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Westchester heavyweights Bowman, Latimer spar over their records, Israel as primary looms

Who gets real results in office? Who can better represent Westchester County interests in Washington?

Those two fundamental questions hover over the brewing Democratic primary battle between Rep. Jamaal Bowman and Westchester County Executive George Latimer for New York’s 16th Congressional District seat.

Latimer set that intra-party contest in motion last month, launching his bid against a fellow Democrat after months of public speculation that he would and after what Latimer says was his gradual consideration of pleas from supporters to challenge the second-term congressman.

“I was reticent to think about this race at the outset of it, because I like the job I have, I have a couple years left and there’s time to do good things,” Latimer, 70, recalled in an interview with the USA Today Network New York. “The frustration that people came to me in Westchester with was that they weren’t happy with the direction of the way they were being represented in Washington.”

George Latimer, the Westchester County Executive, discusses his plans to challenge Rep. Jamaal Bowman in the Congressional race in 2024. Here he is pictured at The Journal News/lohud office in West Harrison, Jan. 3, 2024.

Four years ago, Bowman played a similar role, waging a primary against longtime Rep. Eliot Engel and ultimately trouncing him. This time, he’s the incumbent defending his seat against a strong challenger: Westchester’s top elected official, a 35-year veteran of politics with an undefeated record at the ballot box.

He’s eager to make his case to voters.

In a USA Today Network New York interview, Bowman touted the federal funds he has secured for local projects in Yonkers, Mount Vernon and other Black and brown communities in the 16th District — and his underlying quest for “equity and justice” since his days as a teacher and then a middle school principal in the Bronx.

“I have dedicated my entire life to the most vulnerable, the most marginalized in our communities,” Bowman, 47, said. “I did it in education, I’m doing it now.”

Rep. Jamaal Bowman, who represents New YorkÕs 17th Congressional District, speaks at Macy Park in Ardsley Aug. 15, 2023 about issues facing asylum seekers, and especially those who have been sent from New York City to Westchester County. He was joined by several dozen members of the Greenburgh Town Hall Summer Internship Program, who are working with asylum seekers who are being housed at the Ardsley Acres Motel.

Their campaigns are just beginning. The primary is set for June 25, although it may be delayed if there’s another court fight over redrawing New York’s congressional lines — the same conflict that pushed the primary into August two years ago. The 16th District consists of the southern half of Westchester and one Bronx neighborhood, but that, too, could change with redistricting.

Here are some key points the candidates made in separate interviews this month.

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Their race has so far been cast in ideological terms, as progressive vs. centrist. And Bowman certainly hails from his party’s left wing; he belongs to a small group of House progressives known as “the squad.”

But Latimer resists that policy contrast, arguing Westchester is New York’s most progressive county and his administration the most progressive leadership it has had. He instead cast his differences with Bowman in terms of how they approach their job — as rhetoric vs. results, or performing arts vs. performance.

Bowman falls in the “performing arts” category, in Latimer’s view. He pointed to a couple verbal sparring matches Bowman had with Republicans that became viral videos last year, arguing that encounters like those attract media attention but don’t accomplish your goals.

Westchester County Executive George Latimer delivered his county budget on Nov. 9, 2023, flanked by Operations Director Joan McDonald and Deputy County Executive Ken Jenkins. Latimer announced his run for the US Congress on Dec. 6.

“I would do it differently,” he said. “And I will argue that I think that what you need in Washington now is not more performance art, not more speeches about the general direction of society and what we have to do to change society.”

What’s needed, Latimer said, is more attention on crafting bills and bringing federal resources back to the district.

Bowman took umbrage at the contrast Latimer drew.

“It’s laughable,” he said, repeating it four times for emphasis. “What are we even talking about? My record is crystal clear.” 

He cited the grants he got for local projects and his responses to several tragedies involving teens in his district. One was the 2022 fatal shooting of a 16-year-old New Rochelle boy, after which Bowman said he met with the victim’s mother and then spoke at a series of gatherings for days afterward, finally sending President Joe Biden a letter about ways he could curb gun violence.

