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Race Is On

As Latimer challenges Bowman, observers see a ‘battle royale’ over Israel

Former Rep. Nita Lowey, a pro-Israel stalwart who represented Westchester County, is planning to endorse Latimer, the county executive

Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Westchester County Executive George Latimer speaks during Gov. Kathy Hochul's announcement of completion of Avalon Harrison near Metro-North station with 143 affordable units and easy access to trains at Avalon Harrison Transit-Oriented Development.

Westchester County Executive George Latimer formally announced on Wednesday morning that he will mount a primary challenge to Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) in the northern suburbs of New York City, ending months of speculation over his plans for the hotly anticipated congressional race.

The June primary is likely to be among the marquee House races of the 2024 election cycle, pitting an outspoken progressive who has served in Congress for nearly three years against a veteran establishment Democrat with long-standing ties to voters in Westchester County, which makes up most of the current district.

Latimer, who turned 70 last month, had been privately weighing a challenge for several months before he filed to run this week, a decision he attributed in part to ongoing conversations with business leaders and Jewish community activists, among others who have voiced what he described as growing frustration with Bowman’s leadership.

Drawing a contrast with Bowman, whom he characterized as a showman increasingly committed to performative stunts that haven’t served the needs of his constituents, Latimer cast himself as a policy-minded workhorse focused on achievable improvements around local issues including affordable housing and infrastructure.

“When he shouts out in front of Marjorie Taylor Greene,” Latimer said of Bowman’s confrontations with the far-right congresswoman, “this is what gets eyeballs. It’s not what gets good public policy.”

In an interview with Jewish Insider on Tuesday, Latimer, a former state and county legislator who has held public office for decades, insisted that he is not running “to try to get on cable TV” or “to be a spokesperson for something larger,” a veiled allusion to Bowman’s affiliation with the far-left Squad. “I would go down to Washington to do what I think are sensible things.”

The county executive also took aim at Bowman’s unusually hostile approach to Israel, which is likely to be among the most contentious issues in the race — and has long been a source of anger among Jewish leaders in Westchester who represent a sizable and politically active voting bloc. In the months leading up to his campaign launch, Latimer, who says he is a staunch supporter of Israel, faced pressure from Jewish activists to run against Bowman, who handily defeated two lesser-known challengers last cycle.

“The bulk of the Jewish community of Westchester County feels that Israel is not a racist state and you should have voted to affirm that,” Latimer told JI, citing Bowman’s opposition to a House resolution this summer that fueled efforts to recruit a primary challenger. “I think that the bulk of the Jewish folks in Westchester believes that they have tried to build bridges and that it has not worked — and they feel that there’s an alternative.”

Latimer, who is Roman Catholic, said he had waited to disclose his new bid until after he returned last week from a three-day trip to Israel because he did not want to politicize the visit, during which he led a delegation of local elected officials that toured a kibbutz targeted by Hamas on Oct. 7 and met with Israeli government leaders.

“In practical terms, my trip to Israel reminds me that Israel is a democracy and an ally of ours in the Middle East,” Latimer told JI, suggesting that Bowman’s activism amid the Israel-Hamas war has been counterproductive. “How the United States government uses its relationship with Israel to shape the way Israel responds is the discretion of” the Biden administration and Israeli leadership, he said. “I don’t think every congressman should try to micromanage that process.”

In another contrast with Bowman, who is 47, Latimer said he disagrees with calls for a cease-fire to the fighting between Israel and Hamas, which the congressman was among the first to endorse in the House. “Israel was the victim of a vicious terrorist attack,” Latimer reasoned. “If you just let Hamas continue on, if you just say, ‘OK, let’s have a cease-fire now, timeout, nobody does anything,’ Hamas would do it again.” 

Latimer is among a growing number of Democratic challengers seeking to unseat far-left incumbents who have faced scrutiny over their positions on Israel amid the ongoing war. But experts believe that Bowman is uniquely vulnerable as he prepares to go up against Latimer, who is well-known across the district and boasts that he has never lost a race.

