Bronx Battle

How vulnerable is Jamaal Bowman?

Two moderate Democrats sense that the Bronx progressive’s positions on Israel may may put him at risk in a redrawn district

Suddenly, it seems, Rep. Jamaal Bowman’s (D-NY) road to reelection has gotten rockier.

Last month, the freshman congressman drew widespread condemnation from Jewish leaders when, in an unexpected reversal, he reneged on his support for bipartisan legislation aimed at boosting the Abraham Accords, the historic series of diplomatic agreements that established ties between Israel and four Arab nations during the latter half of 2020.

His announcement that he would vote against the Israel Relations Normalization Act, which currently has 328 House cosponsors, was “lamentable, and will surely be received with bewilderment and disapproval by many voters,” a group of local rabbis wrote in a joint letter, expressing surprise and dismay over the about-face “on an important policy matter.”

Now, as Bowman begins his campaign for another term representing New York’s redrawn 16th District, the Bronx progressive is facing opposition from a growing number of Democratic primary challengers who are eager to cast his decision not only as misguided but indicative of what they criticize as a broader resistance to compromise that is out of sync with voter sentiment.

“I almost fell off my chair when I heard that he was not going to support the normalization of relationships,” Manuel Casanova, a former political strategist and sales manager in New Rochelle who entered the race last October, said in a recent interview with Jewish Insider. “It’s basically saying, ‘If you don’t agree with me 100%, then you’re on the other side and I don’t talk to you.’”

Vedat Gashi, a real estate attorney and Westchester County legislator in Yorktown who filed to run with the Federal Election Commission just a few weeks ago, also took issue with Bowman’s maneuver. “I don’t know how you oppose that,” Gashi said last week in his first interview on the race. “It feels more like an appeasement of, I think, the most extreme elements than it does the best interest of this country and our national security.”

Speaking more generally, Gashi said that Bowman’s turnaround is emblematic of his approach “in other areas” of major consequence to the Democratic agenda, including the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that cleared the House last November by a narrow margin of 228-206 votes. 

The congressman was among just six Democrats who had vowed to oppose the funding until the Senate passed a larger social safety net and climate package — blocked by Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) — that Bowman and his fellow “Squad” members had viewed as inseparable from the infrastructure package. 

But Gashi rejected that logic. “I’ve been frustrated that the Democrats control the House, the Senate and the presidency, and we’re not able to get as much done as we can because of two senators and a handful of congresspeople who are furthering a more extremist agenda,” said the Westchester Democrat, including Bowman in his appraisal. “This is a historic bill, and he voted against it.”

Casanova, for his part, suggested that the 45-year-old congressman had put himself in something of an untenable position because of his vote. “Bowman cannot even talk about infrastructure,” he scoffed. “You don’t see him going around talking about all the money that he’s bringing because of the infrastructure deal.”

A spokesperson for Bowman’s campaign declined to comment when reached by JI.

Still, such criticism hints at the range of issues that Bowman may find difficult to ignore as he courts a significant new subset of traditionally moderate voters who now live within the updated House boundaries — including previously uncharted territory comprising at least a third if not 40% of the redesigned district, according to the estimate of one Democratic strategist — that extend further north into Westchester as well as Putnam County.

“I am eager to meet all of your families and I’m excited to get to know more about the history and needs of these towns,” Bowman said in an early February email to constituents shortly after the new House map had been signed into law, asking voters to inform him of “the greatest needs” of their communities.

Gashi, 43, and Casanova, 50 — both of whom lean toward the moderate end of the Democratic spectrum and serve as district leaders in their respective communities — are so far the only challengers to have publicly launched campaigns ahead of an early April filing deadline. But experts suggested that the field remains fluid, and at least one other candidate is expected to enter the race. 

In the interview with JI, Gashi said he had not been planning to jump in until he found himself drawn into Bowman’s district and saw an opportunity. “This is a district that I know well,” said the county legislator, who chairs the budget and appropriations committee. “The part of Westchester where I’m from, Republicans are a real thing. We have to be concerned about how we present to them.”

“I’m a liberal who wants to get things done,” he said, describing his priorities, in broad strokes, as addressing what he characterized as the country’s “failing infrastructure” in addition to a “looming environmental catastrophe” that can no longer be ignored. 

Born in Kosovo, Gashi is an ethnic Albanian who moved to the Bronx in 1982, when he was four years old. His family later settled in Westchester. After receiving his law degree from Seton Hall University, he clerked with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, at the time a judge on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Later, Gashi returned to Kosovo, where, with a grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, he helped draft laws for the fledgling nation. 

