In one of New York’s most competitive primaries, Jamaal Bowman is a party of one

Rep. Jamaal Bowman’s supporters hunkered down in the back of a local fish and chip shop on a drizzly night in Yonkers to hear a celebrity politician rally the troops for the congressmember’s re-election.

“We proved the first point that you can get in the door,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told hundreds of Bowman supporters gazing up at her at the top of the stairs. “The question now is can you survive? Can you stay?”

Although the question was posed to Bowman’s supporters, it may as well have been directed at his campaign. Outside the warm embrace of a supportive crowd, Bowman is fighting for his political survival and is betting his future on one of the most fractious issues in New York politics: the Israel-Hamas war and the future of the Palestinian people.

Since his upset victory over 32-year incumbent Eliot Engel in the 2020 Democratic primary, Bowman has become a national progressive figure and conservative foil with a penchant for attracting a harsh limelight: He defended TikTok in Congress; he wrote blog posts more than a decade ago that appeared to give credence to 9/11 conspiracy theories; and the former middle school principal even pulled a false fire alarm in a House office building when Democrats were trying to stall a vote.

But as mainstream Democrats walk a delicate line between supporting Israel and condemning the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Bowman has doubled down on his calls for an immediate, permanent cease-fire and has called the Israeli air and ground offensive on Gaza a “genocide.”

Bowman’s challenge now is convincing enough constituents, many of whom disagree with his crusade against the war, that he can still represent them.

His primary challenger, Westchester County Executive George Latimer, is a veteran of local Democratic politics who has the backing of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and much of the local political establishment. Engel has declared support for Latimer, and so have retired Rep. Nita Lowey and, a throng of local Democratic town committees, among others.

Latimer’s $1.4 million in fundraising last quarter trounced Bowman’s haul by nearly 2-to-1, with a boost from AIPAC outreach. And in a first for the organization, the Jewish Democratic Council of America, which has strong ties to the party, endorsed a challenger over a sitting incumbent by throwing its support behind Latimer.

And constituents bent on unseating Bowman are mobilized.

“He’s really not a builder, he’s a destroyer,” said David Rivkin, a New Rochelle resident who volunteers with Westchester Unites, a group that is registering Republican and undeclared Jewish voters as Democrats for the June 25 primary.

“Even before Oct. 7, [Bowman] sought to interject race into the Israel-Palestinian situation. That had a profound impact and really put Jewish communities in this district and elsewhere at risk,” Rivkin said. “That affected me and my family personally.”

Bowman has castigated fellow Democrats, including President Joe Biden, for not being outspoken enough on the atrocities, even those who have modified their stances to call for a temporary cease-fire.

The progressive is showing no signs of backing off.

“I’ve been told not to use the word ‘blockade,’ not to use the word ‘ethnic cleansing,’ not to use the word ‘occupation,’ not to use the word ‘apartheid.’ Well, if 18 human rights organizations have referred to Israel as an apartheid state, that’s not Jamaal Bowman saying that,” Bowman said in an interview. “And are we not going to talk about this and try to deal with it?”

‘Too damn honest’

Bowman’s supporters say his tendency toward the controversial is refreshing and even crucial, especially among Black voters.

“To be honest and truthful in this day and age, you’re going to seem a bit radical, a bit out of touch, because you’re just too damn honest,” Robert Winstead, president of the Yonkers African American Heritage Committee, said at Bowman’s Black History Month event at the Yonkers Public Library. “They said that about Malcolm. They said that about Martin.”

A vocal antiwar contingent has been strong in its support of Bowman and criticisms of Latimer. Bowman also has the support of progressive groups like the union 1199 SEIU and New York’s Working Families Party, which has defended him against attacks.

Latimer, who has repeatedly called his opponent’s calls unrealistic and out of step with the party, tepidly endorsed a temporary cease-fire backed by the Biden administration in early March. Bowman is one of four members of New York’s congressional delegation to call for a permanent and immediate cease-fire and has drawn recrimination for using the word “genocide.”

Engel said Bowman’s comments went beyond simple advocacy for a cease-fire.

