Jamaal Bowman, George Latimer, and the Existential Threat to Progressive Political Power
A look at how the Primary for New York's 16th Congressional District is poised to shape the Democratic Party's future
Yesterday, George Latimer put an end to months of speculation and officially announced his primary challenge to incumbent Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D–Bronx, Westchester), a rising star of the progressive left and key ally of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Latimer, Westchester’s County Executive, had been courted by AIPAC (The American Israeli Political Action Committee) for months, as part of the lobby’s ongoing effort to unseat members of “The Squad”, a cohort of progressive lawmakers who have distinguished themselves on Capitol Hill, in part, for their willingness to publicly criticize the Israeli government’s ill-treatment of Palestinian civilians in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Such dissent, when matched with the accompanying influence of Israel’s lobbying arm inside the Washington Beltway, will inevitably precipitate conflict. Despite the shifting of attitudes across the United States with respect to the Israel-Palestine conflict, in the halls of political power — this perspective is few and far between. By advocating for the conditioning of aid to Israel, while calling for a ceasefire following the onset of the Israel-Hamas war — “The Squad” is firmly in the crosshairs of the Pro-Israel lobby, who recently pledged one-hundred million dollars in a collective effort to unseat the leftist bloc.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, bolstered by a grassroots donor base unrivaled by any modern Democratic politician (sans Bernie Sanders), and insulated by a working-class district apathetic to Israeli politics — remains safe as can be. However, the same cannot be said for her closest allies in Congress, many of whom are bracing for the most difficult fights of their young careers. Ilhan Omar is staring-down a rematch with an opponent who came within two percentage points of defeating her last year. AIPAC has offered twenty million dollars of support in an attempt to recruit challengers to Rashida Tlaib — thus far finding no takers. Speaking of money, Cori Bush has less than $20K in her campaign account. And, after spending against her in both the primary and general last year, Pro-Israel groups wasted no time oncemore running ads against Summer Lee this cycle, launching their first spot several months ago — an indicator of where AIPAC and DMFI (Democrat Majority for Israel) perceive weakness, and ultimately plan to spend the lionshare of their resources next Spring.
Yet, Lee was not the only incumbent targeted by an early, AIPAC-fueled, advertisement blitz, foreshadowing a competitive challenge to come — nor was her defeat the Pro-Israel lobby’s primary objective — for that honor would belong to Jamaal Bowman of New York’s 16th Congressional District.
Himself no stranger to negotiating tense primary battles, Bowman ascended to Congress by delivering a double-digit defeat to a sixteen-term incumbent — a victory which doubled as not only a follow-up note to Ocasio-Cortez’s upset two years prior, but a resounding reminder to the political establishment that her win was no fluke.
Since coming to Washington, Bowman has distinguished himself as a clear-eyed messenger of progressive priorities. His tone is urgent, even dire at times, but one that always returns to the themes of peace and love – the chord of a man who founded a public middle school in the Bronx, played linebacker in college, and grew up in East Harlem public housing. These notes — played on the House floor, in the MSNBC studio, on the steps of the Capitol in duels with Republicans – have raised Bowman’s profile to that of one of the most beloved progressives in U.S. politics.
But this music was not for everyone’s ears. The man Bowman ousted, former Rep. Eliot Engel, a noted Israel hawk who chaired the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, resented his successor — and the political movement orbiting him. Less than two years later, amidst a redistricting saga that roiled Democrats throughout New York State – allies of Engel, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, privately urged neighboring Rep. Mondaire Jones to swap districts and challenge Bowman, rather than face off against DCC Chair Sean Patrick Maloney in his home district. Despite publicly posturing that he would never challenge a fellow-Black progressive, Jones polled the hypothetical matchup, only setting his sights on the redrawn Lower Manhattan-Brownstone Brooklyn seat after his staff threatened to quit upon learning of their boss’s calculation (not to mention, reviewing the poll — which showed Jones losing). Staunchly Pro-Israel and trying to return to the House of Representatives, Jones has thus far declined to lend his support to Bowman – despite their well-documented closeness on the campaign trail back in 2020.
While a heavyweight challenger never emerged, redistricting brought significant changes to Bowman’s district — ones that planted the seeds for Latimer’s challenge. The Northeast Bronx, fundamental to Bowman’s upset and undoubtedly a “community of interest” under the Voting Rights Act, was nonetheless splintered into three – with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez receiving Co-Op City and Baychester, and Ritchie Torres netting Williamsbridge and The Valley — reducing the Bronx portion of Bowman’s district down to the Wakefield neighborhood.