One major trademark law that gained “some attention,” he said, led to a position as chief legal advisor to Kosovo’s prime minister following a nomination from the United Nations. He returned to the U.S. after Kosovo declared its independence in 2008.

Gashi expressed an affinity for the Jewish community that he said is rooted in his connection to Kosovo as well as his identification as a non-observant Muslim. “We celebrate Christmas the same, you know,” he joked. “It’s this feeling that you’re part of America, you’re a proud American, and patriotic, but also recognize where you came from.”

“Their ethnic identity is something that a lot of Albanians hold dear,” Gashi added. “The practice of their religion as they saw fit and, frankly, their very existence in what Serbia declared its territory, was a problem, so because they existed, Albanians were forced to flee,” he said of the persecution that culminated in the atrocities of the Kosovo War between 1998 and 1999. “They were kicked out of jobs. They weren’t allowed to participate.”

While Serbia still does not recognize Kosovo as an independent state, Gashi said he was unsurprised but nevertheless pleased when the Muslim-majority country established diplomatic relations with Israel last February. “Israeli support of Kosovo before it was a state, before it declared independence,” he said, “was significant.”

In 2016, Gashi visited Israel with his family for the first time, and he describes himself as a strong supporter of the Jewish state. He said he is in favor of continued U.S. security assistance to Israel, guaranteed in a memorandum of understanding between the two countries, and expressed opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel, suggesting that the movement is at times antisemitic because it singles out the Jewish state for censure. 

He also says he would have voted for supplemental funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system, as Bowman did last September when he broke with some far-left House members who were against the legislation. But Gashi questions Bowman’s approach to the funding, arguing that the congressman is inconsistent because he has also said he supports conditioning aid to Israel. “It’s hard to have it both ways,” he told JI. “It’s hard to say that you are in favor of things like the Iron Dome but also at the same time try to condition security assistance.”

For his part, Casanova made clear that he shared the same views as Gashi on Israel, which are featured in a section of his campaign site. “In me, you’re going to have somebody who’s going to be a very strong Israel supporter,” he said in the interview with JI. “Why? Israel is a democracy. They have their own way of working as a democracy, they have their own system, but we share the same values.”

Casanova was born in Belgium but was raised and spent a portion of his early adulthood in Santiago, Chile, where he said he benefited from a unique view of the often tense relationship between Jews and Palestinians that gives him hope for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. “I come from that background where they could work together,” he said, recalling that Jewish and Palestinian Chileans “would not marry each other” but would still “do business together” and “could be friends.”

In 1997, Casanova moved to Miami to complete his bachelor’s degree and then settled in New York. He worked on political campaigns in the late aughts and received his master’s degree in a now-defunct elections strategy program at Fordham University — like the school, Casanova identifies as Jesuit — and found work as a Democratic consultant. Most recently, he worked as a sales manager for Finnair but was laid off during the pandemic. He is now entirely focused on his campaign. 

He said is running for Congress because he wants to instill a sense of civility and bipartisan cooperation in Washington following the violent Capitol riot that took place last year. “That prompted me to say, ‘Manuel, it’s time for you to jump in,’” he said. “As somebody who comes from a country like Chile that broke down into pieces because people stopped talking to one another, and somebody also who lived under dictatorship, I know what it means.”

“The main thing that I wanted to accomplish,” he explained, “is that those people who don’t agree with me can still say, ‘You know what, Manuel and I, we think differently, but I know he’s trying to represent me, and he’s listening to what I have to say. That doesn’t mean that he’s going to do what I have to say.’”

Casanova, who has raised just over $65,000 since last October, according to the Federal Election Commission, argued that Bowman’s decision to withdraw his cosponsorship of the Abraham Accords bill was a prime example of what he credits with contributing to rising tensions on the Hill. He also simply believes it is a mistake to oppose the agreements, in part because of what he described as the geopolitical significance of aligning Israel with its Arab neighbors “in order to deal with” Iran,  “the biggest problem we have” in the region.

While Bowman explained in a recent letter to constituents that he had viewed the bill “as an opportunity to make progress toward justice and healing in the Middle East,” the congressman  changed his mind after a trip to Israel with J Street last November and said he now believes that the Abraham Accords have “unhelpfully” alienated the Palestinians. 