“They weren’t, in my opinion, only anti-Israel. They were bordering on antisemitism,” Engel, who is Jewish, told Gothamist.

Bowman frowned at Engel’s accusation and called his characterization “absurd.”

“I’m not antisemitic,” he said.

“Criticism of Israel is not antisemitic,” he added. “When I criticize the U.S., you know, am I against the U.S. people?”

Westchester Unites, which officially launched in January, converted more than 2,000 Republican and undeclared voters to the Democratic Party to help sway the primary. The county Board of Elections, which does not cover the Bronx portion of the district, said more than 2,300 former Republicans and unaffiliated voters registered with the Democratic Party between Dec. 1, 2023 and Feb. 14, 2024, the deadline to participate in the primary.

“I have not encouraged anybody to change their party registration at all,” Latimer said of the efforts. “The people who are supporting me today are not people that I encouraged to support me. They’re people who have been in opposition to the incumbent for some length of time.”

Bowman’s calls for a cease-fire and his rhetoric on the war have come to symbolize divides within the Democratic Party over both the conflict and political fealty to Israel, which appears to have split Democrats along generational lines according to polling.

Polls have also shown that Americans’ sympathy for civilians in Gaza is growing. A Gallup poll released this week showed that more Americans disapproved of the Israeli military operation in Gaza than supported it, and that dissent among Democrats has only grown between November and March.

“The reason this primary is getting so much attention is obviously sort of the underlying issue of Israel and the Middle East and the fact that there is a split within the Democratic Party,” said Peter Kauffmann, a Democratic strategist who served as a top campaign aide to former Gov. Andrew Cuomo and as Hillary Clinton’s press secretary when she was a New York senator.

In a recently surfaced TikTok post from November, Bowman questioned the veracity of claims that women had been raped by Hamas.

“There’s still no evidence of beheaded babies or raped women. But they still keep using that lie for propaganda,” he said in a rally in White Plains last November.

When Politico asked Bowman about the video, he eventually responded with a statement reversing his comments.

Kauffmann said letting the issue of Israel take on a life of its own at a campaign launch like Bowman’s — where even the representative took part in chants to “Free Palestine” — was a “bizarre strategy.”

“Most elections at the end of the day are defined by the economy, what’s happening in people’s lives,” Kauffmann said. “And the idea of kicking off your re-election about a foreign policy issue strikes me as much more deeply ideological than, you know, running for office to represent people in Congress.”

Latimer has characterized his stance as being in the “mainstream” among Democratic officials, who have largely avoided calls for a permanent cease-fire.

“To call for a cease-fire without any preconditions right now is to basically say that the hostages that were taken by Hamas are collateral damage in all this, and I don’t accept that,” he said in an interview.

Latimer has since come out publicly in support of the temporary six-week cease-fire backed by the Biden administration as conditions in Gaza grow increasingly dire, and as Israel’s air and ground offensive draws more public criticism from those sympathetic to Palestinians in Gaza.

More Democrats who were reluctant to call for a cease-fire have recently changed course. Rep. Jerry Nadler, the dean of the New York delegation, and Rep. Dan Goldman — both of whom have been vocal supporters of Israel amid the war — signed a letter with 11 other Jewish congressmembers calling for a “mutual, temporary cease-fire agreement” contingent upon Hamas’ return of the Israeli hostages, among other terms.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who has stopped short of calling for a cease-fire, recently called for new Israeli elections from the Senate floor and said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has become an “obstacle to peace.”

But Democrats who were initially reticent to embrace such calls have taken pains to distinguish their stances from the rallying cry dominating the left.

“Genocide is when you create gas chambers and you force people into them to kill them,” Latimer said.

“You cannot put that on an equal equivalent with the military action [in Gaza],” Latimer said of Hamas’ attack. “Even if the military action has done terrible things to people.”

A harsher tone

Earlier in his political career, Bowman was criticized by some for not going as far in his criticism of Israel as other far-left members. He voted with the majority of House members to fund Israel’s Iron Dome missile system in 2021, and traveled to Israel that year in a trip sponsored by J Street, a pro-Israel organization.

