Politics

Jamaal Bowman’s challenger is the Cher of suburban New York

NEW ROCHELLE, New York — The New York Democrat running to unseat Rep. Jamaal Bowman has an unusual double advantage against the incumbent: local political clout and the backing of a national pro-Israel group.

And it’s Westchester County Executive George Latimer’s ties at home — even more so than his position on the war in Gaza — that could deny the Squad member a third term.

Latimer has picked up endorsements from fellow local leaders week after week — including the mayor and three City Council members in Yonkers, where Bowman lives. And while just 10 percent of Bowman’s campaign contributions come from his neighbors, more than half of Latimer’s donations come from within the district.

Latimer may not have any national name recognition compared to Bowman — who has built his reputation in Congress as a left-wing agitator for sweeping change nationwide — but he enjoys a different kind of celebrity. He’s the Cher of Westchester County, known as just “George” to many in the suburban enclave north of New York City thanks to his 35 years in state and local government.

Latimer’s additional edge over Bowman comes from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, that’s flooded the airwaves with more than $12 million in ads attacking the far-left firebrand for being out of step with mainstream Democrats. Bowman has tried to counter the hits by saying that AIPAC gets contributions from Republican megadonors.

The bitter Democratic primary between Bowman and Latimer — one of the country’s most competitive this cycle — will test the influence of a movement politician pushing ultra-progressive national policies against a longtime local leader leveraging both his AIPAC support and his considerable community connections.

“You should know every one of the mayors, you should know what the five most important issues are in these communities,” Latimer said at a recent campaign event. “You ought to know that because you represent the people of your district, not the people who are part of a nationwide network that you communicate with on Twitter.”

He drew chuckles when he took the microphone from his campaign field director to finish her task of ticking off the names of elected officials in attendance.

Latimer’s lengthy list of district-based endorsements includes dozens of mayors, council members and trustees and 11 Democratic committees. Bowman has few comparable nods, though he just released a mass letter of local support dominated by district leaders.

“Representative Bowman is a principled, independent voice in Congress, not a ‘go along to get along’ politician,” they wrote.

Bowman is a Squad member advocating for Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and other sweeping proposals to boost the working class. His reelection bid is endorsed by other big-name progressives from Sen. Bernie Sanders to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Those aligned with Latimer see him as a voice of reason ready to wrestle back a district from what they say is an extremist focused on his national profile. Bowman’s allies champion him as a voice for the vulnerable that they say special interests and their pro-Israel candidate want to silence.

Bowman said in an interview with POLITICO that he’s been campaigning for the support of his district’s everyday residents — not its politicians. The district encompasses not only tonier towns like Rye and Scarsdale but also more diverse and working-class areas like Yonkers and the Wakefield section of the Bronx.

“There’s a huge disconnect between the Democratic establishment and the people in the district, huge disconnect,” the House member said. “And we govern with the people and from the people; that’s how it always is.”

Latimer has criticized Bowman for relying on out-of-district donations, saying recently that his rival’s “constituency is Dearborn, Michigan.” Bowman called the reference to the Arab-majority city an “Islamophobic dogwhistle” from Latimer.

Bowman countered that a majority of his fundraising is small-dollar donations, and he charged that Latimer’s bevy of local endorsements are the product of cronyism and that his in-district donations are support from wealthier constituents glad for tax cuts.

Bowman’s campaign stops are usually in low- or moderate-income corners of his majority-minority district. There, many residents say it’s a good thing he’s not like other politicians.

Recently, Angela Davis-Farrish of the New Rochelle Municipal Housing Authority stood alongside Bowman as he introduced legislation to cap rent for families receiving federal rental assistance.

“For anybody who’s going to be listening to this, make sure that when you’re in your circles, that you advocate for people that are less fortunate than you are,” she said, thanking Bowman.

A day earlier, in another corner of New Rochelle, Latimer gathered around 100 supporters to door-knock as part of his campaign’s Jewish day of action.

“After Oct. 7, we need this as a community, we need to make this statement,” said state Assemblymember Amy Paulin, a Democrat who traveled with Latimer to Israel in December. “We have to defeat Jamaal Bowman. He hasn’t been here, he hasn’t shown up and his rhetoric is despicable.”

Latimer has argued that he is not the moderate, establishment politician he is made out to be, pointing to a progressive record.

“I’m at a grassroots-level connection with people. I go to events where I meet people who live in Westchester, people in the Bronx. And that is where I get the core sustenance,” the challenger said in an interview with POLITICO. “And the kicker is: The perception at the national level is that somehow the grassroots are with him.”

Bowman and his allies, including the New York Working Families Party, have attacked Latimer as beholden to the pro-Israel lobby, noting that he has not condemned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has. They’ve also repeatedly accused him and AIPAC of racism.

Latimer has responded that no one — whether it’s AIPAC or labor unions — owns him and noted that AIPAC also supports non-white Democrats including House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries. (Jeffries and House Democratic leaders have endorsed Bowman.)

AIPAC spokesperson Marshall Wittmann told POLITICO, “Our only criterion for supporting or opposing candidates is their position on the U.S.-Israel relationship. In fact, we support nearly half of the Congressional Black Caucus, Hispanic Caucus and Progressive Caucus.”

With early voting underway ahead of the June 25 primary, the candidates’ contrasting styles have come into sharper focus.

Bowman is bigger picture, hyper-fixated on crises gripping lower-income Americans.

“We want forward progress. We want affordable housing. We want affordable childcare, affordable utilities. That’s what we are,” he told POLITICO.

Latimer, meanwhile, is wonky, often getting into the nitty gritty, such as when he delved into the topic of sewer reconstruction at a Tarrytown event.

“Is it sexy enough to put in your national news stories? Probably not,” he acknowledged. “But that’s the substance of government.”

The movement politician faces a widely known challenger with deep local ties in addition to the pro-Israel group’s millions.  

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