Democratic Majority for Israel, conceded to HuffPost that Bowman’s careful messaging and outreach to the Jewish community “did work to obfuscate the difference” between himself and Engel on Israel policy.

Soon, Bowman would get reinforcements. J Street, which is supportive of increased U.S. pressure on the Jewish state to stop expanding settlements and violating Palestinian human rights, endorsed him ahead of the 2020 general election.

In his first term, Bowman’s voting record on Israel — and willingness to defy the socialist left — burnished his reputation among even some critics. Bowman’s visit to Israel with J Street in November 2021 notably cost him the endorsement of the Democratic Socialists of America, which backs BDS and is anti-Zionist.

J Street endorsed Bowman’s reelection in 2022; the group’s super PAC spent $100,000 on digital ads backing his bid.

“Now you have people without knowledge or real understanding blaming Jewish people for what Israel is doing, which is leading to the rise of antisemitism.”

– Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.)

J Street is not exactly a kingmaker in Westchester County. And the group, whose super PAC has invested six-figure sums for other Democrats facing AIPAC barrages, has decided not to spend in Democratic primary elections this cycle.

But while J Street was supporting Bowman, its activists acted as a volunteer rapid response team for him within the Westchester Jewish Council, the county’s influential umbrella group of synagogues and mainstream Jewish organizations (JFREJ is not affiliated with the group). J Street leaders publicly commended him for supporting U.S. funding for the Iron Dome defensive technology system and helped him draft responses to attacks from local rabbis and the Westchester Jewish Council.

However, two years later, things look very different. By late January 2024, J Street had had enough of Bowman and withdrew its endorsement. The last straws for the organization were Bowman embracing the term “genocide” to describe Israel’s conduct in Gaza and his praise for controversial anti-Israel scholar Norman Finkelstein at a rally in Yonkers, New York, where Finkelstein had also appeared, according to people familiar with J Street’s thinking. (Bowman subsequently expressed regret for praising Finkelstein, who initially likened the Oct. 7 attack to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising during WWII and said it “warms every fiber of my soul.”)

Latimer now cites the rescinded endorsement as evidence that Bowman is outside the mainstream.

“He said things like ‘genocide,’ ‘apartheid.’ That’s why J Street pulled their endorsement,” Latimer told HuffPost in late May.

Bowman continues to sound less and less like Israel’s progressive supporters — the kinds of people who are favorable to tough measures like conditioning aid yet still ardently support the idea of a Jewish country. In a recent podcast interview, for example, he characterized U.S. support for Israel as a gesture of solidarity for “another settler colonial project.”

Bowman has also reconciled with the Democratic Socialists of America. The group’s New York City chapter endorsed him in late May.

In audio of his May 25 endorsement interview, Bowman, for the first time, expressed openness to embracing the BDS movement and promised not to vote to fund Iron Dome again, saying he had only done so originally because he didn’t want his “‘no’ vote to be misinterpreted as ‘I want Jews to be killed.’”

Learning what Bowman said to the socialist group was “the absolute final straw for people who might have been in the middle,” said the Jewish Democrat who now supports Latimer.

In an interview after his May 26 event in Co-Op City, HuffPost asked Bowman to make his case to progressive Jewish voters who might share his concern about Palestinian rights but are uncomfortable with his strident rhetoric. He argued that his effort to force changes in Israeli policies would actually help reduce antisemitism in the United States.

“We haven’t had honest conversations about Israel being held accountable. And that’s why we are in this horrible place right now, because we’ve allowed Israel to continue to say they represent all of the Jewish people,” he said. “Now you have people without knowledge or real understanding blaming Jewish people for what Israel is doing, which is leading to the rise of antisemitism.”

Westchester County Executive George Latimer entered the race with higher net favorability ratings than Bowman, according to polling commissioned by his campaign.
Westchester County Executive George Latimer entered the race with higher net favorability ratings than Bowman, according to polling commissioned by his campaign.

Ted Shaffrey/Associated Press

‘American Revolutions’ Vs. The ‘Real Guts’ Of Policy

Latimer’s campaign literature and stump speech are plastered with the slogan “real progressive results, not rhetoric.”

Bowman highlighted his disagreement with this framing during the first televised debate with Latimer on May 13, arguing against a zero-sum tradeoff.

“Rhetoric creates movements in grassroots organizing that leads to American revolutions! That is what we need in this moment,” Bowman declared. “We need rhetoric and results. We have both.”

But Bowman’s history of radical comments — and one controversial vote in particular — have made his revolutionary vision a tougher sell to some suburbanites.

Shortly after Latimer got into the race, negative stories about Bowman began popping up in mainstream news outlets. As a middle school principal, Bowman dabbled in 9/11 conspiracy theories and honored a convicted cop killer on the walls of his school. It also emerged that Bowman had declined to condemn the inclusion of Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam and a rabid antisemite, in a Black history mural in the district, even as he clarified that he disagrees with Farrakhan’s antisemitism.

Likewise, Bowman has a reasonable explanation for his decision to vote against the bipartisan infrastructure framework bill along with five other progressives. He wanted to keep pressure on for a vote on the more ambitious Build Back Better bill. The latter bill passed the House and stalled in the Senate, but became the basis for the climate-focused Inflation Reduction Act.

