primary problems

Bowman faces renewed vulnerability back home after pulling fire alarm

Democrats looking for a scandal-free challenger are encouraging Westchester County Executive George Latimer to run

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) joins fellow House Democrats for a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol on September 27, 2023 in Washington, D.C.

The fallout over Rep. Jamaal Bowman’s (D-NY) questionable decision to pull a House fire alarm on Saturday is fueling ongoing recruitment efforts among Jewish and pro-Israel activists to enlist a credible challenger to run in next year’s June primary election.

In recent days, the incident has brought renewed attention to George Latimer, the popular Westchester County executive, who has previously met with AIPAC about launching a campaign. Latimer, a veteran Democratic legislator, has long delayed publicly revealing his plans for the race, even as AIPAC officials remain convinced that he is the best candidate to oppose Bowman, according to a local Jewish activist familiar with the pro-Israel group’s thinking.

“They think he’s very beatable, even more so in the last few days,” the activist, who requested anonymity to discuss private deliberations, told Jewish Insider on Monday, adding that AIPAC believes “everyone should be encouraging” Latimer to enter the race.

Pro-Israel advocates are now increasing pressure on Latimer to make a decision soon as Bowman continues to face scrutiny for activating a fire alarm in a House office building just before lawmakers approved a stopgap government funding bill.

The Bronx progressive claimed in a statement on Saturday evening that he had “mistakenly” triggered the alarm, which forced an evacuation, when he arrived at a door that would not open while “rushing” to the Capitol to cast his vote. “I want to be very clear, this was not me, in any way, trying to delay a vote,” he said.

Local officials in Bowman’s district, which is heavily Democratic, have expressed skepticism of the congressman’s explanation. “It’s a little bit unbelievable that a former middle school principal doesn’t know what it means to pull a fire alarm,” Justin Brasch, a Jewish Democrat who serves as president of the White Plains Common Council, said in an interview with JI on Monday.

It remains to be seen if Bowman will face legal repercussions for pulling the fire alarm. The United States Capitol Police said in a statement on Monday that it is continuing “to investigate the facts and circumstances surrounding” the weekend incident.

Bowman’s efforts at damage control faced additional criticism on Monday as House Republicans moved forward with resolutions to expel or censure him. In a statement his office shared with House Democrats, one eye-catching talking point called for GOP lawmakers to “instead focus their energy on the Nazi members of their party before anything else.”

Bowman sought to distance himself from the memo’s language hours after it had been published by Politico early Monday afternoon, stirring further controversy on the Hill. “I just became aware that in our messaging guidance, there was inappropriate use of the term Nazi without my consent,” he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “I condemn the use of the term Nazi out of its precise definition. It is important to specify the term Nazi to refer to members of the Nazi party and neo-Nazis.”

Far from assuaging his critics, the statement only raised eyebrows among political observers in Washington, D.C., and New York. One Democratic activist in Bowman’s district, for example, dismissed the response as “another unforced error” in a weekend full of gaffes. “Every time something happens,” the activist told JI, “everyone starts getting more frustrated.”

A spokesperson for Bowman’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment from JI on Monday.

Bowman, who represents a sizable Jewish community in his district, has long faced resistance from pro-Israel advocates over his Middle East policy record. In recent months, a growing number of Jewish leaders have stopped communicating with him after he opposed a House resolution rejecting claims that Israel is a racist state and then boycotted Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s address to a joint session of Congress.

“Many people in our community throughout the district are interested in seeing if there will be a challenger,” Binyamin Krauss, a local Jewish leader who has publicly voiced disappointment with Bowman’s positions on Israel, told JI on Monday. “There would likely be energy around a candidate that people think has a chance of winning.”

The backlash to the vote and the boycott, now coupled with the uproar over Bowman’s handling of the recent fire alarm incident, have contributed to a suspicion among some of his opponents that the Squad-aligned congressman has become increasingly vulnerable as he prepares to seek a third congressional term. It remains to be seen, however, if they will succeed in recruiting a viable challenger with just eight months until the primary.

It is also unclear if Latimer himself will enter the race as he remains undecided on a challenge, according to sources familiar with his thinking. Latimer is unlikely to reveal his plans before mid-November, when New York’s highest court will hear arguments on whether the state’s House lines should be redrawn, he confirmed to Politico on Monday.

Latimer did not respond to a request for comment from JI. The county executive, who turns 70 in November, has previously indicated he is in no rush to make an announcement and that he is largely focused on his current role.

Meanwhile, as the recruitment window continues to narrow, several Jewish leaders who spoke with JI on Monday expressed concern that there is “no plan B” to find an alternative to Latimer if he ultimately declines to run.

Despite his recent challenges, Bowman, who unseated a long-standing incumbent in 2020, would likely be difficult to beat, even as he drew only 54% of the vote last cycle while facing two mainstream Democratic challengers. Last month, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) affirmed his support for Bowman’s reelection after JI had reported that AIPAC was planning to oppose him.

Marshall Wittmann, a spokesperson for AIPAC, declined to share details on the group’s recruitment efforts. “We are reviewing a number of races involving detractors of Israel, but we have made no decisions at this time,” he said in a statement to JI on Monday. 

In addition to Bowman, AIPAC has also been seeking to court a challenger to Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) in Minneapolis, though the pro-Israel group’s efforts have hit a snag in recent weeks as a favored recruit has similarly delayed making a decision. 

Even if AIPAC believes Latimer is the most credible challenger to go up against Bowman, the county executive wouldn’t have the field to himself should he decide to mount a campaign. Michael Gerald, a pastor and corrections official in Westchester who briefly entered the primary last cycle, filed to run against Bowman in July, and Chance Mullen, the Democratic mayor of Pelham, has also expressed interest in a challenge. He did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.

Some local activists who are increasingly frustrated with Bowman’s record say it is difficult to draw firm conclusions about the primary field at this stage of the campaign. “I think it’s premature to make a more definitive assessment,” said a Democratic leader in Westchester County who was granted anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue.

Before the fire alarm blunder this weekend, Latimer “was making no plans to run, and I’m not aware of any change,” the Democratic leader told JI on Monday. “He certainly has people pushing him, though, and speaking very declaratively about his intentions.”

Still, one upcoming event suggests that Latimer could be priming himself for an eventual House campaign. At the end of November, the county executive is expected to join a delegation of local elected officials who will be visiting Israel on a trip sponsored by the Westchester Jewish Council, according to sources familiar with his plans.

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