The Progressive Left Digs In For Besieged New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman In Democratic Primary Clash

Bowman speaks at a campaign rally at St. Mary’s Park on June 22. (Steven Ferdman/GC Images/Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

By Gregory Krieg and Gloria Pazmino, CNN

(CNN) — The historically expensive bid to unseat Rep. Jamaal Bowman is entering its final frantic hours as a moderate, White county executive from north of New York City – propelled by pro-Israel groups’ record advertising outlay – appears poised to deny the progressive, Black former middle school principal a third term in Congress.

New York Democrats are no strangers to hard-nosed, high-priced primary campaigns. But the fury that has captured the 16th Congressional District, which covers parts of the Bronx and suburban Westchester, now threatens to open a wider rift in liberal politics, both here and across the country, where other progressive champions face primary challenges.

The showdown between Bowman against George Latimer, the Westchester County leader who entered the race in December at the urging of pro-Israel leaders, was always destined to spotlight the divisions within the Democratic Party over the Israel’s war in Gaza. What has followed, though, has been something much nastier. Fraught debates over race and class, papered over for years in this diverse but largely segregated district, have exploded into a referendum on the nature – and future – of the party.

Defending Bowman, now considered the most endangered Democrat of this primary season, has become more than a political necessity. The fortunes being spent by the pro-Israel lobby, including AIPAC and Democratic Majority for Israel, to boost Latimer have contributed to the end-of-days vibe around the race. If Bowman falls, his allies reason, a chilling effect will settle in, radiating up and down the ballot.

“If they are successful in defeating Jamaal, every member of Congress” will be looking over their shoulder, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said Saturday at a rally for Bowman, asking whether “the billionaire class is going to spend millions of dollars against me in my campaign? … Look what they did to Bowman in the Bronx.”

In an interview with CNN days earlier, Bowman argued the race transcended the factional fights Democrats have become accustomed to since Sanders’ first presidential run in 2016 and Ocasio-Cortez’s primary win two years later.

“I represent the working class. I represent the democracy that we’re trying to preserve and build and evolve and make healthy for all people,” Bowman said. Latimer “represents big money in politics and oligarchy and those who are buying our democracy.”

“He’s a bought-and-paid-for politician,” he added. “I don’t know how anyone can vote for that.”

For his part, Latimer is confident that voters inside the district – many of them having cast ballots for him before – are taking a different view. Despite AIPAC’s swamping the race, Latimer has been reticent to engage too deeply on questions about Gaza or Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Bowman has called a “maniac” and a “blockade to a pathway to peace”

“I have articulated why I support Israel’s right to exist and why I think that there has to be negotiations for the future,” Latimer told CNN. “But in the short term, Hamas’ behavior has been abysmal. They launched a terrorist strike and you can’t forget that in the discussion.”

Bowman condemned Hamas’ October 7 attack, which killed more than 1,200 people inside Israel. But, as his critics are quick to note, he was also among the first voices in Congress to call for a ceasefire and, though he subsequently expressed regret and retracted the claim, initially described reports of sexual violence by Hamas as “propaganda.”

“I always stand against sexual violence in all forms and stand for peace for all,” he said in a statement earlier this year. Bowman has also been made to explain his past blogging about 9/11 conspiracy theories (an academic exercise, of sorts, he now “regrets”) and the infamous House fire alarm incident (an honest error he’s copped to).

Though both candidates often say the election will be decided by issues closer to home, such as affordable housing and climate change, Israel and Gaza are never far off. The first 10 minutes of a recent hourlong debate were, with the moderators’ prompting, dedicated exclusively to the war. The only group not talking about Israel, it often seems, is AIPAC, which has not mentioned the issues in its television ads – instead hammering the charge that Bowman has been insufficiently loyal to Biden.

‘Trying to bury us in money’

When Bowman, 48, was a first-time candidate in 2020, he unseated 16-term incumbent Eliot Engel in an ornery contest that drew clear lines between the progressive left, with Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts going all in for Bowman, while the liberal establishment, led by Chuck Schumer, then the Senate minority leader, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton lining up behind Engel.

