Progressive Rep. Jamaal Bowman runs as an outsider as he fights for a third term (2024)

WHITE PLAINS, New York — Incumbent Rep. Jamaal Bowman is running for a third term in Congress benefitting from the endorsem*nts of the top House Democratic leaders and his own ubiquitous presence in Washington, on cable news and on social media.

But as he fights for his political survival here in a district north of Manhattan, the progressive firebrand and member of “The Squad” is turning to the same primary strategy that helped him topple veteran Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel four years ago: portraying himself as an outsider insurgent running against a lifelong politician who Bowman, 48, says represents the establishment, status quo and big-money donors.

Bowman’s Democratic primary opponent this time is George Latimer, 70, a popular Westchester County Executive and former state senator and assemblyman who was first elected to the Rye City Council back when Ronald Reagan was president — and notably hasn’t lost a race since.

At a vibrant outdoor weekend festival in Co-Op City in the Bronx Saturday, Bowman was eager to highlight the contrasts.

“I’m for taxing the rich, he’s not. I’m for taxing large corporations, he’s not. I’m for reparations for Black people, he’s not. He’s completely funded by right-wing, MAGA Republican billionaires. And all of my funding comes from the grassroots of working-class people,” he told a voter as hip-hop and Caribbean music blared.

Progressive Rep. Jamaal Bowman runs as an outsider as he fights for a third term (1)

“So if you want the status quo that got us to the point where we might have Trump in office again and another genocide in Gaza — if you’re with that, that’s the guy,” Bowman continued. “If you want a new vision for America, that includes all people, that makes sure everyone contributes their fair share and uplifts from the bottom and not the top, then I’m your guy.”

Latimer fired back to that line of attack at a campaign event last week with local leaders in White Plains, accusing Bowman, who frequently posts on X and TikTok, of seeking national “fame” and being obsessed with clicks and social media likes rather than delivering for the district. “It’s not about a cacophony of people that live elsewhere outside the district thinking you are the cat’s meow,” Latimer said.

Despite Bowman's framing of the race, Latimer's is leaning into his electoral experience, noting that he has spent the past 35 years in Westchester politics working on things like roads and bridges, affordable housing and environmental sustainability projects.

“Being a member of the House … if you want to get attention for yourself, you have to say outrageous things,” Latimer said in an interview with NBC News when asked about Bowman’s approach. “I’ve got a record of showing you what I do and how I do it. … I offer a different strategy and style, and can back it up with years of accomplishment.”

The Latimer and Bowman campaign events could not have been more different. While Latimer has done plenty of public events, Thursday's news conference — where the challenger touted endorsem*nts from White Plains Common Council members — was held in a cramped conference room in a title agency office. Three reporters attended.

Progressive Rep. Jamaal Bowman runs as an outsider as he fights for a third term (2)

The scene at the Co-Op City festival was far less controlled. Bowman, a former college football linebacker and Bronx middle school principal, was swarmed by supporters as he walked past church booths offering personal prayers and religious literature, and food vendors serving jerked beef ribs, fried whole red snapper and Guyanese oxtail over rice. A tactile politician, Bowman handed out hugs and handshakes, stopped for selfies, laughed with former students and charmed senior citizens: “Hello, young lady.”

“The champ is here,” a volunteer said, hyping up Bowman as he walked the greenway, the green space between Co-Op City’s massive residential towers.

To knock out Latimer in the June 25 primary, Bowman will need to turn out working-class and middle-class Black and brown voters in the southern part of the district, including New Rochelle, Mt. Vernon, Yonkers in Westchester County, as well as in Co-Op City, home to roughly 50,000 residents and the nation’s largest housing cooperative.

“We’re going to win anyway, but we want to crush him, and we need a good turnout in Co-Op City to do so,” Bowman told NBC News.

It may not be easy. Bowman, like other left-leaning members of his party, is facing criticism over his views on Israel as the nation continues its war against Hamas. Bowman suffered a big blow on Monday when former Rep. Mondaire Jones, a fellow Black progressive who came to Congress with him in 2020, vowed to endorse Latimer, telling The New York Times that Bowman had caused “pain and anxiety” among Jewish New Yorkers.

Charges of antisemitism

The bulk of Bowman’s district sits in the southern half of Westchester County, an area still accessible to the working class, with sizeable blocs of Black and Latino voters — including recent immigrants and long-established families — but dotted with moneyed folks and wealthy estates and a number of conservative and modern orthodox shuls whose residents are very pro-Israel.

It’s here among Westchester’s Jewish community — one of the largest in America — where Bowman has his biggest political headache. His fierce criticism of Israel and his pro-Palestinian views have infuriated Jewish leaders and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, whose super PAC, the United Democratic Project (UDP), is spending more than $10 million in TV ads attacking Bowman or boosting Latimer.

Early in the Gaza war, Bowman and other Squad members demanded an Israeli cease-fire, he’s accused Israel of carrying out genocide against the Palestinians and he’s called for the ouster of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over his handling of the war against Hamas. Some of UDP’s biggest donors have typically given to Republican candidates and groups, which is why Bowman said his opponent is backed by “MAGA Republican billionaires.”

Progressive Rep. Jamaal Bowman runs as an outsider as he fights for a third term (3)

“I have felt antisemitism from him. I felt such a strong degree of antagonism towards the Jewish community and its leadership that, yes, it feels antisemitic and insensitive,” White Plains Councilman Justin Brasch, one of the local officials who endorsed Latimer at the campaign event, said in an interview.