The Biden administration later took one of those steps by restricting “ghost guns.”

“That is leadership, That is showing up. That is results,” Bowman said. “And by the way, on none of these occasions was George Latimer at any of these meetings I’m talking about.”

Rep. Jamaal Bowman delivers remarks as New York Governor Kathy Hochul looks on before President Joe Biden delivers remarks as he makes an appearance at the Hankin Academic Arts Building at SUNY Westchester Community College in Valhalla, May 10, 2023.

Israel-Hamas war exposes rift between candidates

Bowman didn’t shy away from his condemnation of Israel for its war to root out Hamas in Gaza.

Already at odds with many Jewish leaders and constituents for his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Bowman has stoked more anger with his words and votes since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack and Israel’s military response. In a fiery speech at a ceasefire rally outside the White House in November, he described the deaths and displacement of civilians in Gaza as “genocide,” “mass murder” and “ethnic cleansing.”

Bowman said in his interview with the USA Today Network New York that he no longer uses those terms, but only because they have specific meanings that will be argued in legal proceedings. He stood by his criticism, calling Israel’s actions in Gaza “catastrophic” and a violation of international law.

“It’s been a horrific, heavy-handed collective punishment response that goes way beyond just self-defense,” he said.

Jewish voters: Jewish group plans voter turnout drive in Westchester as Bowman-Latimer primary looms

Latimer, who traveled to Israel in November with a delegation of elected officials and Jewish leaders from Westchester, has spoken forcefully in support of Israel. In his interview, he argued ceasefire demands by Bowman and others are overly simplistic and their outrage selectively directed at Israel, while other crises and civilian deaths in Sudan and Ukraine, for example, provoke no protests in the U.S.

He also noted that a ceasefire had been in effect in Gaza, and Hamas broke it on Oct. 7.

“Do you really mean ‘genocide?’” Latimer asked. “Are you using a word that you’re trying to pivot this? This is a war and it’s ugly, and there’s civilian causalities.”

‘Big-money’ in Latimer-Bowman race from pro-Israel groups?

Bowman accused Latimer of being recruited for the race by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel organization he said is funded by Republican mega-donors. He cast AIPAC’s campaign spending as emblematic of the excessive influence of “big money” in politics — and Latimer its latest beneficiary.

“This is a big-money-in-politics candidate, when we have to get big-money-in-politics out of our system in order to save our democracy,” he said.

Latimer parried the jab about GOP megadonors — and a claim that AIPAC targets minority progressives — as the same “spin” repeated in other House races. He pointed to AIPAC’s support for several New York House members who happen to be Democrats of color, including Hakeem Jeffries, the Brooklyn congressman who leads the House Democrats.

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He acknowledged being contacted by AIPAC but noted that 26 rabbis from all types of congregations in Westchester had also urged him to run, a striking show of agreement within the Jewish community.

“The energy for me to run has come from a number of different sources,” Latimer said. “AIPAC is certainly one of them, and the Jewish community in general is certainly one of them. They’re not the only one.”

Goals in office: Tackling local, real-world problems

Bowman said his top priority if reelected would be passing a bill to provide universal child care.

“If people can’t afford to live, and there is no equity in our society, then our democracy won’t work,” he said. “That involves housing, child care, education, overall cost of living, and of course issues related to crime and justice and other areas.” 

Latimer vowed to visit every municipality in the district — there are nearly two dozen in its current configuration, plus the sliver of the Bronx — and identify priority projects for each that can be tied to federal resources. That goes for both urban areas and more affluent communities that need federal support for costly projects like flood control, he said.

“Your Congress member has to do those things or you don’t get any of those resources — they go elsewhere,” he said. “You’ve got to be punching and pushing, and you’ve got make that, in my judgment, you have to make that your priority if you want to be effective.”

“I did that as a state senator, I did that as a state assemblyman,” Latimer added. “This is nothing new for me in terms of concept.” 

Chris McKenna covers government and politics for The Journal News and USA Today Network. Reach him at [email protected].