In the end, it wasn’t much of a contest. Bowman defeated Engel by nearly 15 points in their August primary, capping a tense summer election cycle. His victory represented a massive coup for progressives still reeling over Sanders’ Covid-interrupted presidential primary loss to Joe Biden, who overtook the democratic socialist with help from an eleventh-hour move to consolidate party moderates. To many on the left, Bowman embodies something close to their platonic ideal of a candidate or elected leader – an unrepentant progressive from outside the professional political sphere who never gets twisted up in knots of ideological jargon or navel-gazing.

He is also the first Black man to represent the diverse but largely segregated – by race and class – district, which ties together the wealthy, mostly White suburbs in Westchester and predominantly Black and Latino parts of the Bronx. It is majority non-White, with a growing Arab American presence, but also home to a large and deeply engaged Jewish population.

In 2020, outside groups spent more than $3.4 million on Bowman’s challenge to Engel. But the candidates benefited about equally – each backed by upward of $1.7 million in PAC cash.

Days out from the 2024 primary for the same seat, that figure has skyrocketed. Outside spending on the race has gone up more than fivefold. The balance, too, has been blown away: Pro-Latimer groups, led by the AIPAC-affiliated United Democracy Project and a cryptocurrency PAC, have spent nearly $18 million on ads, while progressive Bowman allies, such as Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party, are on pace to clear only about $2.2 million.

“They are trying to bury us in their money,” Ana Maria Archila, New York Working Families co-director, said Saturday to Bowman supporters gathered in the baking heat at the Gil Scott-Heron Amphitheater in the Bronx’s St. Mary’s Park. Local labor activists and progressive leaders then introduced Bowman, Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders.

Ocasio-Cortez was a ball of energy as she climbed onstage and grabbed the mic.

“Powerful people, and these are powerful people … they don’t give a damn about us,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “These Wall Street people don’t give a damn about us. AIPAC doesn’t give a damn about us. AIPAC doesn’t give a damn about the Bronx. They don’t give a damn about Westchester.”

She also sought to tie the election here to Donald Trump’s fortunes in November.

“It’s also not lost on us that the historic amounts of money being spent to defeat him are linked back to billionaires and Republicans who prop up Donald Trump and all of his thugs,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “We see the corruption. It is clear as day, but we know better.”

Patrick Dorton, a spokesperson for United Democracy Project, the AIPAC-affiliated super PAC, dismissed much of the criticism from the left, saying the group had good – and obvious – reasons to back Latimer.

“Bowman has an atrocious anti-Israel record, and is completely out of step with President Biden on that and a host of other issues,” Dorton said. “He’s a fringe politician, not a fit for the district or the Democratic Party.”

Progressives fret over chilling effect of potential Bowman defeat

The overwhelming air support for Latimer, most of it trained against the “Squad”-aligned Bowman, has added a febrile intensity to the final days of the campaign.

It comes after the left lost ground in New York this year before the campaigns began in earnest. Rep. Ritchie Torres, who embraced the progressive label in 2020, fell out with the movement over his fierce support for Israel’s offensive in Gaza. Former Rep. Mondaire Jones, frustrated that progressives did not rally around him after a redistricting shuffle in 2022, has also sought to shed his lefty connections as he campaigns for a return to Congress in the neighboring 17th District.

Jones is now backing Latimer, and Torres hinted at plans to do the same. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, also a New Yorker, endorsed Bowman – at least on paper. Often a vocal critic of primary challengers, Jeffries has offered, at most, measured advocacy.

AIPAC’s bombardment has further angered Bowman supporters, led by Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, who have come to describe the primary as a historical crossroads.

“This election is one of the most important in the modern history of America. It really is,” Sanders said in the Bronx. “Because this election is not about Jamaal vs. Mr. Latimer. This election is about whether or not the billionaire class and the oligarchs will control the United States government.”

Like other Latimer allies, AIPAC spokesperson Marshall Wittmann, whose organization is said to be working with $100 million across the board in 2024, argued the group’s involvement in the Bronx and Westchester was less portentous – and focused narrowly on Bowman’s record.

