Jamaal Bowman, the incumbent

‘Each successive term it becomes harder to dislodge an incumbent,’ one strategist told JI of Bowman. ‘That said, he dislodged an incumbent’

Two summers ago, Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) scored a major victory for the progressive left when he prevailed over an entrenched Democratic incumbent who had been safely ensconced in his Bronx and Westchester County district for more than three decades.

In his shocking upset against former Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), an outspoken supporter of Israel who chaired the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee, Bowman also delivered a stinging blow to the pro-Israel establishment, which had invested heavily in the race. The political arm of Democratic Majority for Israel spent nearly $2 million on Engel’s behalf alone — to no avail. He lost by 15 points.

The bitter primary battle helped set the stage for an emerging Democratic conflict between the party’s mainstream and activist wings, which has since shaped a growing number of high-profile House races where opposing approaches to Israel have been particularly glaring.

This cycle, however, Bowman’s campaign for a second term in New York’s redrawn 16th Congressional District was largely devoid of such tensions, at least at the national level. Even if his Middle East policy positions have shifted to the left since he entered the House in 2021, angering many of his Jewish constituents, pro-Israel groups determined that Bowman was likely unbeatable and stayed out of the race, resisting invocations from local Jewish leaders who believed he was vulnerable.

Far from it, as last Tuesday’s primary results clearly demonstrated. While Bowman’s district had been reconfigured to include the southern half of Westchester and only a sliver of the Bronx, the freshman representative won decisively with 57% of the vote, trouncing his two moderately aligned challengers, Vedat Gashi and Catherine Parker, by double digits. With a total of 41% between the two Westchester County legislators, the outcome suggested that Bowman — a prominent member of the Squad who was endorsed by a range of national Democratic leaders — would likely have clinched the nomination even if he had faced only one opponent.

For DMFI, which is typically cautious about opposing incumbents, the result was proof enough that pursuing a rematch with Bowman would almost certainly have been ill-advised, particularly after an embarrassing defeat two years ago. It was “clear that this was not a race in which” DMFI was “going to make a difference,” said a pro-Israel strategist familiar with the group’s thinking who spoke with Jewish Insider on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations. “Obviously, other people disagreed with that assessment.”

Rep. Jamaal Bowman, Vedat Gashi

Meanwhile, AIPAC conducted polling in the district and came to a similar conclusion, according to several people who conferred with the pro-Israel lobbying group throughout the race. The polling, which has not been released publicly, broadly indicated that Bowman would win unless one of his opponents dropped out.

But as both candidates remained in the race, Jewish leaders concluded that their second best course of action was to unite behind one of them, according to an extensive email chain in which several local activists took turns discussing their options. With just under a month to go before the primary, however, they were having trouble coming to an agreement, and the chain turned frantic as they aired their frustrations.

“Can we all possibly agree to support whichever candidate turns out has the best chance of winning against Bowman in a person’s race? Please!” said one correspondent, adding: “Time is certainly of the essence here. Let us all get together behind the best candidate and do so quickly.”

“There is still time to rid ourselves of our anti-Israel representative, if we can get out of our own way,” another Jewish leader chimed in.

“Hopefully AIPAC will provide some much needed direction to our community at this critical juncture so that we can come together behind a single candidate,” another activist ventured.

In the end, AIPAC stayed on the sidelines, as a more hotly contested primary in New York City claimed the spotlight. Last week, United Democracy Project, a super PAC affiliated with AIPAC, disclosed that it had quietly contributed $350,000 to a separate super PAC in an effort to oppose Yuh-Line Niou, who had expressed support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. Dan Goldman, a former Trump impeachment prosecutor, narrowly clinched the Democratic nomination for an open House seat covering Lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn. Niou came in second.

Marshall Wittmann, a spokesperson for AIPAC, declined to comment on the Bowman race. UDP did not respond to a request for comment regarding the primary.

Left to their own devices, Jewish community activists still suspected the race would be close, notwithstanding a divided field. Their hopes were buoyed a couple of weeks before the primary, when Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) eked out an unexpectedly narrow victory over a Democratic primary challenger, Don Samuels, who lost by just 2,500 votes. Samuels, a former Minneapolis city councilman, had expressed frustration that pro-Israel groups did not support his campaign as they did last cycle when a less viable challenger ran against Omar, who is among the most vocal critics of Israel in the House.

