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Jamaal Bowman
Rep. Jamaal Bowman has been outspent by millions in his primary against Westchester County Executive George Latimer. Evan Vucci/AP

Jamaal Bowman’s Primary Is Confusing Progressives to the Very End

A roughed-up left is trying to figure out what comes after the primary in New York’s 16th Congressional District, where Bowman has struggled all cycle.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman has been outspent by millions in his primary against Westchester County Executive George Latimer. Evan Vucci/AP

NEW YORK – When progressives watch results roll in in New York’s bruising 16th Congressional District Democratic primary Tuesday night, they will likely be thinking about one of two specific Saturdays last fall. Whichever one crosses their mind first determines what they think the progressive political movement should do next.

Incumbent Rep. Jamaal Bowman is expected to go down in a spectacular defeat to Westchester County Executive George Latimer. Latimer embodies the kind of establishment political power Bowman knocked off in 2020, when he became a hero of the left. It has been the most expensive primary anyone can remember, with Bowman outspent by millions of dollars, according to independent spending trackers.

What does this mean for the progressive movement, which has grown steadily in power since Sen. Bernie Sanders’ first presidential campaign began in 2015? Pick your Saturday. They’re seven days apart, both late last year. The week both defines Bowman’s political career and explains this moment in progressive politics, depending on your point of view.

The first is Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023, when, in the midst of a chaotic congressional vote on keeping the government open, Bowman pulled a fire alarm in a House office building. It was, in a word, bizarre. His staff then publicly released talking points around the incident that called some Republicans “Nazis,” which Bowman disavowed. It was, in two words, badly handled.

Progressive supporters who think the problem with Bowman’s reelection race is Bowman regularly point to this moment. Fire Alarm Saturday was just one of many days, they say, where it has been made obvious that Bowman is not good at politics. There are a number of factors to consider when thinking about the primary, they say, but a huge one is that the left backed the wrong man to carry its banner in the district.

“The sense in the room is that Jamaal fucked this up pretty badly,” one progressive activist who in the past has advised Bowman told NOTUS.

Those people are looking at the wrong Saturday, say other progressives. The one that really defined this race came seven days later on Oct. 7. Hamas’ attack on Israel and Israel’s subsequent war in Gaza scrambled Democratic politics, these progressives say, turbocharging a pro-Israel movement intent on removing any American elected critic of the country from office and creating an easy lane for them to do it.

Bowman is a leftist Israel critic representing a district that includes a fair number of Democrats who support Israel. A super PAC allied with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has spent a reported $15 million against Bowman, and that is the problem, say his strongest supporters.

Asked about progressives’ complaints over Bowman’s handling of the race and other perceived missteps, the congressman’s staunchest allies dismissed it.

“You know, frankly, no one has had the backbone to say that to my face, and I would welcome them to do so,” said Usamah Andrabi, spokesperson for the Justice Democrats, which has stuck with Bowman all the way this cycle. “There’s no out-strategizing, out-whatever.”

The math is simple, Andrabi says, but lefties don’t want to see it.

“This movement has a lot of fair-weather friends,” he said. “When $15 million hits the airwaves, they want to compromise on the values that we have told our supporters and our voters that we will not compromise on.”

Progressives are beginning to question what they should learn from Bowman’s race. Their ranks remain divided on why Bowman, once an insurgent candidate with a growing national profile, is barely limping to the finish line.

Supporters of each Saturday theory have evidence to point to. Democratic district locals have grown disillusioned with Bowman’s approach to politics, specifically when it came to building bridges between a large pro-Israel community and Bowman’s own public statements, which have strongly sided with the pro-Palestinian side, Huffpost detailed Sunday. Bowman supporters feel that narrative glosses over a large number of local leaders who have stood by Bowman through the primary. And, they point out, most of the ads run by Israel supporters against Bowman have focused on his votes against President Joe Biden, like the one he cast with other “squad” members against the bipartisan infrastructure law in 2021.

But the other side of the argument says Bowman is more interested in being championed by the left than building its numbers.

“He’s a Briahna Joy Gray-type at heart,” said the person who has advised Bowman in the past. “I don’t think people want that in their member of Congress, particularly in Westchester.”

There are a lot of back-and-forths like this among progressives about this race. Was Bowman wrong to vote against the bipartisan infrastructure law? Or did that represent the kind of devotion to the social spending cause that got Bowman elected in the first place? Should progressives have more carefully vetted him to find an internet trail that included brushes with 9/11 trutherism before Bowman’s opponents did? Or is that just a media narrative that avoids Latimer’s past social media behavior, like a Facebook post where he appeared to equate the treatment of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo to that of Emmett Till? Did bad staffing leave him alone in that House office building hallway with the fire alarm, or is this just the guy he is?

When candidates are losing, their warts tend to show, pointed out some former Bowman advisers and aides who now mostly blame him for the expected loss. The reality is, when pressed, most on the professional left agree that it is a combination of factors that have led to Tuesday.

What divides them is how the left moves on from Bowman’s primary. One side says the reality of politics must be paramount as the left tries to hang on to what it has gained and build on it. That means a lot of hard work that can turn off puritanical activists. Other progressive candidates, like Rep. Summer Lee, have rebuffed AIPAC’s power, proof that politicking still matters. More than one veteran of recent progressive campaigns said the left must engage with those skeptical of their movement. Elected leaders need to be focused on building out from what they have won and proving they care about their constituents as well as the causes that animate their most ardent supporters, these people said.

“The left/Jamaal could have done better raising money, building their coalition, building community relationships and been smarter about their rhetoric,” texted one prominent New York progressive closely familiar with Bowman’s rise.

Others have a more fatalistic view. Andrabi of the Justice Democrats said the problem is deeper than a person or an issue. When a super PAC can raise huge sums and spend them against a single member of Congress like in New York 16, the problem is the money, not the politics. The future of the progressive movement should look more like Bowman, not less.

“Jamaal Bowman, no matter the outcome, of this election is a model for what a leader should look like, not a warning,” he said. “There is a level of moral clarity and willingness to stand up on your values, to have the courage to do that and to be committed to the people in your district that you are willing to stand up for those values and not what some, you know, D.C. political strategist says is opportune.”

Andrabi continued with a warning to not just progressives, but Democrats at large: “It’s not going to be helpful to Democratic chances in November to allow Democratic primary spending like this to happen against their incumbents, especially the incumbents that represent the core base of the Democratic Party that they desperately need to activate.”

Evan McMorris-Santoro is a reporter at NOTUS.