The separation of these neighborhoods – nothing less than electoral strongholds for Bowman — largely tied together at the federal level for three decades, was a seismic development largely overlooked last Spring. Despite also shedding the likes of Woodlawn, Riverdale, Fieldston and Spuyten Duyvil — the latter trio being upper-middle class, historically Jewish neighborhoods, turf far less-friendly to Bowman given the current political environment — the vast majority of the borough’s vote still came east of the Bronx River. As such, redistricting reduced the Bronx portion of NY16’s electorate from a staggering 40.75% (36,319 votes) in 2020 to just 6.29% (2,505 votes) in 2022 — a significant blow to the district’s first Black Congressman.
Nonetheless, Bowman beat back two mid-tier challengers — Westchester County Legislators Vedat Gashi and Catherine Parker — ultimately winning a comparable percentage of the vote to his first primary, despite the district’s contours proving more difficult. In doing so, Bowman deepened his reservoir of support amongst the Black and Latino working-middle class in Wakefield, Mount Vernon, and Yonkers — while maintaining his previous margins in both Greenburgh Town, a collection of Hudson River communities (Hastings, Dobbs Ferry, Tarrytown) amenable to progressive politics countered by a less favorable inland, and Pelham (Village and Manor), an upper-class outpost that consistently votes to the left of where the area’s racial and class demographics would lead one to believe. Yet, in spite of these efforts, patterns had emerged — patterns that, if seized upon, could foreshadow trouble for the incumbent.
For one, Bowman’s fundraising, promising but never robust, had taken a hit — in turn, hampering the incumbent’s ability to run consistent television ads — tantamount to running a successful campaign in a suburban district. Furthermore, Bowman failed to clear 55% of the vote as an incumbent — a sign that his electoral prospects may have a defined ceiling. In particular, Bowman regressed considerably in Scarsdale, Mamaroneck and Rye — affluent enclaves with considerable Jewish constituencies that formed the core of Eliot Engel’s last-line of defense three years ago.
Notably, the latter dominion listed by the author — Rye city, “a picturesque resort town” on the Long Island Sound — is home to one of Westchester County’s most influential elected officials.
This person of interest, who has diligently climbed the New York political ladder for over three decades, was soon poised to face term-limits on his Executorship, and ultimately be forced to choose between seeking another office—there were rumblings he eyed the Lieutenant Governorship two years ago—and confronting the political mortality of retirement. At this moment, said official, a smooth-talking Catholic who recently celebrated his seventieth birthday, was given an olive branch from an array of interests–some local, some special–to run for Congress.
But to do so, that politician – who had spent his career fighting Republicans while building up the Democratic bench throughout Westchester County, to great effect – would have to launch a primary challenge against his district’s progressive Congressman.
This offer — following months of rumors and the reports of rumors, weeks of coaxing and cajoling from insiders and outsiders, and days of hemming and hawing about the status of his prospective bid — was ultimately accepted by George Latimer.
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If Jamaal Bowman’s path to power is defined by its dramatic circumstances — delivering a double-digit defeat to a multi-decade incumbent — and sudden nature – Bowman never held elected office prior to his Congressional run — George Latimer’s ascendance in the world of Westchester County politics, a methodical and incremental journey spanning thirty-six years, is a near perfect contrast. Latimer began his career on the Rye City Council before flipping a Sound Shore seat on the Westchester County Legislature, where he eventually chaired both the County Board and the Westchester Democratic Party — earning a reputation as a dogged campaigner along the way. After flirting with a run for Lieutenant Governor in 2002 — Latimer’s spirited effort was no match for his light checkbook and limited influence, and he was passed over by party regulars — he turned his attention to the State Legislature, reaching the Assembly in 2004 and the Senate eight years later. Yet, Latimer pinned for something greater, and, upon sensing his chance to retake the County Executorship from Republican incumbent Rob Astorino, himself elected amidst backlash to fair housing laws and raised property takes, the South Shore Democrat emerged victorious by thirteen percentage points.
To date, George Latimer has not lost an election — an impressive 18-0 record frequently touted by his allies that nonetheless obscures the fact that Latimer has won a single Democratic Primary in his entire career — a low-turnout tilt against Yonkers-based legislator Ken Jenkins waged “on friendly terms by mutual agreement” — one fewer than Jamaal Bowman, whose electoral career has spanned fewer than four years, let alone almost four decades. Accustomed to combatting Republicans in November, Latimer’s quest to unseat Bowman next June, a quasi-national figure with genuine grassroots progressive support, will be—by far—his most difficult electoral endeavor.
