Interviews & Profiles

Jamaal Bowman has given up on changing minds. Turnout is his only hope.

The Democratic primary between Bowman and George Latimer could come down to voter turnout in a handful of Westchester County cities.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman speaks at Grammys on the Hill: Advocacy Day on April 27, 2023.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman speaks at Grammys on the Hill: Advocacy Day on April 27, 2023. Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

On a Saturday in late May, Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman gathered volunteers and canvassers for his reelection campaign on a pavilion in Co-op City. All were aware of the challenge on their hands – staving off a primary challenge from Westchester County Executive George Latimer, a well-known local politician running a well-resourced campaign. Bowman told his supporters that it was still possible for him to win reelection, though he warned it would not be easy.

“Quit your jobs,” Bowman joked to the crowd, which included members of the New York Working Families Party, Jews for Jamaal, Protect Our Power and other local and national progressive organizations. But some had done exactly that, packing up their lives and moving across the country to New York to do their bit to keep him in Congress. Rather than just tell them why their work was so important, Bowman laid out his theory of how the election would play out.

He predicted that there would be record voter turnout during the first three days of early voting (which began June 15) and on Election Day, June 25. He said the race would likely be close, but he would be declared the victor late on election night.

“It’s going to get into the evening, and we’re going to be watching the news,” Bowman said, “and at about 10:30 p.m., some news anchor is going to say, ‘I have seen enough. Congressman Jamaal Bowman has won his primary in spite of AIPAC spending the most amount of money ever.’”

For Bowman, the key to victory is turnout, not persuasion. He’s a polarizing figure, and his strident criticism of Israel has turned off many pro-Israel Jewish voters in the district, which extends from Westchester County to a sliver of the northern Bronx. Latimer has spent decades building up a network of supporters, centered on his base in Rye. Bowman runs strongest in the more urban areas of the district – the Bronx, Yonkers and Mount Vernon. Latimer has tried to peel off support from Bowman in those communities, even as his sometimes inartful discussions of race have alienated voters of color.

Whenever he is asked about the race or his opponent, Latimer will often find a way to say, “Come down to Westchester, ask around, people know George.” People know Bowman too, but the difference is that Latimer has been representing some part of Westchester for over 30 years. Not only do possible allies in his race to unseat Bowman already “know George,” they’ve been calling on him for favors and advice long before Bowman was in politics.

Shuffling out of a White Plains endorsement announcement, Mayor Thomas Roach said he didn’t necessarily have an issue with Bowman or his policies, but he and Latimer have maintained a working relationship ever since Latimer shepherded him into politics in the ’90s. For all of his involvement in securing federal money for the district and fighting for local causes, Bowman clearly has a visibility issue, with some finding it more likely that they’ll see him on MSNBC than in their own town. Latimer’s supporters said the county executive keeps a jam-packed schedule that takes him to city council hearings and farmers markets all the same.

Latimer has been making the rounds even more than usual lately, a strategy aided by his day job as head of the county. Whether at an environmental event outside Valhalla, a train stop in Port Chester or even an office building in White Plains, he’s a constant presence in the district.

“With Bowman, I haven’t seen that level of engagement,” Roach said.

Although many of his constituents may not know Bowman personally, they certainly know about his position on Israel.

In the months since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, Bowman has harshly criticized the Israeli government and called for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza. He has accused Israel of committing “genocide” in Gaza – an accusation that prompted the liberal pro-Israel group J Street to rescind its endorsement of him. He also dismissed reports that babies had been beheaded and women had been raped during the Hamas attack as a “lie” and “propaganda.”

Bowman acknowledged that his stance on Israel has become a major issue in the district, which is home to a large number of pro-Israel Jewish voters. “I think one of the reasons why you hear about it more now than maybe you did then, is because as a member of Congress, I’ve offered a different point of view, or perspective, or critique, and it’s something that the district’s not used to,” he told City & State in an interview. “I mean, you know who was leading the district before me, right?”

Bowman’s predecessor, former Rep. Eliot Engel, was widely recognized as one of the strongest and most consistent advocates for Israel in Congress.

Bowman’s attacks on Israel have alienated large numbers of pro-Israel Jewish voters in the district and attracted the attention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has spent more than $12 million on ads attacking Bowman.

The Jewish vote in the 16th Congressional District is not a monolith, and Bowman has received support from smaller, leftist Jewish groups like Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. But not long after Latimer announced his campaign, Westchester Board of Rabbis Chair Evan Hoffman told City & State that many Jewish voters in the district were disappointed when Bowman ousted Engel in 2020.

And in October, 26 rabbis in Westchester County called on Latimer to enter the race in response to Bowman’s perceived lack of support for Israel, writing, “Since being elected, Bowman has led the effort to erode support for Israel on Capitol Hill and within the Democratic Party.”

Bowman’s supporters believe that if they can energize friendly voters and explain what’s at stake, they’ll have a path to victory. Bowman’s campaign is also targeting the youth vote, since most university students will be back home for the summer, just in time for the June 25 primary. So it’s no surprise that Bowman is a frequent presence on TikTok and had a guest spot on the popular radio show “The Breakfast Club.”

Larchmont resident Daisy Burckin is on break from Columbia University and volunteers with Protect Our Power. The daughter of Latimer supporters, she has spent a decent chunk of her summer knocking on doors for Bowman. She agrees with the campaign’s turnout-focused strategy.

“I think voter turnout is still a big issue, and not everyone who wants to vote is able to vote, so I definitely think pushing the early voting and canvassing all through Election Day will matter,” Burckin said. “It’s a good game plan.”