Echoing the sentiments of far-left critics who have opposed the agreements, Bowman also raised concerns that, as a result of the deals, the U.S. had discussed a weapons sale to the United Arab Emirates and recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. Such “actions,” he wrote, “will only escalate violence in the Middle East and make already vulnerable communities less safe.”

Even as his opponents acknowledge that no deal is perfect, they argue that Bowman’s reservations are unconvincing and in no way justify the wholesale abandonment of legislation that has garnered overwhelming support from members of both parties. “There may well be things in a chosen bill that you disagree with,” Gashi said. “The greater good probably would dictate some progress.”

Aside from Gashi and Casanova, at least one other candidate has already begun gathering petitions in the district and is expected to file as soon as this week, according to a well-placed source familiar with the campaign who spoke with JI on Wednesday.

Michael Gerald, a senior pastor at Shiloh Church in Tuckahoe who serves as deputy commissioner at the Westchester County Department of Correction, is likely to draw added contrasts with Bowman, not least because of a background in law enforcement — including positions as a state trooper and undersheriff in New Jersey — that informs his views on police funding, the source told JI. 

While Bowman has called for defunding the police, Gerald — who, like the incumbent, is Black — acknowledges a need for law enforcement reform but is not in favor of cutting spending for cops, the source said. Gerald is also a strong supporter of Israel, the source told JI, ande is likely to make inroads among Black clergy members in the district. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

Other candidates rumored to have been mulling bids include Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano, who stirred controversy when he said in a radio interview last month that Bowman should have been arrested for opposing the infrastructure bill, arguing that the congressman is “just not in line” with voters who live in the district. Spano’s office did not respond to a request for comment from JI.

Tom Meier, who chairs the Yonkers Democratic Committee, had also reportedly been expected to mount a challenge, but he told JI in a text exchange last week that he was “no longer considering a run for Congress in the 16th” and was instead throwing his support behind Gashi, whom “many Democrats in Westchester consider” to be a “frontrunning contender.”

Though Bowman — who entered the most recent fundraising quarter with nearly $310,000 in cash on hand — now finds himself in a somewhat unfamiliar district, he remains an imposing figure following his primary upset over former longtime Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) in the 2020 cycle. In recent weeks, he has earned endorsements from a range of high-profile elected officials, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA). There is no publicly available polling on the race.

But while he has gained establishment support, Bowman recently lost backing from the Democratic Socialists of America, a major grassroots ally on the far left that had endorsed his 2020 bid. The group has drawn scrutiny over the past few months for its fringe foreign policy positions, including a hardline approach to Israel as well as a suggestion that the U.S. should withdraw from NATO amid mounting violence between Russia and Ukraine. 

In December, the organization said it would not be endorsing Bowman in the 2022 midterms, citing disagreements over his trip to Israel with J Street as well as his Iron Dome vote. The DSA supports the BDS movement, which Bowman has said he opposes.

The DSA’s BDS and Palestine Solidarity Working Group recently praised his decision to vote against the Israel relations bill, but the group criticized the timing of his reversal, which took place shortly after the heavily Jewish Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale had been removed from his district. In a social media post, the working group suggested that Bowman had “only finally came through on” removing his name from the bill after his new “district borders” excluded “an area with a heavy Zionist constituency.”

While Bowman’s move was met with disappointment by a number of Jewish community leaders in Riverdale, other voters have been broadly receptive to his Middle East foreign policy approach, even as he has struggled to navigate such issues during his first year in office, according to a Democratic strategist who is familiar with the district.

The new district boundaries, however, have likely altered that dynamic. “The pro-Israel Democratic voters who were satisfied or even happy with” Bowman “going to Israel with J Street predominantly live in Riverdale and North Riverdale, which are no longer in his district,” the strategist told JI. “And pro-Israel voters in the Westchester” portions of his “new district are far less likely to register as Democrats, since Republican primaries count a lot more in Westchester than the Bronx.”

Either way, Bowman’s opponents emphasized that his reversal was one issue they would work to ensure voters do not soon forget. 

“He supported and, all of a sudden, did he just discover these elements of the bill now?” Gashi said. “Presumably, he would have been aware of them at some point earlier. I don’t want to parse and put words in his mouth. I’ll take him at his word, and maybe it’ll be an indicator of wider things.”

Casanova drew a somewhat more pointed distinction. “The biggest difference between Jamaal and me,” he told JI, “is that you can take my word to the bank.”