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Government & Politics

The Bowman-Latimer Proxy War Over Gaza Masks Real Differences in How Each Would Serve District 16 in Congress

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May 26, 2024

By Barrett Seaman–

Two self-proclaimed progressives with similar positions on issues important to Democrats nationally— reproductive rights, marriage equality, affordable housing, immigration reform, gun control– are locked in a battle that social media has largely reduced to a debate about the war in Gaza. But beneath all the hot rhetoric and deep emotions over a subject far removed from the duties of the office Jamaal Bowman and George Latimer seek, there are important differences in how each would approach the job.

Bowman, running for third term in Congress after defeating long-time Representative Elliot Engel, is an African-American, a former middle school principal and teacher from the Bronx. On arrival in Washington, he immediately aligned with the most progressive faction in Congress, led by Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, putative leader of “The Squad.”

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His campaign claims that he has “secured over $1 billion in federal funding for the district, including investments in gun violence prevention, affordable housing and climate change,” but Bowman has been largely defined as an outspoken champion of Palestinian rights. In a district where Jews make up about a third of the electorate, that has put him on the defensive in large swaths of the district. His reputation is also blotted by an episode last year in which he pulled a fire alarm in the middle of a Congressional vote call for which he was subsequently censured by the Republican dominated House.

In a heavily Democratic district where the Republican candidate, pediatrician Dr. Miriam Flisser, is already dismissed as an also-ran, Bowman would most likely have breezed through in November. But then along came a challenger, two-term County Executive George Latimer, raised in blue collar Mt. Vernon, now a resident of White middle class Rye, with a record of bonding with hundreds of mayors, town supervisors and unions throughout the county. He is rapidly building a long list of endorsements by mayors, state legislators, supervisors, Democratic committees and unions.

Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano, with City Council leaders, is one of many Westchester officials to endorse Latimer

Westchester knows George Latimer very well. He ousted Republican Rob Astorino in 2017 by 57% to 43%. Four years later, his majority swelled to 62%. Among the achievements his campaign touts are closing the County Center to gun shows, barring pro-life activists from harassing clients of county abortion clinics and adopting one of the first immigrant protection acts in the country. He steered a careful course during the COVID pandemic, choosing to encourage but not mandate vaccines. Latimer claims Westchester has built three times the number of affordable units as any other suburban county. Bowman’s allies charge him with not doing enough to build more affordable housing, Peter Bernstein, chair of the Westchester-Putnam chapter of the Working Families Party, agrees that that’s not enough. “His record of progressive government isn’t as robust,” he says of Latimer—”particularly on affordable housing.”

What tipped the scales in favor of Latimer’s decision to challenge Bowman was strong encouragement from AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israeli lobbying group that has pumped millions into this primary race—reportedly its largest single investment in a Congressional race in the country. AIPAC’s goal is to keep Jamaal Bowman and his pro-Palestinian views from going back to Congress.

In no time, the race became as rough as an NHL playoff game with each camp delivering bruising rhetorical checks. The Bowman camp’s media messaging  has been a steady drumbeat of claims that Latimer’s multi-million dollar donations are coming from the same big donors that support MAGA Republicans. On closer inspection, these claims conflate support for Latimer with support for rightwing causes (e.g. donor X who gave money to Latimer also gave to MAGA Republicans; ergo Latimer caters to MAGA Republicans). But for those voters who are inherently distrustful of special interests, it has been an effective message.

For his part, Latimer’s camp accuses Bowman of voting against legislation favored by Democrats, including Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and legislation that would have cut off financing that supports terrorist organizations like Hamas. When unpacked, however, Bowman’s votes targeted specific elements of bills, rather than their overall purpose. Over-simplification cuts both ways.

Bowman.s young supporters (including red-haired Joe Markus who confronted Latimer in White Plains)

The nastiness reached a mid-race pinnacle in the May 13 debate conducted by News12, in which the two men talked over each other repeatedly. (see: https://thehudsonindependent.com/the-gloves-were-off-in-the-first-bowman-versus-latimer-debate/).

Bowman does not overtly “play the race card,” but he does not shy from raising race as a factor. In the debate, he claimed that Latimer was insensitive to the plight of minorities in the district’s urban areas. “It shows how you’ve neglected Yonkers, and Mt. Vernon and New Rochelle,” he asserted, “where the Black and Brown people live in poverty in this district and struggle with gun violence.” Later, when Latimer lectured him for his failure to work with other legislators to craft bills, saying “You can’t preach and scream at them on the steps of the Capitol,” Bowman shot back: “Angry black man! Angry black man! It’s the southern strategy!

