Interviews & Profiles

George Latimer: ‘I’m glad that the intensity of the last few weeks of the campaign are over’

From Westchester County executive to likely freshman rep.

George Latimer is likely heading to Congress after a decisive primary victory in the 16th Congressional District.

George Latimer is likely heading to Congress after a decisive primary victory in the 16th Congressional District. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Westchester County Executive George Latimer bested Rep. Jamaal Bowman in their blockbuster 16th Congressional District Democratic primary Tuesday. In the safe blue district, he is almost certainly heading to Congress in 2025 following his decisive victory, but there's still a lot to unpack.

The two candidates ran their races on the backdrop of geopolitical tension, historic outside spending, racial tension, national interest and implications for progressives in New York and throughout the country. However, after the latest presidential debate, he and other Democrats and New York may be shifting their focus to November’s ballot and the other battles on the horizon. There’s also the question of who will replace Latimer when he leaves for DC.

Latimer talked with City & State Thursday about what he believes led to his victory. He also spoke about the future of the county, some of the charges of racial dog-whistling he faced during the campaign, the path of unity he wants to chart in the district, his political future and if he thinks eyeballs will stay glued to the 16th Congressional District.

Most importantly, we checked if the long-time Westchester politician had taken a second to breathe after he and legions of volunteers on both sides of the race pounded the pavement to decide the future of the district. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

How does it feel to be the Democratic nominee for the 16th Congressional District, and if historic trends hold true, the person voters send to Congress next year?

Well, it feels good. I’m glad that the intensity of the last few weeks of the campaign are over. You do a lot of personal campaigning from very early in the morning to late at night, so it’s nice to have a bit of a break from that. I’m immediately focusing forward on the things that will get us to the November campaign, reaching out to those people that might not have been with me during the primary to try to have their support for the general election and to say thank you to the many people that have been with me.

How do you plan on balancing preparations for Congress, and then also, carrying out work in Westchester?

I’ve been county executive for six and a half years. I know the job. I know what’s coming up with the budget, what the time frame is on that, and I don’t have to allocate time to do that. Most of the hard decisions of the budget are made in the late summer, early fall, and the full act of campaigning will follow after Labor Day. We deliver the capital budget again (in) October. That’s pretty much done in September, by September, with a few finishing touches, the operational budget gets approved in November. But I’ve got a great team, Ken Jenkins and others around me. So I’m not worried about that going forward. You know, over the course of the summer, I’m going to have conversations to understand a little bit about the structure of the House, of how the House operates, and the rules of the road. I want to start thinking in terms of what positions I would be staffing, and with what kind of resources. It obviously depends on whether I’m part of the majority or a minority in the House, but I want to do some of that work over the summer into the fall so that I don’t have to start the day after November’s Election Day.

Do you think your win had more to do with messaging, or just your respective abilities to turn out voters?

Well, you have to remember, that if you want to go back to the public, the first of the two public polls that we saw, the Democratic Majority for Israel released the poll. I think it was March, could have been early April, which indicated that I had a 17-point lead. And then the public poll that came out from Emerson, WPIX and The Hill, which is about two weeks before the election, said I had a 17-point lead. And depending on how the last few votes get counted, I end up with a 17-point lead. So I think that there was a framework to the race that was established fairly early on. My name recognition in Westchester was very high for a traditional challenger, and he was an incumbent so he had name recognition in the Bronx, which is 15% of the district. My name recognition was minimal there, and I think it was reflected in the results in the Bronx, but where we were equally or better known, I did very strong. I won by more than 17 points in Westchester, 20% range. So I think it shows that we ran a solid campaign. We have boots on the ground. We had canvassing that went on. We had people out in key places. I personally canvassed very hard. I started going to suburban train stations, bus stops in the city. Started all that stuff in mid-March, and I kept a consistent schedule all the way through, and I think that contributes to the factors. A lot of the race in its coverage was about the Middle East, and a lot of the race was about dollars and cents and how it was raised. But that’s not what I heard on the street. That’s not what I heard from people that I spoke to. They talked about backyard issues and bread-and-butter issues, and I responded to those issues.

I don’t think anyone can say in good faith that you harbor any negative feelings toward people of color in any of the races but, I mean, I think you’d have to admit some of the things you said during this campaign ruffled feathers with people of color when they didn’t need to.

You know, I think people who supported him reacted with ruffled feathers on purpose.