“This race offers an unambiguous choice between a candidate who consistently stands with Israel and his opponent, who is aligned with the extremist, anti-Israel fringe,” Wittmann said. “The pro-Israel community is deeply engaged in supporting candidates who stand with America’s ally, Israel, and opposing extremist detractors.”

Clearly frustrated, Bowman on Saturday reserved his harshest message for AIPAC and other outside groups spending big to sink his political career.

“We are going to show f**king AIPAC the power of the motherf**king South Bronx,” Bowman said to laughter and applause before striking a defensive posture.

“People ask me why I got a foul mouth,” he added, accusing his opponents of attacking his family. “What am I supposed to do?”

Latimer’s words

Latimer, who won his first election, for Rye City Council, during the second of former Gov. Mario Cuomo’s three terms, has been a political mainstay in Westchester for nearly four decades. He has used the connections that come with his history – former Gov. Andrew Cuomo was a fan – to make the case that he is better attuned to the district’s needs than, as he puts it, the clout-chasing incumbent.

“You may not get me saying the statements that are interesting enough to be on television,” Latimer told CNN, “But you’ll see me doing the work behind the scenes with other Congress members.”

In other settings, Latimer has been less diplomatic. He castigated Bowman during their May 13 debate over his desire to “preach and scream” at opponents, saying it was counterproductive in a legislative setting. Bowman accused Latimer of trying to portray him as “the angry Black man.”

“It’s the ‘Southern strategy’ in the North,” Bowman said.

Latimer has repeatedly invoked race and ethnicity when pushing his most direct attacks on Bowman.

“You don’t mention people who are not Black or brown. There’s a whole district, Jamaal, that you’ve ignored,” Latimer said to the congressman during a June debate, “and the district knows you’ve ignored it.”

Before that, in a May 9 interview with John Catsimatidis, a Republican donor, gadfly and occasional candidate, Latimer said the results of Bowman’s 2020 primary win were “skewed” by an influx of absentee ballots, due to the pandemic, that led to “abnormally high vote totals.”

“You also have, as you recall the death of George Floyd on the night of Memorial Day evening that came one month before the (2020 primary) election,” Latimer added. “And that generated a tremendous surge in the Black community’s concerns, anger, whatever.” (In an ironic twist, Jones, who is backing Latimer, once railed against that narrative.)

Latimer has also come under criticism for telling Bowman, during another debate, that “your constituency is Dearborn, Michigan; your constituency is San Francisco, California.” His campaign later insisted he was commenting on Bowman’s donors, not taking a swipe at the majority Arab American population of Dearborn.

The most recent foul-up came Thursday, when Latimer told Punchbowl News that Bowman was politically “weak everywhere” – with a few exceptions.

“Is (Bowman) going to get at least 40% of the vote? Yes. Does he have an obvious ethnic benefit? Yes,” Latimer said. “Will he get the people who are furthest to the left? Yes. But once you get beyond a couple of constituencies that he has strength in, he’s weak everywhere else.”

Bowman supporters are infuriated over Latimer’s line of criticism, saying it diminishes and alienates Bowman – whom Latimer mostly referred to as “Jamaal” during their debates – and the diverse, working-class base of voters Democrats should be trying win over ahead of the presidential election.

Some Bowman allies are also concerned that defeat for the congressman would have negative effects downstream for Biden, who, according to nearly every available poll, is already struggling with young, progressive voters.

Campaigns like the one to elect Latimer “decrease turnout and push people away from participating in electoral politics,” Justice Democrats spokesperson Usamah Andrabi told CNN.

“What Democrats need to do in November,” Andrabi added, “is activate their most crucial base – young people, Black and brown people, progressives. And you need leaders like Jamaal Bowman to turn them out and expand the electorate.”

Ocasio-Cortez has, despite her criticism of the administration, tried to do just that. She has become a welcome Biden surrogate, even stumping for him days earlier in Nevada. But she pulled no punches in the Bronx this weekend – and used the finale of her speech to issue a warning to Bowman’s rivals.

“We have to let them know that we’re not going anywhere. No matter what, we never go anywhere,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “And that’s the message that we have to send. We are here for keeps.”

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