Squad under fire: Two anti-Israel lawmakers facing career-threatening scandals

Reps. Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush are taking heat as they brace for tough primary fights

Nathan Howard/AP Photo

Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) middle, and Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), right, attend a vigil alongside state legislators and faith leaders currently on hunger strike outside the White House to demand that President Joe Biden call for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023.

Two of the most high-profile left-wing lawmakers are facing existential political threats in their home districts — fueled by major new controversies that have further imperiled their chances for reelection.

Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) and Cori Bush (D-MO), leading members of the far-left Squad, independently came under intense scrutiny this week amid twin scandals that underscored their increased vulnerability as each braces for a tough primary fight against a well-funded challenger.

“These two folks were vulnerable before these stories came out,” said Mark Mellman, a veteran Democratic strategist who leads Democratic Majority for Israel’s super PAC. “They’re likely even more vulnerable today.”

For his part, Bowman, who is seeking a third term, drew renewed backlash on Monday over previously unreported online comments in which he promoted 9/11 conspiracy theories on a now-deleted personal blog that he maintained before his election to the House.

The ensuing uproar over his years-old writings, which Bowman has said he regrets, was just the latest setback in a cascade of problems that have plagued the increasingly embattled lawmaker, beginning last fall when he set off a House fire alarm, resulting in a misdemeanor charge as well as a GOP-led censure resolution.

More recently, Bowman, who has emerged as one of the most outspoken critics of Israel amid its war in Gaza, has taken heat for praising a controversial anti-Israel scholar who celebrated Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks — leading a key backer, the progressive Israel advocacy group J Street, to revoke its endorsement last week, even after he apologized for his remarks.

As his troubles have mounted in recent months, Bowman has found himself on the defensive in a key primary battle against a formidable opponent, George Latimer, the Westchester County executive endorsed by AIPAC, which now sees his bid as its best shot to unseat a Squad member this election cycle. Earlier this week, Latimer announced that he had raised nearly $1.4 million in less than a month, a significant sum in a primary campaign against a sitting lawmaker.

Bowman has yet to disclose his fundraising numbers for the final quarter of 2023, which are due today, but his campaign had been struggling financially before he drew a credible challenger, entering October with only around $182,000 on hand, according to the most recent federal filings.

The congressman’s repeated errors have given ammunition to Latimer, who has sought to cast his opponent as a showman focused on performative stunts rather than serving his constituents. But Latimer has generally preferred to let Bowman’s gaffes speak for themselves. A spokesperson for his campaign declined to comment on Tuesday when asked to respond to Bowman’s 9/11 writings, which amplified several falsehoods about the attacks.

“Jamaal is making George’s case for him,” a senior Democratic operative in New York told Jewish Insider on Tuesday. “These types of statements, which seem to pop up every other day, make it abundantly clear that Jamaal isn’t just extreme on Israel. He’s extreme, period. It’s getting harder and harder for Jamaal supporters to cover their ears and pretend nothing is wrong when he keeps putting them in these uncomfortable positions.”

While Bowman’s hostile views toward Israel have alienated Jewish voters in his current district in the northern suburbs of New York City, which could be redrawn in the coming months, the political toxicity of his newly unearthed 9/11 posts could prove just as damaging.

Despite Bowman’s apology, a Democratic leader in Westchester County, speaking anonymously to address a sensitive issue, expressed shock that the legislator had once espoused such conspiracy theories while serving as a middle school principal in the Bronx.

“It’s quite unbelievable to those of us who personally witnessed the planes that day,” the Democratic leader said. “Like me, many people in the district watched and were directly impacted by the attack on the World Trade Center and will not be comforted to hear about these since-deleted thoughts.”

Thomas von Essen, the former New York City fire commissioner who retired shortly after the World Trade Center attacks, said he was equally troubled to find that the comments had come from a future congressman. “When I first saw it I said, ‘Is this the guy who pulled the fire alarm?’” he told JI. “The fact that he’s obviously making such bad choices, that to me is the surprising part. You’ve got to wonder why we would elect people like this.”