To do so, Latimer will have to continue the trend of bleeding Bowman’s support in Scarsdale (18%), Harrison (33.1%), Mamaronack (35.1%), and Rye City (20.9%) — while cutting into his appeal throughout the district’s liberal, upper-class quarters — be they the old-moneyed, tudor style homes of Pelham Manor, or the New York City transplants relocating along the Hudson River. Whilst Bowman cannot afford the defection of these voters — who could ultimately swing the election — his electoral base rests with working and middle-class Blacks and Latinos throughout Yonkers, Mount Vernon and the Bronx — who have voted twice, decisively, to send him to Washington D.C. as their representative. Said class-based appeal translates beyond the district’s urban centers, as Bowman will be remain popular in the southern half of New Rochelle — one of the few places where home values rise the farther one looks inland – and throughout Port Chester – a village on the Connecticut border with a large population of Hispanic immigrants, many of whom call the village home because it is one of the only communities in the surrounding area with apartment houses. Furthermore, Bowman’s base remains poised to make up a larger share of the district’s electorate than during the past midterm cycle, a phenomenon owed to the Presidential calendar, which conveys a sizable boost to Black and Latino primary participation.
When all the votes are tallied on June 25th, the precinct map of George Latimer vs. Jamaal Bowman will not so much as tell the tale of the campaign, but the story of race and class in Westchester County.
Editor’s Note: In an ironic ode to his eventual drubbing in the Northeast Bronx, Latimer mistakenly left the borough off his campaign website entirely. Regardless, expect Bowman to net between 85-90% of the vote here.
Much of the outcome hinges on how much, or how little, the district changes in another (potential) round of redistricting — a domino that has the potential to turn the race on its head. While observers have noted that Albany Democrats could draw the district even farther north to further shore up Mondaire Jones in the neighboring Seventeenth Congressional District (thus, further advantaging Latimer), that analysis overlooks the fact that in Kathy Hochul’s original plan (struck down by the courts) the district stretched farther north (into Putnam County!) and Bowman’s Northeast Bronx base was held intact. Furthermore, while the Independent Redistricting Commission is led by the aforementioned Ken Jenkins, Latimer’s “Deputy”, both of the commission’s draft maps kept the Northeast Bronx — Wakefield, Williamsbridge, Edenwald, Baychester, The Valley, and Co-Op City — together.
Why should that change?
Should a redraw be ordered, the fate of this critical domino may lie in the hands of State Senate Majority Leader Andrea-Stewart Cousins (western half of Westchester County) and State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (Wakefield, Williamsbridge) — both of whom represent districts that overlap with NY16. Notably, Stewart-Cousins and Latimer served alongside one another in Albany and the Westchester County Legislature for over two decades — and by all accounts have a good relationship with one another. Heastie, who once fancied his protege, State Senator Jamaal Bailey, as the chosen one to succeed Eliot Engel in said Congressional seat — remains a wildcard. Both will assuredly retain public neutrality, but may not be truly impartial when they exert their political power.
Lacking the entree to exert considerable influence on Stewart-Cousins and Heastie, key progressive constituencies, from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the Working Families Party, should begin to lean on Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris of Western Queens, who retains real influence over the potential proceedings, to help shore up Bowman behind the scenes. Gianaris, who harbors ambitions to be New York State Attorney General, has consistently worked to ingratiate himself with the city’s ascendant bloc of left-leaning voters. Here, his cachet, which, pound-for-pound, exceeds that of any other prominent progressive in the State Capitol, is sorely needed.
For every block east of the Bronx River added back into the district, Bowman will net several hundred votes — and for every block taken away, the reverse will be true.
Despite being considered a staple of Westchester County politics, with an undefeated electoral record and thirty-five years of name recognition to boot, and an admitted prowess for retail politicking, George Latimer had always been overlooked for higher office because of one glaring weakness: money, or lack of it.
For George Latimer was not merely a mediocre fundraiser, but a decidedly below-average one at that — one who had a history of being consistently outspent by his competitive Republican opponents, often by considerable margins. Latimer had run (and won) bids for State Senate and County Executive, where he had to raise money into the upper six-figures — but a Congressional Campaign represented an entirely different animal. At a minimum, several million dollars would be needed to just remain competitive. Where would Latimer find the cash?
Yet, once all final spending is tallied, George Latimer and his allies will almost assuredly have outspent Jamaal Bowman—considerably—on both his federal campaign account, and via Independent Expenditures (which will significantly widen the gap).
And to whom will George Latimer owe the reversal of his financial fortune?
