George Latimer’s run against Bowman splits grassroots activist groups in Westchester

Former Latimer supporters are launching a new group called “Westchester Progressives" to show support for Rep. Jamaal Bowman.

Members of “Westchester Progressives” hold signs explaining why they are no longer supporting George Latimer

Members of “Westchester Progressives” hold signs explaining why they are no longer supporting George Latimer Donny Khan/Westchester Progressives

Indivisible Westchester is divided.

The local progressive activist group was a strong supporter of Democrat George Latimer in 2017 when he successfully challenged Republican Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino. But Latimer’s decision last year to launch a primary challenge against Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman, one of the most outspoken progressives in Congress, has split Westchester’s progressive activist community. 

Some members of groups like Indivisible Westchester and NYDC16 Indivisible have embraced Latimer, believing that Bowman’s criticism of Israel has been beyond the pale. Others have rallied to Bowman’s side, concerned about Latimer’s support from conservative donors and his more moderate politics. The groups themselves have remained strictly neutral, refusing to weigh in on an intra-Democratic fight.

On Thursday, more than two dozen local progressive activists in Westchester – including at least two members of Indivisible Westchester’s steering committee and the co-chairs of NYCD16 Indivisible’s criminal justice and environmental working groups – announced the formation of a new group known as “Westchester Progressives” and a social media campaign called “Latimer Lost Us,” featuring former Latimer supporters who are now backing Bowman.

Many of the co-founders of “Westchester Progressives” are involved with grassroots groups associated with Indivisible, a national progressive movement founded by former Democratic congressional staffers that sprung up following Donald Trump’s election in 2016. They were eager to support Latimer when he announced that he would challenge Astorino, the Republican incumbent, for Westchester County executive in 2017.

“We supported him because Astorino is extremely right-wing, and George seemed better, and the things he said sounded OK. And frankly, he wasn't a Trumpster and he wasn't Astorino. So we gave him a chance,” said Iris Hiskey Arno, who sits on the steering committee of NYCD16 Indivisible.

Donny Khan and Farah Kathwari are members of Indivisible Westchester’s steering committee and the co-founders of American Muslims Indivisible. Both worked as volunteers for Latimer’s 2017 campaign, and Khan helped mobilize Muslim voters in Westchester to vote for Latimer.

“We started American Muslims Indivisible to introduce George Latimer to the Muslim community,” Khan recalled. “One of the most gratifying parts was that someone came up to me after our first meeting with George Latimer in a community center and said, ‘Listen, I’ve never had a politician come and meet with the Muslim community here.’ So that was a big moment for us.”

After Latimer won the election, Kathwari served on his transition team, and Latimer later appointed her to the Westchester County Human Rights Commission.

In 2020, Bowman successfully ran for Congress against then-Rep. Eliot Engel, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. A political outsider, Bowman was one of the first Black men to represent Westchester in Congress, and his victory inspired many of the progressives who had previously worked so hard to get Latimer elected.

“When Jamaal came along, he was a breath of fresh air. He was exciting. If you've ever met him, he's so warm and funny and compassionate. He always talks about peace and love…and he's also very progressive,” Hiskey Arno said. “He's very great on Medicare For All, he's great on criminal justice, he's great on climate, he's great on everything. And he's not someone who will constantly compromise to keep in his job. He's someone who will stick up for his principles.”

Even after Bowman was elected, progressives didn’t abandon Latimer. The two men had very different approaches to Democratic politics; Bowman was more radical, pushing the party to the left, while Latimer was a reliably anti-Trump politician who didn’t make too many waves. But the two were not in conflict – until last year, that is.

Last year, reports began to emerge that Latimer was thinking of primarying Bowman with the support of AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups.

NYCD16 Indivisible joined with other local activist groups to send a letter to Latimer attempting to dissuade him from running from Congress.

“At a time when unity is everything, a primary between two popular Democrats, incumbent Congressman Jamaal Bowman and Westchester County Executive George Latimer can only serve to tear Democratic and activist groups apart – negatively affecting our attention to critical issues including electoral work, the climate crisis, criminal justice, healthcare, and immigration,” Hiskey Arno, a member of NYCD16 Indivisible’s steering committee, said in a statement at the time.

But Latimer ignored their plea and primaried Bowman. As Hiskey Arno had predicted, the primary tore apart Westchester’s progressive community. 

“It's been incredibly, incredibly divisive and terrible,” she said. “Neighbors don't talk to each other. People are afraid to put out a yard sign. We have yard signs being removed. In Hastings, people are pasting pictures of the (Israeli) hostages over Jamaal's face.”

As the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other pro-Israel groups showered Latimer’s campaign with donations and local Westchester elected officials lined up to endorse him, a coalition of left-leaning activist led by the state Working Families Party groups closed ranks around Bowman. A few of the groups that had signed onto the letter urging Latimer not to run, including New York Communities for Change and the New York Progressive Action Network, subsequently endorsed Bowman. But none of the Indivisible groups did.

Indivisible Westchester, which declined to comment on the record, and other grassroots progressive groups have generally focused on supporting Democrats in general election fights and stayed out of Democratic primaries. But Khan believes that an exception should be made this year.

"Progressive grassroots groups in Westchester County have historically abstained from voting in Democratic primaries. In my opinion, that was mainly because the Democratic candidates in primaries tend to be relatively similar in their positions and we can count on them to represent our values and principles in Congress,” he said. “However, the Democratic primary in NYCD-16 this year, is not only completely unnecessary in my opinion, it truly challenges the basic progressive values a lot of us hold dear.”