News & Politics

George Latimer says run against Bowman is about more than Israel

The Westchester County executive doesn’t want his primary challenge to Rep. Jamaal Bowman to become a referendum on AIPAC or on race.

In this screenshot from his campaign announcement video, Westchester County Executive George Latimer speaks about his decision to run for Congress.

In this screenshot from his campaign announcement video, Westchester County Executive George Latimer speaks about his decision to run for Congress. George Latimer for Congress

After months of speculation, Westchester County Executive George Latimer officially jumped into the race for the 16th Congressional District, setting the stage for a dramatic Democratic primary against incumbent Rep. Jamaal Bowman.

Latimer announced his campaign on Wednesday, a week after returning from a trip to Israel and two days after he formally filed to create a fundraising committee. He had been courted to run for months by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and local Democrats who are unhappy with Bowman. He told City & State that he decided to run after tying up loose ends in his role as county executive.

Even before Latimer entered the race, Bowman had attracted a long-shot primary challenge from first-time candidate finance executive Martin Dolan. But Latimer’s entry into the race represents a serious threat to Bowman, who has become a nationally-recognized progressive voice (and survived multiple primary challenges) since unseating former Rep. Eliot Engel in 2020.

In recent weeks, left-wing groups have come out in support of Bowman – including the New York Working Families Party, which was instrumental in his rise to power, and the activist group Make the Road NY. Meanwhile, Bowman’s colleague Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has already begun fundraising for Bowman. It is expected to be an expensive primary

Latimer said that he hasn’t fundraised a dime, but that is likely to change soon. It’s been reported AIPAC may spend $100 million to oust progressive congress members from “The Squad,” which includes both Bowman and Ocasio-Cortez. 

Latimer downplayed the AIPAC connection, telling City & State that he has not been promised campaign funds from the group, though he has been in contact with them since the spring. “It cannot be just a referendum on AIPAC,” he said. “That's not why I'm in the race, and that's not the central focus of the race.”

Emma Simon, a spokesperson for Bowman, told the New York Times, “It’s not a surprise” that AIPAC recruited a challenger for the race given its conservative funding sources and history of primarying Black Democrats.

For his part, Latimer pointed out that Justice Democrats has fundraised for Bowman, and said that the progressive political action committee is part of a narrative that has attempted to paint him as “white,” “old,” “part of the establishment” and “kind of out of it.”

He said that he has a Black deputy, went to majority Black public schools growing up and organized for Black tenants. “I grew up as a white kid in a Black neighborhood, was I a racist?” Latimer asked after quoting Martin Luther King.

 On Wednesday, Gov. Kathy Hochul all but endorsed Latimer. While making clear that she would not weigh in on the race, she told reporters that she had a strong relationship with the county executive and said that she knew “how important it is that we get Democrats elected who go to Washington, represent their districts properly and work hand in hand with the governor.”

The complicated race will take place in a district where national and community interests are intertwined – particularly around Israel.

Bowman’s criticism of the Israeli government and calls for a ceasefire in Gaza have rankled some community members, including Jewish constituents who were sad to see him replace former Rep. Eliot Engel in the first place. The calls for Latimer to run intensified after the beginning of the war in Gaza and the political rhetoric that followed. 

While Latimer takes issue with Bowman’s stance on Israel, he said that he does not want it to become a one-issue race. He also criticized Bowman for voting against the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill. (Bowman, like other members of the Squad, supported the bill but refused to vote for it unless the House also considered passing the Build Back Better bill at the same time.)

“To some extent, it's not about Israel at all,” Latimer said. “It's about (how Bowman) doesn't vote for the infrastructure bill when we desperately need money for infrastructure to deal with backyard issues. It's the question of how do you gear up your district office to really focus on the local needs of a community and are you more interested in the national profile that you're creating for yourself?”

Bowman does have a national profile, appearing on national television to debate topics like gun control. At times, he has found notoriety for the wrong reasons, as when he infamously pulled a fire alarm during a congressional vote on a government shutdown bill – an incident that led to Bowman apologizing and paying a small fine after being charged with a misdemeanor.

Latimer does not seem interested in gaining national recognition. He said voters will note that he, at 70, won’t have a long career in Congress with dreams of committee chairmanships and will instead only focus on his district.

Latimer said he would rather highlight what he could do in office than bash Bowman over his stances – although his opening campaign advert specifically criticizes Bowman for some of the votes he’s taken in Congress. “I'm going to defend where I need to defend, but I'm not worrying about him and what he's saying or doing, I’m worrying about me and the way I can make the best possible case on my behalf,” Latimer said.

The 16th Congressional District, like all other congressional districts in New York, could have its boundaries changed depending on the outcome of a redistricting case currently before the New York state Court of Appeals. If the court allows the Independent Redistricting Commission to redraw the district lines, then the district could become more or less favorable to Bowman, depending on how the lines are drawn..  

Latimer said that he is watching the situation closely. “Am I going to win? Who knows. Other factors come into play, most importantly, the district lines,” he said, adding that if the lines were redrawn so that the district included more of the Bronx and less of Westchester County, then he’s “not gonna win that race.” Latimer also said that he does not speak about redistricting with his deputy Ken Jenkins, who is also the chairman of the Independent Redistricting Committee. 

Political writer Michael Lange thinks there will be big ramifications from a Bowman primary challenge from Latimer and was taken aback by the diligence with which Latimer assembled his campaign. “As someone who has an affinity for Jamaal Bowman, I am concerned,” Lange said.

Lange predicted that AIPAC will shell out $20 million in the race against Bowman. “He’s their number one target,” he said. 

“I think progressives, rightfully so, view this as an existential threat to the movement,” he added. “If Jamaal Bowman can go down then no one's really safe, you know?” Lange said that if Bowman and other Squad members lose reelection, it would leave progressive firebrand Ocasio-Cortez with few allies in the House.

Latimer’s decades of successful campaigning and legislating coupled with his name recognition in Westchester County make him a robust candidate, though Lange pointed out that while Latimer mopped the floor with Republican candidates before, he’s rarely had to win a primary, let alone a congressional primary.  “Latimer, despite being 18-0 in elections, a number his allies frequently cite, has only had to win one Democratic primary in his career – his 2017 bid for Westchester County executive,” Lange said. “Meanwhile, Bowman has already won two congressional primaries.”

As the Israel-Hamas conflict is co-opted into the larger fight over the future of the Democratic Party the contest between Bowman and Latimer could serve as a litmus test for what voters feel reflects them most: moderate policies or progressive ideology. “History is written by the winners,” Lange said. “Certainly, I think we're at an inflection point.”