The most controversial Congressional primary in history is about Israel — and so much more


On Saturday, Representative Jamaal Bowman held a rally at St Mary’s Park in the birthplace of hip-hop, where he quoted lines from Boogie Down Production’s “South Bronx.”

Bowman brought out the big guns — and not just his biceps, that he says he has earned from bench-pressing 405 pounds — including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders.

Bowman, a member of the Squad who once pulled off a shocker primary challenge, now faces an unprecedented onslaught from a primary challenger backed by pro-Israel Democrats — including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — in what has become the most expensive congressional primary in American history.

“We are going to show f**king AIPAC the power of the motherf**king South Bronx,” Bowman said at his rally, in reference to the money provided by the advocacy group to his opponent in an effort to unseat him.

But Bowman’s district does not include the South Bronx. Rather, Representative Ritchie Torres, an ardently pro-Israel Democrat who quit the Congressional Progressive Caucus, can call the South Bronx part of his district.

The contest between Bowman and his opponent, George Latimer, has focused heavily on the subject of Israel. That’s because the United Democracy Project, AIPAC’s political action committee, has spent $14.03 million in the race already. Latimer’s campaign had also received more than $1.2 million from AIPAC’s PAC as of June 5.

U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) attend a rally at St. Mary’s Park on June 22, 2024 in the Bronx borough of New York City. Supporters gathered three days before New York’s primary elections as incumbent Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) attempts to retain his seat in a heated primary race. ((Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images))

But the race has become about so much more, including race, Donald Trump and what it means to adequately support President Joe Biden.

Bowman claims that his public support for a ceasefire in Gaza made him a target for AIPAC and led to them supporting his opponent.

In his speech about the primary, he used strong language. “My opponent supports genocide,” he said.

The campaign group has gained both national and local attention ever since the October 7th attack by Hamas, during which the terrorist group killed 1,200 people and took at least 251 people hostages. Israel subsequently declared war in Hamas and attacked Gaza, leading to the deaths of over 35,000 people.

Bowman’s criticism of the Israeli government before October 7 — he boycotted a joint address to Congress by Israeli President Isaac Herzog last year — had made him unpopular among pro-Israel groups like AIPAC already. But his support for an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hamas made him particularly vulnerable. It is a vast change from his position in 2020, when he voted to give Israel aid for the Iron Dome defense, or 2021, when he visited Israel with J Street (J Street used to support him as a candidate, but pulled their support in January after saying that their “differences” had become clear over the past few months.) At that time, he also had little to say about the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement.

His changing position on Israel has led to his unpopularity among some — but his critics say his problems also run deeper.

“Bowman has gotten in a lot of trouble over a lot of time for a lot of stupid things,” one senior pro-Israel Democratic strategist told The Independent, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely. Specifically, they cited his pulling a fire alarm during a House vote, for which Bowman was censured and charged with a misdemeanor. They also claimed he has been a “thorn” in the side of the Biden administration.

One anti-Bowman ad even cited a profile of Bowman from 2021 written by The Independent, where he called out Biden’s “lies,” specifically about police reform and a lack of action on student loans. It’s clear he hasn’t ever been shy to talk about the ways in which, in his estimation, the president comes up short.

By contrast, progressives expressed their concern that they couldn’t simultaneously hold Biden accountable while speaking out about what they believe in.

Democratic candidate for New York's 16th District George Latimer speaks during a press conference at the Mount Vernon Democratic headquarters on June 24, 2024 in Mount Vernon, New York. Latimer charges that Bowman has been an absent congressman who focuses more on national issues. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images) (Getty Images)
Democratic candidate for New York's 16th District George Latimer speaks during a press conference at the Mount Vernon Democratic headquarters on June 24, 2024 in Mount Vernon, New York. Latimer charges that Bowman has been an absent congressman who focuses more on national issues. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

“We should be clear-eyed about the very real fascist threat of Donald Trump, of what that can look like for our democracy, for abortion rights, for everything, while also being a party that holds our own leaders accountable when it needs to,” Usamah Andrabi, a spokesperson for the Justice Democrats, told The Independent. “That's the point of a democracy.”

Andrabi also noted how AIPAC had previously contributed funds to Republicans who voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election. Since then, Politico reported that AIPAC is the largest source for Republican donor cash to Democratic primaries.