Bowman saw the distributional impact of the BIF bill as inadequate, telling HuffPost, “91% of those BIF jobs go to white men. This is a majority minority district. Where’s our economic development program?”

But the symbolic vote against the BIF bill has provided the single biggest attack line for AIPAC to hammer him on.

“The things that [Bowman and other leftists] are voting against because they’re not getting everything they want, to me, sounds very much like children who are packing up their toys and going home,” said Jim Metzger, an architect and photographer from Hastings-on-Hudson who supported Bowman in 2022. Metzger, who counts himself as a progressive Zionist deeply opposed to the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was also disappointed in Bowman’s response to the Oct. 7 attack and emotionally pleaded with Latimer to run after he spoke at the Hastings-on-Hudson Oct. 7 vigil.

As a chief executive obsessed with technocratic reforms, Latimer makes for a clear foil to Bowman’s left-wing idealism. He loves discussing what he calls the “real guts” of policymaking — knowing, for example, how to bring branches of government together to upgrade the county’s electric vehicle charging network or which federal Housing and Urban Development officials to prevail upon for a new affordable housing grant.

Given Latimer’s focus on such details, HuffPost asked for his overarching policy vision. He argued his obsession with incrementalism and proper implementation are the answers to Donald Trump’s strongman theory of governance — the world of “I alone can fix it.”

“We say to people, ‘Don’t give all the power to one person. We in democracy can still solve problems. It takes time, but we can show you how to get real results,’” Latimer said.

Westchester County Executive George Latimer has cast himself as an incrementalist policy wonk. He has also played to fears about Bowman's appeal among voters of color.
Westchester County Executive George Latimer has cast himself as an incrementalist policy wonk. He has also played to fears about Bowman’s appeal among voters of color.

Ted Shaffrey/Associated Press

Latimer Moves Right — And Gets Ugly

Of course, AIPAC’s intervention has been critical to Latimer’s candidacy. While the group’s largesse has amplified a genuine grassroots revolt against Bowman in this case, there is no doubt its injection of millions of dollars into congressional primaries has helped limit the scope of debate about Israel. Any lawmaker interested in, for example, imposing stricter conditions on U.S. aid to Israel risks facing a deluge of pro-Israel money.

While Bowman has shifted left on global issues, Latimer, who insists his pragmatic style is “progressive,” has shifted right over the course of the race as he seeks to hoover up every last anti-Bowman vote. He has said he opposes tax increases of any kind, a stance that could put him at odds with President Joe Biden, who wants to undo some of the Trump tax cuts for the wealthy and big corporations.

While speaking to HuffPost, Latimer turned defensive when pressed to answer for his alliance with AIPAC, which, as a single-issue group, also endorsed dozens of House Republicans who objected to certifying the 2020 election results.

“I have what I consider a mainstream position on Israel,” he said. “Most House Democrats feel what I feel.”

What are Latimer’s “mainstream” views? He holds Israel’s Arab neighbors and Palestinian negotiating partners almost entirely responsible for the Palestinian failure to obtain statehood and freedom from occupation, the issue that remains at the heart of the regional violence.

“Now you have a very conservative Israel government — how shocked am I at that? The progressive Israeli governments never got enough cooperation to move forward.”

– George Latimer, Westchester County Executive

“The Israeli effort to find a dance partner in the Arab world has been hard to find — ’67 war, ’73 War, intifada,” Latimer said. “Now you have a very conservative Israel government — how shocked am I at that? The progressive Israeli governments never got enough cooperation to move forward.”

When HuffPost tried to interject a question about whether it might still have been inadvisable for consecutive Israeli governments to continuously build Jewish settlements on conquered land it supposedly wanted to give up in a peace deal, Latimer refused to engage with the premise.

“You’re changing the argument,” he said. “To get to the two-state solution, you need confidence that you have a dance partner that will work with you. Hamas is not a dance partner.”

But Hamas is not in power in the West Bank, the larger of the two Palestinian territories. The Palestinian Authority, the nominal governing body there, has largely cooperated with Israel’s security apparatus at great political expense, with no advancement toward statehood to show for its efforts. One might say the Palestinian Authority doesn’t have a dance partner.

Pressed on whether he supports Biden’s decision to pause a shipment of 2,000-pound bombs to Israel, Latimer repeatedly refused to say, insisting instead that House members should not weigh in on individual presidential decisions.

“I support President Biden in his efforts,” Latimer said.

Latimer’s defensiveness about his record has sometimes spilled over into racist fear-mongering about Bowman’s platform or base of support. In a June 10 debate hosted by the League of Women Voters, Latimer tied Bowman to Dearborn, Michigan, a hub of Arab Americans that has not been a significant source of donations to Bowman’s campaign.

“Your constituency is Dearborn, Michigan. Your constituency is San Francisco, California,” he said. “It’s not Harrison. It’s not Tuckahoe. It’s not Scarsdale.”

The Jewish Democrat who now supports Latimer hopes the county executive will be open to more progressive views about Israel-Palestine policy once he is in office.

“He could have put some light between himself and the AIPAC crowd, and he wouldn’t have lost five votes,” the Jewish Democrat said.


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