“Most people and organizations didn’t think Omar’s challenger had a chance of winning,” Bill Schrag, the president of the Westchester Jewish Council, wrote in an email to community members earlier this month. Schrag, who privately supported Gashi, suggested that his district was better suited for an upset because of a larger Jewish voting base that could make a more meaningful impact in the primary. “We can win this race,” Schrag argued, “if everyone votes and urges their neighbors and friends to do so.”

Even as the district was recently redrawn to exclude the heavily Jewish Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale, the sizable Westchester portion is otherwise home to an estimated population of 100,000 Jewish residents.

Gashi, a real estate attorney and local Democratic district leader, filed to run last February and quickly made inroads with Jewish voters in Westchester. Weeks later, two of his opponents dropped out of the race in quick succession, clearing the field for Gashi, at least before Parker launched her campaign a couple of months later.  Gashi positioned himself as a moderate foil to Bowman, criticizing his vote against the Biden administration’s infrastructure bill as well as his positions on police funding and Israel.

When Gashi announced his candidacy, Bowman had just withdrawn his support for bipartisan legislation aimed at boosting the Abraham Accords, drawing ire from a group of local rabbis who condemned his decision in a joint letter. More recently, Bowman signed on to a House resolution calling for the U.S. to formally recognize the “Nakba” — the Arabic term used to denote the mass Palestinian exodus that coincided with Israel’s foundation — while endorsing the Palestinian right of return. He has also expressed support for conditioning U.S. aid to Israel. 

For Gashi, a non-practicing Muslim from Kosovo, Bowman’s reversal on the Israel Relations Normalization Act was particularly objectionable. While Serbia still does not recognize Kosovo as an independent state, Gashi said he was pleased when Kosovo, a Muslim-majority country, established diplomatic ties with Israel last February. “Israeli support of Kosovo before it was a state, before it declared independence, was significant,” he told JI shortly after entering the primary.

Gashi decided he would stay in the race after the final House map drew his Yorktown residence out of the district. He had posted strong initial fundraising numbers and built a solid base of support within the Jewish community, notching endorsements from pro-Israel stalwarts including Engel and retired Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY). Gashi’s campaign was largely focused on building support on the ground in a low-turnout election. His supporters claimed that Bowman, who would ultimately raise more money than both of his opponents combined, had been caught off guard.

In a private letter to members of the Democratic Socialists of America, a Bowman staffer had expressed concern that Bowman “could lose” to Gashi, describing the race as a “tough primary.”

While Bowman has taken heat from pro-Israel activists in the district, he has also faced criticism from the DSA — a grassroots advocacy group that endorsed him in 2020 — for his approach to Middle East policy. Bowman has said he opposes the BDS movement, which the DSA supports. He has otherwise drawn backlash from the far left for voting to approve supplemental funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system and for visiting Israel last year on a congressional delegation sponsored by the liberal advocacy group J Street. 

In December, amid mounting calls to expel him, the DSA announced it would not re-endorse Bowman’s primary bid. 

Even without the DSA’s backing, Bowman, a former Bronx middle-school principal, continued to receive support from Justice Democrats, which helped power his first congressional run. The group spent at least $40,000 on advertising to boost his campaign in the final days of the race. J Street, for its part, also endorsed Bowman, despite policy differences over the Abraham Accords. Its “action fund” dropped $100,000 into the race, while J Street supporters raised more than $35,000 for Bowman’s campaign, according to a spokesperson.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) speaks at the National Action Network’s (NAN) three-day annual national convention on April 07, 2022 in New York City.

But some J Street members in the district believed the group had gone too far in embracing Bowman. Peter Fishbein, who sits on J Street’s national finance committee, backed Gashi’s campaign instead, and said he wasn’t alone. There were “lots and lots” of J Street supporters who sided with Gashi and didn’t “want Bowman to win,” he told JI. 