“I think the whole of the Democratic Party should be opposed to allowing mega-donors from intervening in Democratic primaries, especially through a Super PAC that is no friend to our democracy or democratic values,” Andrabi added.

In 2020, Bowman pulled off a surprising victory when he defeated House Foreign Affairs Committe Chairman Eliot Engel after Engel was caught on a hot mic at a Black Lives Matter demonstration saying, of the movement that sprang up following the death of George Floyd: “If I didn't have a primary, I wouldn't care.”

Four years later, race remains a large factor. Not only does the 16th district include the heavily Black and Latino Bronx, it also includes heavily white Westchester County.

In one debate between the candidates, Latimer hit Bowman for supposedly only focusing on Black and Latino voters.

“You don’t mention Asian, you don’t mention people who are not Black or brown,” Latimer said. “There’s a whole district, Jamaal, that you’ve ignored, and the district knows you’ve ignored it.”

Ocasio-Cortez accused Bowman’s opponents of engaging in race-baiting.

“I think we see it a lot — less overt but still condemnable tactics like darkening the shade of his skin in campaign ads, up to some of the more overt and suggestive rhetoric that’s being talked about in terms of demographics,” she told The Independent, when asked about the primary.

Specifically, she was referring to something else Latimer said to Bowman about taking campaign money from Dearborn, Michigan, a city with a large Arab-American population. “Your constituency is Dearborn, Michigan. Your constituency is San Francisco, California,” Latimer said on Good Morning New York, in an aside that was meant to signal that Bowman had formed a joint fundraising committee with Representative Rashida Tlaib, who is Palestinian-American and represents Dearborn.

But the joint fundraising committee received no money from Dearborn, according to its filing with the Federal Election Committee. All told, Bowman’s own campaign — separate from the joint fundraising committee — received only four contributions from Dearborn totaling $1,850.

And while Bowman’s campaign finance filing showed he had raised some money from San Francisco, so had Latimer. In fact, Latimer raised more.

Bowman’s campaign modeled itself after Ocasio-Cortez’s victory against Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley in 2018. Ocasio-Cortez, in turn, had been inspired by Bernie Sanders’s insurgent 2016 campaign challenge against Hillary Clinton.

Since then, this race has since become a proxy for that 2016 showdown; not only did Sanders campaign with Bowman, but Clinton, who resides in Westchester County in the 16th district, endorsed Latimer. On the eve of the primary, Clinton’s Onward Together PAC contributed $2,500 to his campaign.

When Sanders lost the Democratic primary to Biden, Bowman and Ocasio-Cortez largely fell in line and supported Biden publicly while attempting to pressure him to the left behind the scenes. That push-pull culminated in November 2021, when Bowman — along with Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez, Representatives Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Cori Bush of Missouri — was one of only six Democrats to vote against the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

Bowman and the Squad did so because they wanted a guarantee that Build Back Better — Biden’s proposed, much more progressive legislation that would include everything from an expanded child tax credit to provisions to combat climate change to elder care — would pass alongside the bill. Senator Joe Manchin, then a conservative Democrat from West Virginia who later became an independent, later killed Build Back Better after it passed the House.

But voting against the bipartisan bill gave Bowman’s opponents enough ammunition to attack him. One ad from the Latimer campaign claimed Bowman voted against the bill “just to stick it to President Biden.”

Aware of such attempts to position him against Biden, Bowman has made efforts to push the opposite view during public appearances. At one rally, he noted how he brought Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries to the district last year. He also ran an ad describing how he worked with Biden on combating gun violence and protecting abortion rights.

Ocasio-Cortez said that the race will prove critical to determine if big money can have a role in Democratic primaries. In her opinion, that is the biggest issue in play.

“I think that this race is about the corrupting role of money in politics, and I think there's a certain extent where it's honestly not about issues at all,” Ocasio-Cortez told The Independent.

There are signs that AIPAC will copy the strategy elsewhere. Over the weekend, the group’s PAC ran an ad hitting Bush in Missouri’s first district for her vote against the infrastructure bill, where it has already spent $2 million in the primary. The group never used to involve itself in primaries; instead, it tended to focus on campaigning through lobbying. This year, it’s clear that a lot of things are very different.