News & Politics

Bowman and Latimer spar over Israel and public safety in first debate

The two candidates in the closely-watched primary race debated issues ranging from the war in Gaza to flood recovery funding.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (left) and Westchester County Executive George Latimer participate in a congressional primary debate hosted by News 12 on May 13, 2024.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (left) and Westchester County Executive George Latimer participate in a congressional primary debate hosted by News 12 on May 13, 2024. News 12

Democrats Rep. Jamaal Bowman and Westchester County Executive George Latimer traded barbs on Tuesday night during the first head-to-head debate between the two candidates vying to represent New York’s 16th Congressional District. Discussion of the Israel-Hamas War dominated the debate, which was hosted by local cable news channel News 12. The race has garnered national attention, with many observers treating it as a litmus test for the relative strength of the pro-Palestinian left wing of the Democratic Party that Bowman belongs to. But the debate was not limited to foreign policy issues, and the candidates also had to answer for issues closer to home like flooding and public safety.

Latimer’s opening statement referenced Bowman’s primary win against former Rep. Eliot Engel four years ago. A major theme of Bowman’s campaign was that Engel didn’t spend enough time in, or thinking about, the district. “We're here four years later for an accountability as to who best can represent the people of this district,” Latimer said. 

Bowman touted his successes bringing funding to the district and working with Democrats to pass major legislation. He then criticized Latimer’s alliance with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has become infamous in progressive circles for its funding of right-wing pro-Israel candidates, including some who have refused to accept the fact that President Joe Biden won the 2020 election. “We got to deal with the issue of racial justice, inequality, voting rights, climate justice and all of the issues MAGA Republicans who my opponent is working with, are trying to take away from us in Washington,” he said.

 As far as the conflict in the Middle East was concerned, Bowman and Latimer each took familiar positions. Both candidates said that they supported a two-state solution to the conflict. But Bowman, the progressive incumbent, spoke about the plight of Palestinians and the need for both a permanent ceasefire in Gaza and a change in Israeli leadership. Latimer, a decades-long Westchester political force and strong supporter of the Israeli state and military, argued that any talk of a ceasefire must begin with the freeing of hostages taken by militant group Hamas. He also said that the phrase “From the river to the sea, Palestine must be free” – a slogan frequently heard at pro-Palestinian protests – was hate speech. 

Bowman pushed back on the idea that pro-Palestinian protests are inherently antisemitic and said that education can be a tool to stem the tide of hate speech and hate crimes. “We can have a free Palestine and fight antisemitism and that's what we need to do here, not just through rhetoric, but through education and connecting communities,” he said. 

Latimer brought up his re-establishment of the county’s Human Rights Commission and his efforts to address inequality, regardless of background, in Westchester. “I've made a point, not just to deal with one or two communities that are subjected to hate, but all of the communities that are subjected to hate,” he said.

When asked about the recent pro-Palestinian campus protests that have sprung up on colleges from New York City to Buffalo, including at SUNY Purchase in the 16th Congressional District, Latimer said that campus leadership had a duty to prepare better for demonstrations. 

Bowman defended the protests as the latest in a long line of activism, a response that drew murmurs from the audience. “If we didn't have free speech in this country and the right to peaceful assembly, we may still have enslaved Africans in our nation,” he said. “We still got to fight for women's rights but we would have even less than we have right now. We wouldn't have LGBTQ rights in our country.” 

When the two candidates compared their records in office, Latimer took the opportunity to push Bowman’s buttons over the infamous fire alarm episode. “This is what you have when you have a person who wants to be in an office in order to become important and special, as opposed to a person (who) comes into office to do the job of a congressman, legislation and funding,” he said.

“If I was such a horrible person, Hakeem Jeffries would not have endorsed me in this race, along with all of Democratic leadership,” Bowman replied, adding that video footage of the fire alarm incident had been manipulated to make things appear worse than they were.

On the issue of public safety, Bowman said that the key to making district residents feel safer was investments in public resources like healthcare, education and workforce development. He advocated for a “public health” approach to public safety instead of increased police funding. “My opponent doesn't know his facts,” Latimer responded, arguing that increased police presence was key for a multifaceted approach to public safety. 

When a member of the audience asked the candidates about recent flooding in Westchester County and the allocation of flood recovery funds, Latimer invited the questioner to review the county’s budget with him. Bowman took it as an opportunity to suggest that Latimer was negligent on the issue. 

“My opponent was accosted by people because he had been in office for a number of years and didn't do much on the issue,” he said, referring to a Mamaroneck press conference about flood recovery funding that both he and Latimer had attended. Bowman said that he took time to speak with constituents about the issue following the press conference while Latimer had not. 

In their closing arguments, each candidate gave their best case for why they should represent the district.

Latimer brought up his blue-collar upbringing and his appreciation of other cultures, while reminding voters of his record as a legislator dating back to local office. 

Bowman said he would not take money from special interests and would serve communities left behind by politicians like Latimer. But as he mentioned the Black community in the district, he ran out of time and was cut off.

As News 12 Westchester reporter Tara Rosenblum closed out the broadcast, the two candidates got back into it. With just a few weeks left before voters head to the polls on June 25, Bowman and Latimer reminded viewers that this isn’t just any old primary, but has high stakes and implications that go well beyond the future of Westchester.