Jamaal Bowman’s Bitter Democratic Primary Race: What to Know

When Representative Jamaal Bowman of New York won a Democratic primary in 2020 as an untested middle-school principal, his upset was heralded as evidence of the left’s ascent.

Four years later, Mr. Bowman is now the one fighting for his political life, battling to turn back a primary challenge from George Latimer, the Westchester County executive heavily backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

The results of Tuesday’s contest in the 16th Congressional District, which covers parts of Westchester County and the Bronx, may test the durability of the Democratic Party’s progressive faction: If Mr. Bowman was to lose, he would be the first member of the House’s left-wing “squad” to be unseated.

With Mr. Bowman trailing in the polls, some of the left’s biggest luminaries have come to his defense, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who joined Mr. Bowman at rallies over the weekend.

But their late-stage support has been countered by a monthlong fusillade of political advertising on behalf of Mr. Latimer. In barely a month, an AIPAC-affiliated super PAC has spent $14.5 million — up to $17,000 an hour — on the race.

Here’s what to know.

Jamaal Bowman was elected to the House during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, after his primary upset of Eliot L. Engel, a 16-year incumbent backed by Hillary Clinton, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Andrew M. Cuomo, then the governor of New York.

He was born in New York City and grew up in public housing before he eventually founded a Bronx middle school, Cornerstone Academy for Social Action, and served as its principal for 10 years.

Mr. Bowman’s campaign for Congress happened against the backdrop of widespread social justice protests during the summer of 2020, in response to the police killing of George Floyd. Mr. Bowman, who is Black and said he had been physically attacked by the police as a child, used the protests as a centerpiece of his campaign.

His victory, which came two years after Ms. Ocasio-Cortez stunned the Democratic establishment by defeating another powerful incumbent in a primary, was treated as proof that the appeal of her brand of progressive politics was not a one-time thing, but a longer-term trend.

Mr. Latimer, a former state lawmaker now serving as the Westchester County executive, was recruited by Jewish leaders to run largely in response to Mr. Bowman’s views on Israel.

Before his entry into politics, Mr. Latimer was a marketing executive for more than two decades, according to his Westchester County bio. He then served in a number of local government roles before his election to the New York State Assembly in 2004; he has also served in the State Senate.

Mr. Latimer has run on a “results, not rhetoric” platform, accusing Mr. Bowman of being more about showmanship than substance. He has portrayed himself as a local leader with decades of connections to Westchester communities and has said he supports many of the progressive stances on housing, climate change and transportation that Mr. Bowman has championed.

Mr. Bowman accused Mr. Latimer of racism after Mr. Latimer claimed that Mr. Bowman does not “mention people who are not Black or brown” and suggested that Mr. Bowman was more interested in representing San Francisco or Dearborn, Mich., a predominantly Arab American city, than his own district. Mr. Bowman called the remark an “Islamophobic dog whistle.”

Mr. Bowman has consistently been one of the most vocal pro-Palestinian members of Congress since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war on Oct. 7. He was one of the country’s first lawmakers to call for a cease-fire in the region and has long characterized Israel’s military actions in Gaza as “genocide.”

Mr. Bowman also cast doubt on the claim that sexual violence by Hamas was a major part of the Oct. 7 attacks, a stance for which he later apologized.

His views on Israel have also lost him at least one key supporter. Mondaire Jones, with whom Mr. Bowman made history when they were both elected to Congress in 2020 as young, left-leaning Democrats, has come out in support of Mr. Latimer, criticizing Mr. Bowman for sowing “pain and anxiety” among Jewish New Yorkers.

Mr. Bowman has rejected all accusations of antisemitism, reiterating that rather than being anti-Israel or anti-Jewish, he is simply pro-peace. He has confirmed his belief that Hamas’s attack was a war crime but said it does not justify the Israeli counteroffensive.

AIPAC, the conservative pro-Israel lobbying group, had long warned politicians to either moderate their views on the Israel-Hamas war or face a deluge of opposition. It has made good on its promise in the Bowman-Latimer race.

The $14.5 million spent by an AIPAC-affiliated super PAC easily eclipsed what any other political group has ever spent on a House race. The attack ads, mailers and phone calls rarely mention Israel; instead they criticize Mr. Bowman for the times he has broken with President Biden and paint him as a candidate who courts “controversy, chaos and conspiracy.”

It remains to be seen whether AIPAC’s involvement might backfire. At a rally for Mr. Bowman on Friday, Mr. Sanders warned against allowing the race to be bought, and many voters voiced their concerns about a powerful political group’s involvement in their district.

In October, the congressman was charged with a misdemeanor after he pulled a fire alarm in a House office building, creating chaos while Democrats attempted to stall a vote on a Republican-written stopgap spending bill designed to avert a government shutdown.

Mr. Bowman was accused of pulling the alarm in an attempt to delay the vote; he has said it was an accident and paid a $1,000 fine after being censured by his colleagues.

His comments on Israel have not been the only ones to stir controversy. Mr. Bowman wrote a number of posts on a blog that was active until 2014 in which he promoted unfounded conspiracy theories relating to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City. The blog posts had been deleted, but were discovered and published by The Daily Beast in January. The congressman explained that his website was a place where he processed his personal thoughts “in a personal blog that few people ever read.”

Jesse McKinley and Nicholas Fandos contributed reporting.

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