“His comments were reckless, harmful and downright disrespectful,” John Feal, an advocate for 9/11 first responders, said in an interview with JI on Tuesday, emphasizing that he did not accept Bowman’s apology. “Congressman Bowman doesn’t regret his comments — he regrets he got caught.”

For all of Bowman’s political problems, Bush may have emerged Tuesday as the Squad member most vulnerable this year, owing to new revelations that the Justice Department is conducting a criminal probe into alleged issues surrounding her handling of federal security funding.

Bush’s campaign has drawn scrutiny for private security expenses, which have totaled more than $750,000 since she was elected in 2020. In 2022, Bush’s campaign paid $60,000 for private security services to her future husband, Cortney Merritts, even as he did not have a private security license, which is required in St. Louis. Her campaign has also paid an unlicensed private security guard, Nathaniel Davis, who has promoted antisemitic conspiracy theories and is reportedly a close friend of Bush.

Bush confirmed she was under investigation in a statement shared on Tuesday. “I hold myself, my campaign and my position to the highest levels of integrity,” she said, stressing that she was “fully cooperating” with the Justice Department as it reviews her “campaign’s spending on security services.”

The two-term lawmaker is facing a robust primary challenge from Wesley Bell, a prominent St. Louis County prosecutor who played a leading role in the aftermath of protests over the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown.

In a statement to JI on Tuesday, Bell described the investigation into his opponent’s “potential misuse of public funds” as “a serious matter,” adding that Bush “is entitled to due process.”

“It is my hope that Rep. Bush will cooperate fully with the investigation and be transparent with the public in responding to the legitimate concerns they are likely to have,” Bell said. “I entered this race because I believe the people of this district deserve a representative they can trust who will show up and get results for them. I feel more strongly about that than ever.”

Bell announced on Monday that he had pulled in nearly $500,000 in the final three months of 2023, a major fundraising haul. Bush, who raised only $120,000 between July and September last year, has not yet revealed her fourth-quarter figures.

At her campaign launch on Saturday, Bush cast herself as an “underdog” with a “calling,” telling supporters, “I need money.”

Bush is among two Squad members facing the prospect of outside spending from Mainstream Democrats PAC, a moderate group that has backed pro-Israel candidates in previous cycles. Dmitri Mehlhorn, a political advisor to the billionaire entrepreneur Reid Hoffman, who largely funds the PAC, has signaled in recent months that top donors are eager to fund credible challengers to Bush and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), who has yet to draw primary competition.

The PAC has not indicated if it will officially back Bell, who has said he entered the race in part because of Bush’s equivocal response to the Oct. 7 attacks, even though Mehlhorn says he has been personally raising money for Bell’s campaign. “In general a Justice Department investigation is not a great campaign brand,” he suggested in an email to JI on Tuesday. “If it turns out she misused official funds, that would be consistent with the critique that she has not prioritized her constituents.”

Brian Goldsmith, a Democratic consultant who often works with Mainstream Democrats and Democratic Majority for Israel, a like-minded group, said that Bush’s legal troubles are likely to fuel concerns among Democratic leaders who are eager for a scandal-free election cycle as they seek to take back the House majority. Former President Trump “has raised the salience of candidates under federal investigation,” he said. “Democrats aren’t going to like this.”

Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar (D-CA) declined to comment on the Bush investigation while speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, saying that he did not know anything about the situation beyond what had been made public.

“Representative Cori Bush has indicated that she is fully cooperating with the Department of Justice in connection with the ongoing investigation,” said Christie Stephenson, a spokesperson for House House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), who has stressed that he will continue to support Squad incumbents facing challenges this cycle. “Like any other American, she is entitled to the presumption of innocence. It is our expectation that the investigation will follow the facts, apply the law and be conducted in a professional manner.”

Additional reporting contributed by JI’s Capitol Hill reporter Marc Rod

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.