“I walked through the streets and spoke directly to both Israelis and Palestinians about matters that affect them deeply and personally,” Bowman wrote in a newsletter to constituents after the trip that year. “I support everyone’s basic human rights and Palestinian and Israeli people’s right to live in safety and peace.”

In a recent interview, he rejected the idea that his tone had shifted.

“We met with President Herzog. We met with Naftali Bennett and other leaders. And to see there was no appetite or no serious conversation around a state for the Palestinians, and no appetite, quite frankly, for the humanity of Palestinians from the people I met with, I don’t know if there was a shift,” Bowman told Gothamist.

J Street rescinded its endorsement of Bowman this year, and its president, in an interview with Forward, took issue with the progressive’s use of the word “genocide” to describe the casualties in Gaza. Now, Bowman remains among the relative few in Congress to call for a decisive and immediate end to hostilities without pre-conditions, and has gone farther in his rhetoric than most members of his party.

“I think he’s tone deaf,” Engel said. “Those people who didn’t vote for you, or perhaps don’t like you — you bring them over, you try … He hasn’t tried. He exacerbates the problem.”

Bowman hosted a “healing breakfast” in the district to discuss antisemitism last November. His office released a statement saying 60 people attended, most of whom were Jewish constituents. One rabbi told the Times of Israel ahead of the event: “Nobody’s going.”

All international politics is local

Latimer was handing out fliers of county events to older residents during a recent lunch at the Mamaroneck Senior Center. A party emcee was goading him to serenade attendees, who were there for a post-Valentine’s Day event. Half of them were dancing to a Barry White cover.

“I can hold a decent tune, I don’t consider myself some great singer,” Latimer grimaced. The emcee eventually gave up.

Latimer has attempted to dispel the notion that he is just the pro-Israel candidate by pointing to a long career of public service.

“I’m very much in support of George Latimer,” said Syrette Dym, a Larchmont resident and retired Somers town planner who attended the lunch and cited inaction on the migrant crisis as her top issue. “He’s been in this area really from the early days. And I think he knows how to get things done.”

He’s known among Westchester residents for handing out his personal cellphone number and many confirmed that he’s responded to their texts.

While Latimer appears on track to coalesce support from the local Democratic establishment and enjoys a significant fundraising advantage, he has begun to see the toll of a brutal primary. The political left has ostracized him for not only challenging Bowman, but also receiving support from AIPAC, a boogeyman figure among progressives.

Other critics have said Latimer can’t fully understand the experiences of non-white constituents, particularly Black voters who favor Bowman.

“What’s the record that I have?” Latimer told Gothamist last year in response. “Or as Dr. King would say, don’t judge me by the color of my skin, judge me by the content of my character.”

Latimer has accused Bowman of fixating on race, though some Bowman supporters have said this critique misses the mark.

“I don’t think people should vote for [Bowman] because he’s Black,” said AJ Woodson, editor-in-chief of Black Westchester, a small publication that covers county news. “But he speaks to those issues. He speaks to the issue of, ‘maybe the community needs reparations.’ He speaks to the issues of criminal justice. As a Black man, he can relate to the dangers of being a Black man and having a police confrontation.”

“We haven’t had that kind of representation in this district, ever,” he said.

Latimer’s been heavily criticized for having a fundraiser at GOP donor Alex Dubitsky’s house. Dubitsky has donated large sums to Republicans like former President Donald Trump. Latimer insisted the fundraiser was thrown by Dubitsky’s wife, who donated to Hillary Clinton’s campaign against Trump in 2016.

Latimer’s $1.4 million in funds surpassed Bowman’s $725,000 last quarter — an early sign of trouble for the incumbent.

Bowman admits fundraising is not his favorite part of the job, describing it with the air of dental work.

“Listen, there’s a lot of things in life we don’t like to do, right, but we have to do,” he said. “And so this is one of them.”

Bowman is tasked with turning out an army of voters who share his beliefs — or at least enough of them to overmatch some strong opposition.

“Do I love him? Yes I do,” said Marion Archer, whose youth dance troupe The Revelators performed at Bowman’s Black History Month event. “You know when he says something, he really means it. He’s really a good man.”

But when asked who she’d vote for in the primary, Archer said she was still undecided.

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