Beneath the baiting and squabbling that dominated the debate, however, there was evidence of what kind of legislator each man would be if elected. When Latimer accused Bowman of being all talk and no action, the Congressman chose interesting words to defend himself. “Rhetoric creates movements and grass roots organizing that leads to American revolutions,” he said. “That is what we need in this moment.”

Latimer’s response was to accuse Bowman of using his seat “as a platform to give speeches…He doesn’t even know the name of the Mayor of Rye Brook, the Mayor of Harrison, the Mayor of Irvington. That’s the difference between being vocal and being local.”

The final New York State redistricting map that was approved only in February gave Bowman a gift by assigning a sliver of the Bronx covering Co-op City, now largely populated by minorities, to District 16. For the past two election cycles, Co-op City had been part of District 15. Some say that House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, who publicly backs incumbent Bowman, was responsible for delivering what potentially could be 30,000 votes. Bowman spends a lot of time in places like Co-op City, which is within shouting distance of the middle school where he once served as an administrator. On a recent Saturday morning, Bowman campaigned there, backed by members of 1199 SEIU, representing healthcare workers, along with other union members. Prior to spreading out to canvas voters, the group listened as Bowman repeated his reasons for running for Congress in the first place: “I was tired of marginalized people being left out,” he told supporters. “We can’t have a democracy … unless everyone is included. The money spent on wars and prisons could be spent on education and healthcare.”

Earlier in the month, George Latimer was on the Hastings-on-Hudson Metro North platform during morning rush hour, shaking hands and distributing palm cards. Most of the commuters appeared to react favorably. Later over coffee, he allowed that “If you go to the Bronx, I’m an unknown soldier down there. It’s 15% of the district, heavily African-American,” he said, “He’ll do well down there. I’ll do well here.”

He then turned to their contrasting approach to the job: “On policy, there’s no appreciable difference,” he admitted. “But in terms of how I would be a congressman, it’s a big difference. I’m not going down there to be on MSNBC every week.”

“I’m not a genius. I’m not the smartest guy,” Latimer allowed, “but I’ve been through this. I‘ve been through this as a legislator in Albany and now I’ve been through it as an executive in White Plains. So you go to Washington, you’re one congressman. He gets out there with a press conference in front of the White House in the background” ‘I’m calling on Joe Biden to do this and that.’ That’s not going to get Joe Biden to do what you want. That’s going to make him angry and probably less likely.”

Temperamentally Latimer’s polar opposite, Jamaal Bowman is soft-spoken, amiable—a bro-hugger when not in campaign mode who is more likely to end a conversation with “God Bless” than “goodbye.” At a centennial celebration of the Irvington Girl Scouts in mid-April, he was leaving his car to go hand out certificates to the scouts when a woman stopped her car, got out and called out to him: “Congressman, you should know that the Jewish people in this district are scared. I look forward to voting for George Latimer and I wish you the best of luck in finding a new career after the election.”

Bowman, who never stopped smiling during the confrontation, said simply: “God bless you. We agree to disagree.”

In contrast, Latimer, when accused by a man at the Hastings train station of calling gun owners “neo Nazis,” snapped back, “I never said that…Don’t put words in my mouth” and then advised the man to vote Republican.

Geographically, the primary battle does indeed look to have uncomfortable racial overtones. Political operatives in the county readily acknowledge that Bowman’s base is concentrated in the southeastern quadrant of the district that includes those large urban and semi-urban communities as well as Co-op City, a high-rise enclave populated largely by Black and Brown people. Latimer’s strength includes Greenburgh, Scarsdale, Harrison and the wealthy sound shore communities of Larchmont and Rye that are mostly White and middle class.

Which way Democrats in the rivertowns will go is not yet clear. Mayor Karen Brown of Tarrytown has endorsed Latimer while Hastings Mayor Nicola Armacost is backing Bowman. In between, party officials (all Democrats) have not committed. Party activists think Irvington will go with Latimer, especially now that County Legislator (and village favorite son) David Imamura has publicly endorsed him, while Dobbs Ferry might back Bowman.

Most primaries draw relatively low turnouts, though this one may prove the exception. While Black and Brown voters represent 21 and 27 percent of the electorate respectively, they tend to turn out in lower numbers. One informed estimate predicts that, over all, about a fifth of registered voters will actually cast ballots on June 25. Between now and then, voters will have another chance to see the candidates in action on a June 10th League of Women Voters Zoom forum.

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