As foreshadowed in the introduction, AIPAC — the most powerful of the many Pro-Israel lobbying outfits in Washington — once content to limit their influence to the sphere of behind-the-scenes Beltway politics, has spent the last few years making a deliberate, well-funded foray into electoral politics. Specifically, AIPAC has concentrated on Democratic Primary races — in many General Elections, there is little daylight between the Democratic and Republican positions on Israel, and after all, AIPAC is proudly a bi-partisan organization — contests that are not only seeing an influx of younger, urban progressives that remain skeptical (to say the least) of the Israeli Government, but where the lobby’s vast financial resources can tip the scales in close, low-turnout encounters.
While the October 7th attacks and the ongoing Israel-Hamas war has further crystallized the Israel-Palestine divide cleaving the Democratic Party at the seams, AIPAC had already been recruiting Latimer for multiple months to challenge Bowman. Now, in a moment of perceived weakness for the progressive left — George Latimer represents the best chance Pro-Israel special interests have of dethroning one of The Squad’s most-recognized members, dealing an devastating blow to the American Left in the process.
But even for Latimer, the campaign will amount to a grueling test of political mettle. Challenging the district’s first Black Congressman, the specter of race will follow him everywhere. Thirty-five years in public office brings many advantages, not among them — a decades-long record of news clips, budget cuts, off-hand comments, and countless jilted rivals – all of which Latimer will have to defend ad nauseam. Already, some alarming past stories have resurfaced — including an episode where Latimer compared the calls for Andrew Cuomo’s resignation to the mob “justice” that killed Emmett Till. The closer one looks into him, the more one will find — and progressives, backed into a corner and fighting for their political lives, will be sure to turn every page.
George Latimer is used to out-hustling and outworking his competition, but he has never had to contend with a real grassroots operation opposing him. Certainly, he has not faced an opponent even remotely like Jamaal Bowman — someone with a soft touch, who is nonetheless unafraid to go on the offensive — as the youth would say, “he’s got that dog in him.” Latimer may employ cognitive dissonance to square the fact that AIPAC has supported, and been bankrolled by, the Republican Party he has spent his career working to defeat, but the press will not be so forgiving.
Given the heightened stakes, the war for New York’s 16th Congressional District will be nationalized — amounting to a public litigation of all things Israel, America’s concern for Palestinian welfare, the influence of big-money in our politics, and the trials and tribulations of building multi-racial, cross-class coalitions — with history ultimately written by the winner.
The campaign will be a daunting test of progressive organizing, built on a model of small-dollar donations anchored by an army of volunteers versus the high-dollar operatives and consultants — political mercenaries, loyal not to a fixed ideology, but the promise of a hefty paycheck and the industry clout that would accompany knocking off Bowman — that so often dominate high-level campaigns. This tension — often described by the author’s father as “air vs. ground”, media vs. field, people vs. money — will define the race’s outcome, and potentially reinforce, or redefine, how we view political power in New York.
For Justice Democrats, the parent organization that helped facilitate The Squad’s ascension — plagued by a money crunch that precipitated significant layoffs — this cycle will be spent affixed in a defensive crouch around their incumbents, bracing for a siege of outside spending. The Working Families Party, navigating a change in New York leadership amidst a three year arc of curtailed momentum, has a chance to reset the narrative. For the prolonged livelihood of both organizations, this fight is nothing short of existential.
However, these stakes do not only apply to progressives.
For this race is also a referendum on AIPAC and the Pro-Israel lobby — not in the salience or appeal of their ideals — but on the scope of their political power.
In Congress, no outfit — from the NRA to the farm lobby — has matched the effectiveness to which AIPAC has ruthlessly engineered bi-partisan consensus, as raw a display of political power as there is in U.S. politics.
That influence — so potent, so overwhelming, so sharp — remains ironclad in the halls of power. Yet, this broad “consensus” is not enough for AIPAC, hell-bent on ousting the remaining progressive legislators who reject their advances — in turn, sending a clear message to other members of Congress, and the countless aspirants who envision themselves in a seat on Capitol Hill, that if they want their dreams to be realized, they cannot dissent on this issue.
Through the candidacy of George Latimer, AIPAC is hoping to make that example out of Jamaal Bowman.
But, Jamaal Bowman’s fate rests in the hands of the district’s voters — not in a closed-door meeting on K Street — so what happens if the voting public is given a choice — and the raw power of AIPAC falls short?
From the outset, the rise of Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Justice Democrats, the Democratic Socialists of America, and Jamaal Bowman was tied to the ideal that a grassroots movement of working people could challenge, and maybe even overcome, the influence of lobbyists, special interests, and corporate PACs – that with enough hard work and organizing, attitudes could be softened, trust could be fostered, and real gains could not only be achieved, but maintained.
Now, that ethos is being tested like never before. The fate of the movement rests on it.
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