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Bitter, expensive Bowman-Latimer primary highlights Democrats’ divisions

MOUNT VERNON, N.Y. — A volunteer for Rep. Jamaal Bowman’s campaign trailed George Latimer out of a Juneteenth event last week, asking the Westchester County executive, who’s challenging Bowman in a primary Tuesday, whether he was getting his “racist talking points” from “MAGA donors,” or whether he had come up with them himself.

Latimer, who is White, ignored the provocation and instead turned to a group of Black boys who ran up to shake his hand and take pictures. “I never knew you were so racist,” the Bowman volunteer continued.

“I grew up in Mount Vernon,” Latimer replied, referring to this majority Black city. “In 25 years the racism would have showed by now.”

The brief exchange demonstrated the tensions that have engulfed this primary — and the Democratic Party — as Bowman and Latimer have battled for the Democratic nomination to represent New York’s 16th District in Congress.

Latimer, who repeatedly won the support of local lefties and African Americans over a decades-long political career in this area, is suddenly the target of some of his former fans’ ire. He has faced backlash for his steadfast support for Israel and for challenging Bowman, the district’s first Black congressman, in a fiercely fought contest that has become the most expensive House primary in American history, according to AdImpact, which tracks television and digital ad spending.

The bitter primary match has exposed the deepest fissures in the Democratic Party. It has highlighted the party’s split over the war in the Middle East, with pro-Israel groups spending millions to unseat Bowman, whom they view as antagonistic toward the Jewish state. It has raised issues of race and racism, with Bowman and his allies characterizing some of Latimer’s comments as racist and arguing that he is unable to understand the plight of poorer Black constituents because he is backed by wealthy donors. And it is yet another fierce battle between the mainstream wing of the party and the left, with Hillary Clinton endorsing Latimer and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) hosting rallies for Bowman in the Bronx.

Evan Roth Smith, a Democratic consultant and pollster in New York who is not working with either campaign, said Latimer appears to be in the stronger position heading into the final days of the race.

“Latimer is on the march, he’s on offense, he doesn’t seem worried about people turning out for him,” Roth Smith said. “All the noise, the spending aside, the simple math of who looks more confident in their base of voters turning out for them, Latimer looks more confident, looks more assured.”

Bowman, a member of the “Squad” of far-left Democratic lawmakers of color, has cut a provocative profile during his short tenure in Congress. Last year, he screamed at a Republican congressman over gun violence, yelling, “Calm down? Children are dying!” Months later, he pulled a fire alarm in a U.S. House office building, forcing an evacuation that led the House to formally censure him. Authorities charged him with a misdemeanor; he pleaded guilty and had to pay a fine of $1,000. After the Hamas-led massacre in Israel on Oct. 7, Bowman called for a cease-fire, a position that has become more mainstream months into Israel’s military offensive in Gaza. But Bowman was well ahead of most Democrats on the issue. Many of them, including Latimer, said his immediate call for a cease-fire was insensitive to his Jewish constituents.

Bowman first won here four years ago, ousting longtime Democratic Rep. Eliot L. Engel, a fierce defender of Israel with a powerful perch as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Bowman, who before joining Congress was a high school principal in the Bronx, successfully pitched himself as more attuned to the needs of the district, especially after the protests that followed the summer 2020 murder of George Floyd. Though the district includes the affluent Westchester County suburbs north of Manhattan, places like Mount Vernon and Yonkers have higher poverty rates than the rest of the county.

In the last weeks of the campaign, Bowman and his supporters have leveled accusations of racism against Latimer, seizing on comments made by the county executive, including recently suggesting Bowman would win a portion of the electorate because he is Black and that his opponent’s constituency is in Dearborn, Mich. — a majority Muslim city.

Latimer has forcefully pushed back on these attacks, saying Bowman is trying to boost support with Black voters by calling “the White guy running against you racist.”

“If all we’re ever going to do in this society is pick people who look like us, you could be picking — if you’re a Democrat here — Clarence Thomas, who looks like you,” Latimer said in an interview.

Latimer has said he had contemplated challenging Bowman before Oct. 7 over his belief that the congressman cared more about developing a national profile than providing for his district — an attack Bowman adamantly rejects — but Bowman’s immediate response to the deadly attack on Israel solidified his decision to run.

Pro-Israel groups, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Democratic Majority for Israel PAC, encouraged Latimer to run, and focused on Bowman and Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), whose primary is in August, as their top targets in Democratic primaries. Outside spending in the race has topped $23 million, the most ever spent in a House primary, more than half of which was in anti-Bowman ads, according to AdImpact.

Of the $16 million spent attacking Bowman, most of it came from United Democracy Project, AIPAC’s super PAC. The organization spent a total of $14 million on ads in the race — one pro-Latimer and three anti-Bowman — the most it has ever spent on one contest, according to Patrick Dorton, a UDP spokesman.

Bowman and his supporters have railed against the amount of outside spending in the race and have accused Latimer of cozying up to wealthy Republican donors because many of UDP’s top givers have also donated to GOP campaigns and causes.

The Israel-Gaza war has dominated coverage of the Bowman-Latimer contest, but even the two candidates say the conflict is only part of the story. Most Democrats nationally say the war is not the top issue animating their vote, and are more likely to cite democracy or the economy as their main concern, polls show. Voters in the district who spoke to The Washington Post last week more frequently cited local issues, such as education funding, or their personal ties to the candidates.

Latimer supporters say his deep ties to the community, not the millions spent on his behalf, will catapult him to victory.

“He wants to be in touch with the public and he has the ability to connect in a way I haven’t seen in many other politicians,” said David Imamura, a Westchester County legislator who has endorsed Latimer. “That’s what is going to carry him across the finish line here.”

At the Juneteenth event last week, Latimer and Bowman appeared on a sweltering afternoon, speaking beneath the blue and red Juneteenth flag. Nearby, someone had written in chalk, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” a rallying cry that pro-Palestinian activists have characterized as a call for equal rights, but that the Anti-Defamation League says is an antisemitic call for the eradication of Israel.

In brief remarks, Bowman called the television ads attacking him “lies and propaganda.”

“That is big money in politics, right wing, Republican propaganda. They are lying to you. My mother raised me better than that,” he said, adding that the people needed to have their voices heard at the ballot box, “not the wealthy people and special interests trying to destroy our democracy.”

Karla Turner, 63, a retired educator in Mount Vernon who is Black, said she can identify with Bowman and is worried about the amount of outside money working to unseat him. She has voted for Latimer in multiple races in the past, but now views him “as a disgraceful opportunist taking this money to run against Bowman,” she said.

Malik Howard, 45, who was selling bottled water and cans of ginger ale at the event, said he would also back Bowman and not because they have the same skin color.

“I feel like he’s more connected to the people that need,” Howard said.

But Ryan Carter, 48, a clerk in Mount Vernon, said he has supported both men in past elections, but in this matchup he was backing Latimer.

“It’s not that I disagree with his politics, I just don’t take him seriously,” Carter said of Bowman, referencing the fire alarm incident.

Carter, who is also Black, dismissed accusations that Latimer is racist.

“To say that he’s racist just because he’s running against Bowman, I need more evidence than just screaming racist,” Carter said. “He’s been a county executive. He has a record.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post
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