I have a long-standing relationship with the African American community in Westchester County. I have been in churches, I had the support of some ministers, I had the support of African American elected officials. The things that I said, no one in those worlds came to me and said, “George you shouldn’t have said that. That was really off the deep end, George.” It was his supporters that said, “Oh, I’m offended by your comment.” How many times have I had to explain the Dearborn comment? I made the comment about Dearborn because it was where (Rep. Rashida) Tlaib lives, and she made a joint fundraising effort with him, and she draws her money from her base in Dearborn, Michigan. I get asked the question every single time, “Was that a dog whistle to the Muslim community?” No, it wasn’t. It was a statement of geography based on where he raised money. I mentioned San Francisco. Why? Because he had a big fundraiser out there with multimillionaire attendees who donated to him. Somebody tweeted out, “Oh, that’s a dog whistle about homophobia.” My record on LGBTQ issues is untouchable in this county. So we’re in a competitive race. He wants to weaponize whatever argument he can and I understand my age and my demographic may make you think that I don’t get it, but I think my record and my life experience show that I have worked very closely with people who are African American. I have high-level appointees, including my likely successor, Deputy County Executive Ken Jenkins. I reject that. I think this was a strategy. It was a strategy. If we can call him racist, if we can call him insensitive, that will help us. I asked the next day after something was said, I went to different people, “Did I say something wrong? Was this the wrong way to phrase this?” They say, “Well, they’re just out to get you. He just wants to try to make you into something. He wants to make you a MAGA.” He called me a millionaire. I’m not a millionaire. I have a house. If you pass by it, it’s a very average house. It happens to be in a community that’s upscale and it’s worth a million dollars, but it’s not a million-dollar mansion. I think it was a strategy to try to embarrass me. I don’t think it worked.

You did talk about unity on election night, but how do you plan to bring Bowman supporters back into the fold in time for a general election that has more than you on the ballot?

I’ve reached out to the Bronx Democratic (Party) Chair Jamaal Bailey, whom I served as in the state Senate. Jamaal endorsed Jamaal Bowman, as did some other prominent Bronx Democrats. We’re going to meet the next week. We’ll have a conversation as a Democratic candidate, and he will help me devise how he thinks it’s best for me to reach out to those leaders. I’ve had a conversation with some members of the clergy who endorsed Jamaal Bowman, and I’ve said, “I’m happy to sit down and talk through anything that’s appropriate.” That includes Rev. Steven Pope, who I appointed to the Human Rights Commission. I like Steve and I think he’s a terrific religious leader. When he came out for Jamaal, I said, “Steven, I understand, it’s good. You support him. I have no problem with that. We’ll go forward.” My whole demeanor was never anxious and negative toward him. You heard me say all throughout the campaign, if I lost the primary, that’s it. I’m out. Now, I didn’t lose the primary. There’s no further competition. People come up to me and say, the division is just driving us apart. Well, you know, I don’t know what you’re talking about in terms of me, because I’m not attacking him in a way that would then have to be swallowed in the joint effort. I have been out in the community since. So I’m going to reach out to people, some formally, some informally, and it really depends on the individuals. Some people are strong supporters of Jamaal that you know will be angry that I got in the race at all, and there’s nothing I can do to change that. 

How long are you planning to stay in Congress?

Good question. Ask the Lord Almighty, because he may know things that I don’t, plans that I don’t know, but realistically, actuarially, there’s no way I’m going to be there 20 or 30 years. My age won’t permit it. So my attitude is, I go down there, I try to be as effective as I can and whatever period of time that I’m there. I’ll be realistic. I don’t know if I’ll be in the majority of the minority. I’ve been in the minority in the state Senate and in the county legislature. I’ve been in the majority in the Assembly and for a period of time there, in the county legislature. So I know both sides. I’m working for Joe Biden to remain president, and I hope he will be president. I don’t want to consider the alternative, but anything can happen, and my ability to be effective will be directly proportionate to who’s the president, who’s running the chamber and how hard I work, and the hard work part I know I’m going to do. The other parts, we’ll see. I recognize I’m not going to have structural seniority on my side. I’m going to have to be really well-informed on an issue. I’m going to have to seek out relationships and people who are taking leadership on certain issues, and I’m going to have to work hard to try to be in some way, shape or form, impactful on those issues. I worked with Hakeem Jeffries in the state Assembly and a lot of other members on both sides of the aisle. I served with Adriano Espaillat, Tim Kennedy, Paul Tonko, Grace Meng and then on the other side of the aisle, Marc Molinaro, Claudia Tenney, Nicole Malliotakis. Because these are people I've known and worked with in prior experiences, I don’t go down to Washington as a nobody, and I don’t go down to Washington as a powerful player. And I would say this much, I have very much tried to work in politics to advance the interests of the next generation and I have no problem at all working with the party leaders in the Bronx and Westchester to say, “Hey, you want to identify the next person that Democrats will nominate in this district, the person who’s younger and has a certain level of ability, improving dynamism, by all means. You know, do that.” I have no problem with party leadership having those conversations.

Between the spending and the national interest, do you think that will continue into future primaries in this district?

Generally, spending follows some important issue that motivates people. Hard-earned money is hard for people to pull out of their wallet. I’m sure it's true for you. It’s certainly true for me. When individuals decide that they are going to take the positions they do and they have calculated that there are people that don’t agree with those positions, then you’re mindful of what you have to do to have the resources necessary to compete if somebody is going to be coming after you with all their resources. You don’t egg them on, and you don’t challenge them, you just use your noodle. And you’re trying to figure out, how can I go forward, advance the things I want, and do it in a way that doesn’t generate the maximum opposition.