Fishbein described Bowman as the “most extreme left candidate that J Street has ever endorsed,” citing his support for the “Nakba” resolution as particularly concerning because, among other things, it does not acknowledge Jewish history in Israel. “My view,” he said, “is that Bowman is way out of the mainstream for this district.”

“As you can probably gather, it’s not that surprising that someone would have a dissenting opinion within a Jewish organization!” Lauren Birnbaum, J Street’s national political director, said in an email to JI. Bowman, she argued, “not only supports a safe and secure Israel, but a just and democratic Israel, which is completely in line with the overwhelming majority of Jewish voters who reject annexation, endless occupation and limitless settlement expansion.”

The group also shared a statement from a J Street finance committee member, Seth Rosen, who lives in the district and supports Bowman. The congressman, he said, “is an ally who has committed himself and worked diligently to build meaningful relationships with those of us who live in his district, including members of the Jewish communities in Westchester and the Bronx.” 

According to Rosen, Bowman “has highlighted the ways in which the rise of white nationalism threatens all American Jews and communities of color alike, and worked to build important bridges against this threat.”

Bowman was also endorsed by the Jewish Vote, a group aligned with the activist left in New York, while an organizing campaign called Jews for Jamaal hosted a rally in Hastings and was otherwise involved in phone banking and texting programs. 

In a statement to JI, Natalia Latif, a spokesperson for Bowman’s campaign, said the first-term representative “will continue talking to the diverse communities across” the district “about all the issues that matter to them — from protecting our democracy, to combating racism, antisemitism and all forms of hate, to saving our planet and everything in between.”

“This includes connecting with and engaging the diversity within the Jewish community,” Latif said. “He’ll continue to meet with community leaders and voters on issues that matter to them.”

Justin Brasch, president of the White Plains Common Council, said he had long hoped to engage with Bowman and finally got his chance last month when they sat down for breakfast together. “We had a very frank, open and honest discussion about Israel, antisemitism and issues of the Jewish community,” Brash, who is an Orthodox Jew, said in an interview with JI. “He definitely expressed a strong commitment to a secure Israel and a two-state solution.”

Though Brash has been skeptical of Bowman’s positions, he described their recent exchange as a “constructive dialogue,” adding that they have “established a relationship” and “been in touch several times” since the initial meeting on July 21. “I think that he had a much greater understanding of antisemitism than I was aware,” Brash said. “He told me about his visit to Yad Vashem and how moving that was.”

Bowman was the only candidate in the race who devoted a section of his campaign site to “ending antisemitism,” in addition to “Islamophobia, racism and hate in all forms.” He had introduced a section on “combating antisemitism” as early as June 2021 but has since made the wording more expansive.

During his first race, Bowman included a section on his campaign site detailing a “progressive foreign policy” approach, expressing support for “continued U.S. aid to help Israel confront” its “security challenges,” while arguing that “taxpayer dollars should not be going toward subsidizing settlement expansion, home demolitions, the detention of Palestinian children or in any way supporting the threatened Israeli ‘annexation’ of the West Bank.” The section is no longer available.

Gashi and Parker both devoted sections on their campaign sites to policy toward Israel. 

Despite what Brash summarized as a positive meeting with Bowman, other members of the organized Jewish community in the Bronx and Westchester say they have been disappointed by Bowman’s engagement. 

“There are a lot of people who feel he hasn’t represented them in this community and are looking for something different,” said one local activist who has communicated with Bowman during his time in office. Jewish community members, he said, are “looking for someone who is nuanced on Israel.”

Daniel Gropper, a Reform rabbi with the Community Synagogue of Rye, said he was part of a group of rabbis from Westchester who had been meeting with Bowman early in his term to alert him to issues of concern to the Jewish community. 

But he has since been discouraged by Bowman’s evolution on such matters. “I think that Bowman has made statements about Israel and about the search for peace that have been — I would call them concerning,” Gropper told JI. “He has traveled to Israel, which I and many others were happy he did, but I don’t feel that he fully embraced the Jewish narrative.”

Gropper said he supported Parker, whom he has known for two decades, because she “will prioritize ongoing American support for Israel,” noting that she “stood behind anti-BDS legislation in Westchester County” and supports a two-state solution. “She’s hit the mark on all of those things.”