Even as the district lines could be redrawn in the coming months to include portions of the Bronx that are more favorable to Bowman, the two-term congressman — who is now facing a GOP-led censure vote after pleading guilty to pulling a House fire alarm in September — would still likely face a challenging reelection, according to Dave Wasserman, a House elections forecaster for The Cook Political Report.

“As it stands, if the district lines don’t change, this is shaping up to be perhaps the proxy fight of 2024, with progressives behind Bowman and pro-Israel groups behind Latimer,” Wasserman told JI, speculating that Bowman could face backlash over his strident approach to Israel. “This is a battle royale.”

Pro-Israel groups are expected to invest heavily in the race, which drew outside spending even before Latimer had announced his campaign. Last month, United Democracy Project, a super PAC affiliated with AIPAC, which privately urged Latimer to run, launched an initial six-figure ad campaign targeting Bowman over his vote against a House resolution standing with Israel and condemning Hamas. The resolution, which was opposed by nine Democrats and one Republican, won widespread bipartisan support.

“All of our intel, including the metrics around our ads, indicates that there is deep concern about Bowman’s anti-Israel positions among voters in the district,” Patrick Dorton, a spokesperson for UDP, told JI on Tuesday. 

In a statement to JI, Marshall Wittmann, a spokesperson for AIPAC, accused Bowman of aligning himself “with the anti-Israel extremist fringe,” arguing that “Democrats in this district deserve a representative who stands by the mainstream view which supports the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

Mark Mellman, the chairman of Democratic Majority for Israel’s political arm, which spent nearly $2 million against Bowman during his first primary in 2020, called Latimer “a proud pro-Israel Democrat” in a statement on Wednesday, even as he stopped short of making an endorsement.

While a spokesperson for DMFI PAC declined to comment on its plans for the race, the group is likely to engage in the primary, even as it has largely refrained from targeting incumbents in previous cycles.

In recent days, Bowman’s allies, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and the Working Families Party, which endorsed his campaign last week, have circulated fundraising emails warning supporters that Latimer is a top AIPAC recruit and soliciting donations in anticipation of an expensive primary. 

Rather than directly targeting Latimer, Bowman’s campaign, which did not respond to a request for comment, has accused AIPAC of “routinely” opposing “Black members of Congress with primary challenges,” using a message frequently invoked by critics of the pro-Israel group.

Latimer, who is white, said he is aware of such criticism but does not believe the rhetoric will be effective in persuading constituents who have followed him for decades. “All of that stuff is not going to register in Westchester, where people know me, they see me, I’m very active,” he told JI. “I think I’m going to have a very solid base to work with in an area that I’ve represented a lot longer than the incumbent.”

“I’m not the divisive element. I’m not standing in front of the White House arguing Israeli policy and calling it a genocide, which is absurd,” Latimer said, referring to recent comments from Bowman, who has doubled down on his criticism of Israel as the war with Hamas unfolds. “But nonetheless, I’m offering a choice, and then people have the ability to choose.”

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), a long-standing AIPAC ally, has indicated that he will stand behind Bowman and other Squad members facing challenges this cycle, even as Latimer has claimed that Jeffries did not ask him to stay out of the race.

But former Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), a pro-Israel stalwart who served in a neighboring district until her retirement in 2021, plans to endorse Latimer’s campaign, according to a source familiar with her plans who requested anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

In an interview on Tuesday, former Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), whom Bowman unseated in 2020, said he believed that Latimer would be a “fine congressmember” and that he would “certainly consider” supporting him. “He’ll be a contrast, because I never would have believed that someone who was so anti-Israel could ever have represented a district that we have,” Engel told JI, referring to Bowman, whom he has largely refrained from openly criticizing since leaving office. “I think George will give him a run for his money and I would not be surprised if he wins the race.”

Latimer, for his part, distilled the race to a binary choice between what he characterized as style and substance. “I have to define myself by what I’ve done, and he has to be defined by what he’s done, not just what his image is, because ultimately we’re either going to have politics of style or we’re going to have politics of substance,” Latimer explained. “What I sense is, in Washington, more and more and more, it’s the politics of style. It’s how you look in front of the cameras.”

“I do think this race could be indicative of certain trends,” he said, “depending on how it plays out.”

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