She conceded that some voters feel Bowman hasn’t been as visible as he could have been, but she believes that he has made up for it with what he’s been able to bring back to the district and accomplish at a local level – even if he doesn’t have a 30-year track record to fall back on like Latimer does.

For Bowman’s strategy to work, though, he’ll need to do even better in key areas of the district than he did during the Democratic congressional primary two years ago. In 2022, Bowman won the Democratic primary with 54.4% of the vote, beating Westchester County Legislators Vedat Gashi and Catherine Parker. When you break down the numbers, though, there’s a clear path to victory for an opponent able to unify the less urban portions of the district while holding their own in Westchester County’s cities.

According to county data, Bowman took 57.4% of the vote share in Westchester’s cities, but only 44.8% of the vote in its towns. In Yonkers, his campaign headquarters, he took 61.1% of the city’s 7,199 cast ballots.

Two years later, the goal is to dramatically increase turnout in his strongholds while holding on to his margins everywhere else. In theory, he’ll have a lot to pull from – there are 65,284 and 31,521 registered Democrats in Yonkers and Mount Vernon, respectively – but primary races tend to attract significantly fewer voters.

For more than three decades, Latimer’s political base has been centered around Rye. But he’s also fighting to chip away at Bowman’s support in the district’s more urban areas. He boasts of doing dozens of events in the county’s larger cities, while making sure to venture to the Bronx as well. Latimer has had some success at peeling away support in Yonkers, Bowman’s home turf. Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano, City Council President Lakisha Collins-Bellamy and two more Yonkers City Council members all endorsed him recently.

Sitting in the office of a supporter before a wave of endorsements was announced down the hall, Latimer said he knows he has work to do in the rest of the 16th Congressional District.

“Some of it is voter education, some of it is introducing myself and then for some people, it’s what I’ve actually done, because as we’ve talked about before, my record in public office is significant,” he said. “It doesn’t get mentioned much because the race is framed by, you know, certain players in certain ways.”

Latimer’s attempts to chip away at Bowman’s support in places like Yonkers and Mount Vernon has occasionally been hamstrung by his clunky way of talking about race, sometimes by highlighting his Black friends and subordinates, and he conflated the chorus of people who called for former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s resignation to the lynch mob that beat, shot and drowned Emmett Till.

Latimer has also gotten in trouble for some of what his supporters have said. Terry Degatano, vice chair of the Westchester County Democratic Committee, called Bowman an “angry, lying Black man” in a comment on Latimer’s personal Facebook account following the first debate.

Mamaroneck Trustee Leilani Yizar-Reid, one of the few local politicians to endorse Bowman over Latimer, said that while Latimer probably does not endorse such comments, he has not rushed to shut them down. “Somebody can’t tell you that you don’t have control over your campaign,” Yizar-Reid said. “If you don’t have control over how people represent you in your campaign, either that’s what you believe, or you have no control, and if you don’t have control, how can you do your job as an elected official?”

Bowman, who said that he and his staff have received race-based death threats for more than a year, does not see the rhetoric as emblematic of any particular racial fracture in the district, just as a reality of America. “I let the voters draw their own conclusions,” he said. “I know racial bias is real. I know institutional structural racism is real.”

Latimer believes that he can pitch himself to nonwhite voters on the back of kitchen table issues. He says that his being a septuagenarian, white man from Rye is less of a barrier than some think.

“It doesn’t matter what your demographics are, it matters if you can understand (where) the other person’s coming from,” he said. “I don’t have to be gay to understand what an LGBTQ person has to deal with in society. I don’t have to be a woman to understand what a woman is trying to accomplish in protecting her rights.”

Latimer said his seemingly endless endorsements from Westchester elected officials were also a selling point for voters, since they will make delivering on local priorities easier. As a member of Congress, he might not have a signature “George Latimer bill,” but he said that he would serve as a conduit between the federal government and the district, using his relationship-building skills to get things done in Washington, D.C., that can tick off a local to-do list from officials in Westchester and the Bronx. “You have to figure out how to tie that back to solving the problem in your backyard, and I’ve had experience doing that,” he said.

Veteran political strategist Hank Sheinkopf said Latimer was smart to try to whittle away at Bowman’s geographic strengths, especially because Bowman is in a situation where his only path to victory is to organize his base toward a higher than normal turnout.

“In this current campaign, where people can accuse him of taking Bowman out because he’s Black, what these endorsements do is say, in fact, that’s not true. That Latimer has a broad base of support that Bowman doesn’t,” Sheinkopf said. “They’ve made Bowman into a guy who’s more concerned about himself, less concerned about the district.”

There’s no question that Bowman faces long odds. A recent independent poll from Emerson College, PIX11 and The Hill showed Latimer with a 17-point lead over Bowman. That matched the results of an earlier poll commissioned by Democratic Majority for Israel, which has endorsed Latimer. (For whatever it’s worth, the Bowman camp’s own internal polling in April reportedly showed the race was a dead heat.)

Sheinkopf painted a dark picture of Bowman’s prospects, concluding he was the wrong candidate, in the wrong district, at the wrong time, with the worst possible opponent. Westchester, he said, wasn’t the ideal place to launch an all-out grassroots campaign.

“The very thing that he relied on to win originally, the organizational skills of the Democratic Socialists of America and their allies, doesn’t work here,” Sheinkopf said. “They just don’t have people to organize.”

But Bowman is not giving up yet. When asked whether he believed that his vocal support for Palestine was worth losing his seat, Bowman rejected the premise of the question.

“I’m not going to lose,” he said.