Brasch, who is Jewish, complained that Bowman has not responded to an invitation to have a Shabbat meal at his home “to break bread,” though the two did meet over breakfast to discuss Israel issues.

“He wouldn’t meet with the head of the Westchester Jewish Council. He never comes to the events of the Westchester Jewish Council. He doesn’t show up in our communities. And to be clear, that’s not the way things happen in Westchester,” Brasch continued. “As I told you, I go to Black churches. The Black officials come to the Jewish events. The Latin officials go to the Black events and the Jewish events. We all work together as a family and a community. And George Latimer, as you know, is such a unifier. He’s been bringing people together in Westchester for 35 years.”

A campaign spokesperson pushed back on Brasch’s characterization of Bowman, saying the congressman has attended several Westchester Jewish Council events and met “plenty of times” with local rabbis.

Progressive Rep. Jamaal Bowman runs as an outsider as he fights for a third term (4)

But Jones' decision to get behind Latimer and openly criticize Bowman's stance on Israel seemed to shock fellow progressives. Bowman’s liberal allies lashed out at Jones on Tuesday, with Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., saying she was “disgusted” and that the CPC would consider rescinding their endorsem*nt of Jones.

“Not only is it a profound disappointment, but it is directly contradicting the Democratic unity that we need to practice in order for us to win the House and the presidency in November,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., a fellow Squad member who plans to campaign with Bowman in the closing weeks.

Bowman’s campaign points out that he’s won the endorsem*nt of several Jewish groups, including Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Bend the Arc: Jewish Action, the If Not Now Movement, as well as liberal icon Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who is Jewish.

Progressive Rep. Jamaal Bowman runs as an outsider as he fights for a third term (5)

In the interview with NBC News, Bowman called Israeli air strikes on the southern Gaza city of Rafah “evil,” and he pointed to internal polling showing that the overwhelming majority of his constituents support a permanent cease-fire.

“U.S. taxpayer dollars are going towards burning infants alive. There should be a march on Washington every day to get these policies changed, but it’s not,” Bowman said, adding of Latimer: “And so, no, he’s the one out of touch — I’m not out of touch.”

Asked why AIPAC is spending so many millions of dollars to elect him, Latimer responded: “If I recall correctly, [Bowman] said, ‘AIPAC, bring it on, yo!’ I believe that’s the quote. So your question was why do I think AIPAC is supporting me? Why do you think AIPAC is supporting me when somebody says, ‘AIPAC, bring it on, yo!’”

Progressive Rep. Jamaal Bowman runs as an outsider as he fights for a third term (6)

The fire alarm incident

In Co-Op City, some Black voters said they’ve already cast an absentee ballot for Bowman. Clara Burton, 75, a longtime resident here, said she likes that Bowman previously served as a middle school principal.

“He was a principal, and I taught for 20 years,” she said.

And outside the City Limits Diner in White Plains, a favorite Latimer lunch spot, Ray Cruz said he’s inclined to support Bowman, too, after seeing a recent TV interview and watching him clash with conservative hard-liners like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga.

Progressive Rep. Jamaal Bowman runs as an outsider as he fights for a third term (7)

“I feel good about Bowman,” Cruz said. "I liked him from the beginning when I saw him putting down Marjorie Greene. I like his energy.”

Despite enthusiasm for Bowman in Co-Op City, he's had his share of detractors there. As the congressman chatted up voters, at least two directly questioned him about an incident in the Capitol complex last fall where he pulled a fire alarm in the middle of a vote on a GOP government funding bill.

He said he pulled the alarm "mistakenly" as he was trying to rush to the vote, though Republicans accused him of intentionally pulling it to try to delay the vote. Bowman later pleaded guilty to one count of falsely activating a fire alarm and was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine and write an apology to the U.S. Capitol police chief. In December, the full House voted to censure Bowman over it.

“We all know what fire alarms are,” said Anita Bowman, no relation, who confronted the congressman about the fire alarm. “The timing was real f----ed up. It was not a good look.”

Pressed by NBC News about his actions that day, Bowman, who as a principal ran fire drills in his school, maintained it was purely accidental.

“It wasn’t deliberate; it was a mistake,” Bowman explained. “I was panicked, in a rush, trying to get out the door. I pulled it, heard the alarm. I’m like, ‘F---.’ I got out of there. It was a mistake. I’ve said that from the beginning.”

Progressive Rep. Jamaal Bowman runs as an outsider as he fights for a third term (8)

For 50-year Mamaroneck resident Mark Kramer, the knock-down, drag-out fight between Bowman and Latimer does not center on the Israel-Hamas war. Kramer, who was dining with a friend at Epstein’s Kosher Deli in Hartsdale, said he is leaning toward voting for Latimer, even though he had supported Bowman four years ago over then-Rep. Engel, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and one of the most powerful Jewish members of Congress.

Israel is “one of the issues, but it’s not the prevailing issue for me," Kramer said. He believes Latimer has a better environmental record than Bowman.

"I don't think he's been as good as George Latimer," Kramer said. "I’ve seen George Latimer’s recycling efforts, food scraps, getting people not to use plastic takeout without asking, parks, trees, planting, environmental issues, clean air, clean water."

Scott Wong

Scott Wong is a senior congressional reporter for NBC News.

Adam Edelman

and

Ben Kamisar

contributed

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Progressive Rep. Jamaal Bowman runs as an outsider as he fights for a third term (2024)

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