Can Bowman get back in DSA’s good graces?

Three years after nearly expelling Rep. Jamaal Bowman, the socialist organization is considering whether to endorse him once again.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (center) holds a press conference outside the White House with Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani (second from left) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (second from right), both of whom have been endorsed by DSA, on Nov. 29, 2023.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (center) holds a press conference outside the White House with Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani (second from left) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (second from right), both of whom have been endorsed by DSA, on Nov. 29, 2023. Celal Gunes/Anadolu via Getty Images

Rep. Jamaal Bowman has formally applied for a last-minute endorsement from the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America as he attempts to fend off a formidable primary challenge from Westchester County Executive George Latimer. NYC-DSA plans to hold a virtual forum with Bowman on Sunday.

Bowman was once a member of the organization and received its endorsement when he first ran for office in 2020, though some in DSA later tried to expel him and he was not endorsed for reelection in 2022. A campaign spokesperson later told Politico that he had let his DSA membership lapse.

The news that he is once again seeking an endorsement comes as DSA’s national leadership considers whether to re-endorse Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – perhaps the best-known DSA member and one of the most popular progressive politicians in the country – for reelection. DSA’s New York City chapter has already endorsed Ocasio-Cortez for reelection, but some within the national leadership feel that the congresswoman is no longer aligned with the group’s values. 

Ocasio-Cortez’s defenders in the DSA – and there are many, especially in New York City – say that even if they don’t agree with everything that she has done, she has helped raise the DSA’s profile and supported many of the organization’s top priorities. Just this week, she appeared at a press conference to endorse the Not on Our Dime Act, a controversial bill sponsored by DSA members in the state Legislature that would block New York charities from funding Israeli settlements in the West Bank and actions in Gaza that violate the Geneva Conventions.

Last-minute endorsement

The Bowman campaign’s decision to seek an endorsement from the DSA grew out of informal conversations that members of the DSA have had with Bowman over the past few months while working together to organize in favor of a ceasefire in Gaza.

“There’s always been connections between the Bowman campaign and (DSA) members in New York City,” said Grace Mausser, NYC-DSA’s director of candidate recruitment. “Some of them work for him. Some of them have formally been part of working with him on federal legislation and stuff like that. So there were ongoing conversations for several months.”

The Bowman campaign declined to comment on why it had waited so long to seek an endorsement from the DSA. Instead, his campaign manager Gabe Tobias released a statement including the DSA among a larger list of his supporters. “While George Latimer is fundraising with Trump mega donors and going on MAGA radio shows to complain about Black voter turnout ‘skewing results,’ our campaign is proud to be building the big tent coalition - from Leader Jeffries, Planned Parenthood Action Fund and SEIU1199 to the grassroots member-driven energy of groups like NYC-DSA,” he said.

The Latimer campaign cast Bowman’s request for a DSA endorsement as more evidence that his politics are too radical. “After his endless series of scandals, Jamaal Bowman is showing his true extreme ideology, desperately begging for support from a group that wants to pull the US out of NATO and abandon our allies; end sanctions against Russia, North Korea, and Iran; wipe Israel off the map; and legalize fentanyl. Let's see what the voters think about that,” a campaign spokesperson said in a statement.

With only five weeks to go until election day on June 25, the DSA is slightly accelerating its typically lengthy and involved endorsement process. Mausser explained to City & State exactly how the process will work. 

On Sunday, NYC-DSA is hosting a candidate forum, which will be open to all members. Following the forum, members of NYC-DSA’s Bronx/Upper Manhattan Branch will be able to vote online on whether to support or reject Bowman’s endorsement. There will also be an online straw poll on the endorsement that’s open to all members of NYC-DSA, though it’s nonbinding. If at least 60% of the voters in the Bronx/Upper Manhattan branch poll support the endorsement, then it will be considered at a meeting of NYC-DSA’s Citywide Leadership Committee scheduled for Tuesday. If at least 60% of the Citywide Leadership Committee also votes in favor of the endorsement, it will become official.

Mausser believes that it is more likely than not that DSA members will vote in favor of the endorsement, though she also expects him to receive some tough questions at the candidate forum on Sunday.

One particular issue that is likely to come up is the question of whether Bowman would cross-endorse any of DSA’s state legislative candidates if he receives the endorsement. 

One of DSA’s top electoral priorities is the Assembly District 82 race in the north Bronx, where DSA member Jonathan Soto is challenging incumbent Assembly Member Michael Benedetto in the Democratic primary. In order to beat Benedetto, Soto needs to win Co-Op City, a vote-rich development that the most recent round of redistricting moved into Bowman’s congressional district. The Soto campaign believes that an endorsement from Bowman would make a real difference in the race.

So far, Bowman has not made an endorsement in the race. Endorsing Soto would not be without risks for the congressman. It could prompt Benedetto – who has the support of the Democratic establishment in the Bronx and a number of unions – to turn around and endorse Latimer. Still, DSA members trying to get Soto elected feel that it’s only fair for Bowman to help out Soto in exchange for receiving DSA’s support in his own race.

Bowman and DSA

Bowman has always had a complex relationship with DSA. 

He joined the Lower Hudson Valley chapter of DSA in late 2019, after launching a primary challenge against former Rep. Eliot Engel, then the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Bowman also applied for an endorsement from the group, but initially, he did not receive it. At the time, Bowman was one of two progressive candidates – the other was Andom Ghebreghiorgis – challenging Engel in the Democratic primary for the 16th Congressional District. 

