Westchester County Executive George Latimer announced on Wednesday that he would challenge Rep. Jamaal Bowman in the June 25 Democratic primary, a long-awaited announcement that sets up what will be one of the most closely watched nomination contests in the country.
New York's 16th District, which includes southern Westchester County and a small slice of the Bronx, favored Joe Biden 71-28, so the eventual Democratic nominee will have no trouble in the general election. However, the district's boundaries could shift depending on how the state's top court rules in a pending case challenging the current court-drawn map.
Latimer first expressed interest in challenging the two-term congressman in July. The following month, Jewish Insider reported that the hawkish pro-Israel group AIPAC was recruiting him to oppose Bowman. The incumbent has been a prominent critic of Israel's government, making news over the summer when he refused to attend Israeli President Isaac Herzog's speech to Congress.
Tensions between Bowman and AIPAC flared after Hamas' deadly Oct. 7 attack. "Jamaal was one of the first representatives to support a ceasefire," Bowman's campaign said Monday after news broke about Latimer's upcoming announcement. "But because of his calls for peace, AIPAC is flooding his district with nasty attack ads.”
AIPAC sees things differently, arguing that Bowman, who has accused Israel of committing "genocide" in Gaza, belongs to "the anti-Israel extremist fringe." Latimer's kickoff video, meanwhile, took Bowman to task for "voting against resolutions to condemn Hamas." (Bowman said last month that the resolution he voted against "rightfully condemns Hamas and supports the security of Israel" but "does not include the urgent need for de-escalation and prevention of ground invasion nor any humanitarian efforts.")
Latimer, though, also argued to Politico that while Israel would be a "big issue" in the primary, it was "not the whole issue." To that end, Latimer's launch video also criticized Bowman for voting against Joe Biden's 2021 infrastructure bill. Bowman, who was one of just six House Democrats to oppose the measure, said at the time that he was casting a "nay" vote because the infrastructure bill wasn't paired with the administration's proposed $1.85 trillion "Build Back Better" law. Latimer, however, insists the congressman dissented "just to stick it to our Democratic president."
One story that the challenger did not mention was Bowman's guilty plea to a misdemeanor in October for falsely pulling a fire alarm in a House office building, though it's likely the incident will resurface in the future.
While many primaries, such as Bowman's own 2020 victory against Rep. Eliot Engel, feature a political outsider taking on an established incumbent, Latimer is the one who's had a much longer career in local politics. Latimer first entered elected office in 1987, when he earned a spot on the Rye City Council. He went on to serve on the Westchester County Legislature and in both chambers of the New York state legislature.
In 2017, Latimer was a member of the state Senate when he challenged County Executive Rob Astorino, who was the GOP's 2014 nominee against Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Despite being decisively outspent, Latimer won 57-43, and he easily secured a second term in 2021.
Bowman, by contrast, was a former middle school principal who had never run for office before he sought to unseat Engel. Bowman's challenge was in part ideological (he castigated Engel for his vote in favor of the Iraq War) and in part based on a call for change: Bowman, who is Black, was the first person of color in two decades to wage a serious intraparty bid against Engel, a 16-term incumbent whose district had grown increasingly diverse during his tenure.
The congressman, who chaired the influential Foreign Affairs Committee, originally looked like the heavy favorite. However, he drew unwelcome attention the month before the primary when the Atlantic reported he'd holed up in his D.C.-area home for the duration of the pandemic, not even returning to New York when the state's first coronavirus epicenter was identified in his district.
Things got worse a few weeks later when he was caught on camera pleading for more time to speak at a press conference. "If I didn't have a primary, I wouldn't care," Engel said, a gaffe that Bowman and his allies quickly framed as a commentary on Engel's feelings about his race and his constituents.
Bowman began raising serious money even before Engel’s comments drew national attention, and he had the support of prominent progressives like neighboring Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The contest became expensive in the final weeks: Democratic Majority for Israel deployed $1.5 million to help Engel, while the Justice Democrats and Working Families Party spent a comparable amount for Bowman.
Bowman scored a 55-41 upset, and he had no trouble winning the general election. However, the new congressman didn't have a smooth path to renomination two years later, after redistricting left him with a district that was 25% new to him. Westchester County Legislator Vedat Gashi campaigned as a moderate alternative to the progressive incumbent, and he raised a notable amount of money for his effort. Gashi, though, didn't have the field to himself, as another county legislator, Catherine Parker, also ran.
Bowman secured 54% of the vote, a relatively modest showing for an incumbent in a primary. He didn't come close to losing, however, because his opponents split most of the rest of the vote. Gashi and Parker grabbed 25% and 19%, respectively, while the balance went to a largely ignored third challenger.