Parker, who ran for Congress last cycle in a neighboring district, entered the race in May, positioning herself to Bowman’s right. In an interview with JI in June, she echoed many of the same complaints that Gashi had leveled against Bowman, whose “votes and wavering on Israel,” she said, “have been very disappointing to me.”

Early polling from the Parker campaign, conducted in June, suggested that she was better positioned than Gashi to pull off an upset, despite an uphill battle. After voters were informed of the candidates’ biographical information, Parker secured 25% of the vote, according to a polling memo shared with JI. Gashi, meanwhile, pulled in 8%, while Bowman was “under the 50% threshold against which incumbents are measured,” the memo said. The percentage of undecided voters was between 25% and 33%. The campaign declined to provide the poll itself.

Ultimately, Gashi claimed 23% of the vote on Election Day, outpacing Parker by five points. 

Both Gashi and Parker aggressively courted Jewish voters in the district, a strategy that Bowman occasionally ceded to his opponents. For instance, the congressman did not respond to an invitation asking candidates to attend a virtual forum hosted by the American Jewish Committee in Westchester and Fairfield, Conn., at which his challengers were present.

Bowman’s campaign did not make him available for an interview with JI during the race.

While Gashi touted his support for Israel in local newspaper ads, Parker’s campaign worked to target about 8,000 likely Jewish voters in the district with direct mailers, one of which raised some eyebrows among Jewish community members. In the mailer, Parker was pictured posing with what seemed to be a Jewish family at a bar mitzvah, an image that some voters suspected Parker was using to suggest she was Jewish.

Her campaign manager clarified to a local news outlet that Parker “is not Jewish, nor has ever claimed to be,” adding: “She is pictured with her family and her nephew at his bar mitzvah.”

Gashi, for his part, stirred controversy when he distributed mailers that appeared to darken Bowman’s skin. “To be Black in America is to deal with multiple forms of racism on a consistent basis. This is one of them,” Bowman said in a statement to City & State earlier this month. “There is an ugly history behind facial distortion to spread hate and disdain for political purposes.” Gashi denied the charges. 

As the race entered its final stretch, some Jewish activists who had been backing Gashi for months confided to JI that Parker was a spoiler candidate who would split the pro-Israel vote. Fishbein, the J Street defector, claimed that Parker had “no way of winning” and would “drain” votes from Gashi, delivering Bowman to a second term with a plurality of the vote. “I doubt he can get a majority,” Fishbein said a few days before the primary. 

But one Jewish leader who supported Parker’s campaign drew a different lesson from the behind-the-scenes bickering. “The sad part of the story for me is that this small community of people could not agree on backing one candidate,” he lamented.

Days before the primary, a hyperlocal news outlet obtained what seems to have been the only independent poll released to the public. It showed, implausibly, that Parker would prevail with 27%, beating Bowman by five points. Gashi claimed 15% of the vote. (JI also obtained the poll.)

Bowman’s team, on the other hand, projected confidence ahead of the election. “The finish line is in sight,” Latif, his campaign spokesperson, told JI. 

Gashi was also cautiously optimistic. “I think it’s always going to be challenging against an incumbent, but I’ll tell you, my confidence comes from the response at the doors,” he told JI a few days before the primary. “The Jewish community has been fantastic.”

Bowman is the prohibitive favorite in the general election because the district is heavily Democratic. He will face off against John Ciampoli, the Republican nominee, in November.

As the dust settles, neither Gashi nor Parker have indicated whether they will seek a rematch. Parker did not respond to a request for comment from JI. Gashi, who is currently on vacation with his family in Spain, said he would “def consider” another run in a text message to JI this week. But he added the caveat that 2024 is “a long way off” and said he was “purposefully not seriously considering anything just yet.” 

Jake Dilemani, a Democratic strategist who worked on Parker’s campaign, said Bowman will no doubt be even more firmly established when he defends his seat next cycle. But he acknowledged that there is always an element of unpredictability, as Bowman’s first campaign demonstrated. “Each successive term it becomes harder to dislodge an incumbent,” Dilemani told JI. “That said, he dislodged an incumbent.”

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