The Lower Hudson Valley chapter of DSA was almost evenly split between the two progressives and neither reached the 60% threshold needed for an endorsement. Shortly before the primary election in June 2020, though, Ghebreghiorgis dropped out of the race, making it a two-person race. After that, the DSA reached back out to the Bowman campaign with a last-minute endorsement.

Once in office, Bowman supported a number of DSA priorities – including the Green New Deal and the PRO Act. But his position on Israel and Palestine differed significantly from that of the DSA. The socialist organization is proudly anti-Zionist and formally signed on to the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” campaign against Israel in 2017. Within mainstream Democratic politics, BDS is very controversial. New York and other states have even passed tried to prohibit it. But within DSA, what’s controversial is not embracing BDS. 

In September 2021, Bowman voted in favor of a bill to send an additional $1 billion in military aid for Israel to fund its Iron Dome anti-missile system. (Ocasio-Cortez voted “present” on the bill, neither supporting or opposing it.) He also met with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and participated in a Congressional Progressive Caucus trip to Israel organized by the liberal pro-Israel group J Street. 

Bowman’s decisions to support military aid to Israel and visit Israel upset many in the DSA. The organization’s national BDS Working Group even argued that Bowman should be expelled from the DSA for violating the principles of BDS, a call that was supported by some far-flung chapters across the country – though not by any of the New York chapters that worked directly with him. In December 2021, the DSA’s national leadership, a 16-member body known as the National Political Committee, released a statement sharply criticizing Bowman but declined to expel him. 

Still, the damage was done. Bowman did not seek an endorsement from DSA in 2022 and allowed his membership in the socialist organization to lapse. The BDS Solidarity Working Group, which had helped lead the charge to expel Bowman, also later cut ties with the organization, feeling that it was too soft on politicians who did not support BDS. 

Now known as the Palestine Solidarity Working Group, the group remains highly critical of Bowman – and of any organization that would endorse him. “‘Socialist’ organizations shouldn’t give their endorsement to Zionist politicians who arm settler colonial states and go on propaganda trips. NYC-DSA, if they endorse, show that they refuse to learn this lesson,” the group told City & State in a statement.

In recent months, the DSA and Bowman have increasingly found themselves on the same side. The congress member has become an outspoken critic of Israel’s invasion of Gaza – labeling it a “genocide” and connecting the struggle for Palestinian rights to racial justice struggles in the United States – while NYC-DSA has launched phonebanking campaigns to pressure local members of Congress to call for a permanent ceasefire and worked with Arab and Jewish groups to organize pro-Palestinian demonstrations across the city. 

Bowman’s strident criticism of Israel has come at a cost. After he labeled the war in Gaza a “genocide,” J Street pulled its endorsement. He faces a strong primary challenge from Latimer, and pro-Israel groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and Pro-Israel America are pouring money into the race with the goal of unseating Bowman. AIPAC reportedly plans to spend up to $20 million attacking Bowman and boosting Latimer.

Layla al-Sheikh, a Palestinian-American member of the DSA who has helped lead the organization’s pro-ceasefire organizing, said that she and other members of the DSA have warmed to Bowman as they’ve seen him advocate for Palestinians despite the political costs.

“He's taking some risk, and I think that's something that a lot of DSA members really appreciate. They appreciate that someone is willing to put their neck out for Palestine,” she said. “I think there's a lot to be very happy with. Not to say that there is nothing to improve on, of course, but if we're looking to build a pro-Palestinian bloc in Congress, he's someone that we should keep an eye on.”

Endorsing AOC

Ocasio-Cortez is beloved by many in the DSA. She was easily endorsed by the New York City chapter, with more than 80% of voting members in NYC-DSA’s Queens and Bronx/Upper Manhattan branches voting in favor of re-endorsing her. But some in the organization’s national leadership believe that she should not be endorsed because her politics are no longer aligned with the DSA.

The DSA is a big tent organization, not unlike the Democratic Party. It experiences many of the same tensions between pragmatists and ideologues. But the far-left flank of the Democratic Party – people like Ocasio-Cortez and Bowman – represent the right flank of DSA. The organization is also home to a left flank that is skeptical of Democratic politics. There are endless debates within the DSA about whether the organization should support progressive Democrats, build a third-party alternative to the Democratic Party or stop focusing on electoral politics altogether.

It’s in that context, the Red Star caucus, one of the left factions within DSA, published a post this month with the title “Endorsing AOC is a Bridge to Nowhere.” The post accuses Ocasio-Cortez of abandoning DSA and faults her for encouraging those on the left to support President Joe Biden’s reelection, given Biden’s support for Israel’s war in Gaza.

“While AOC has had a historic impact on DSA, her impact today is negligible, and her public endorsement by DSA will be a net negative for the organization. AOC's early political alignment has considerably shifted; she has taken up the mantle of a peacemaker between the Democratic Party and the socialist-left movement to support President Biden's reelection,” the post reads.

Members of NYC-DSA pushed back on the Red Star post, noting how Ocasio-Cortez regularly endorses DSA-backed candidates and participates in DSA events.

“I think it would be a big mistake for the organization if we severed our relationship with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who, if anything, is working more closely with our chapter more than ever before,” said Sam Lewis, who previously led NYC-DSA’s electoral efforts in Brooklyn.

Much of the DSA’s success has come on the local level, with DSA-backed state legislators helping to pass legislation in Albany. But Mausser believes that the DSA must be willing to work with popular and charismatic politicians who align with it on most issues – people like Ocasio-Cortez, Bowman and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“These national figures are key to building a mass movement,” she said. “The state projects are really, really important. It's really critical to move legislation. But if we're trying to build something nationally, you need national figures.”