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Will NY Rep. Jamaal Bowman Lose His Seat In Next Week’s House Primary?

Will NY Rep. Jamaal Bowman Lose His Seat In Next Week’s House Primary?

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Hi there! Today, we’re looking at a political brawl that’s become a high-stakes battle for the future of the Democratic Party. Then I’ll take you behind the scenes of a photo shoot featuring Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s ravens. My colleague Nicholas Fandos, who covers New York politics, starts us off. — Jess Bidgood

This time last year, Representative Jamaal Bowman of New York seemed finally to be hitting his stride. His in-your-face confrontations with conservative Republicans made him a cable news darling. He was thinking of running for mayor of New York City.

Come Tuesday, when New York holds its House primaries, he may be looking for a new line of work.

The swift reversal has captivated the political world, and not just because Bowman would be the first member of the House’s closely watched left-wing “squad” to lose his seat. His primary has also become one of the clearest windows this election year into the fracturing of the Democratic coalition over Gaza and just how far left the party should go.

Bowman’s troubles started last fall, when he began speaking out in the days after Oct. 7 as one of Congress’s leading critics of Israel’s war with Hamas. His stand — for a cease-fire and against American military aid — galvanized younger Democrats and the party’s left flank.

But in a heavily Jewish district, it also helped foment a backlash that led Jewish leaders to recruit a formidable primary challenger, George Latimer; prompted a pro-Israel lobby to pump a record-shattering $15 million into the race; and eventually lit a match under old tensions over race, class and ideology.

Bowman, who is Black, has repeatedly accused his white opponent of racism. He argues his adversaries are trying to silence him for his positions on the war but also because his politics represent a threat to the business and political establishment.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders are parachuting in to try to save him.

This time, though, it looks like the establishment may have the upper hand. Latimer is a well-liked, middle-of-the-road liberal. He has prosecuted a broader case, casting the incumbent as an attention-seeking sideshow whose views are out of step with the district, which includes parts of the Bronx and Westchester County. Polls suggest voters there may concur, though reliable public surveys have been scant.

Whatever the outcome, Democrats on both sides agree that none of this is particularly good news for them. The party is struggling to reassemble the ideologically and demographically diverse coalition that helped elect President Biden.

“If Jamaal Bowman loses, it threatens a demoralization of the very base we need to turn out in November,” Ocasio-Cortez, who is stumping for both Biden and Bowman this week, told me.

Bowman, a gregarious former middle-school principal, is no stranger to intraparty fights. He won his seat four years ago by upsetting an older, more conservative incumbent in a Democratic primary buffeted by the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd.

He arrived in Washington as a walking symbol of the left’s ascent, and has bucked Democratic leadership on issues as diverse as Biden’s infrastructure bill and attempts to ban TikTok.

Still, Bowman appeared to be headed for re-election last fall — until the Israel-Hamas war drove a hard wedge through the Democratic Party.

Other politicians in similar districts, sensing choppy political waters, fell back on carefully worded statements or stuck with the middle of their party. Bowman dove into the conflict head first.

He has framed his opposition to Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, where tens of thousands of civilians have died, many of them children, in moral terms.

“You’ve got to understand, the reason I ran for office in the first place is because Bronx children were being killed, whether it was via suicide or each other, and there was no one talking about the trauma,” Mr. Bowman told me recently.

But his opponents — including some who supported him in earlier races — say his attacks on Israel have gone too far, sometimes veering toward antisemitic tropes.

He called for a cease-fire just days after Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, at a time when Israel had only just begun to fight back. At one point, Bowman was caught on video calling reports that Hamas sexually abused Israeli women during its attack “propaganda.” (He later said he believed the documented claims.)

In response, a super PAC affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has unleashed the largest outside spending campaign in its history, or any other group’s, for that matter.

The ads have rarely focused on the war itself, favoring issues that speak to the whole Democratic base. Most of them have hit Bowman for voting against the infrastructure bill and Biden’s debt-limit deal, portraying the congressman as an agent of “controversy, chaos and conspiracy.”

Rather than moderate his speech, Bowman has leaned into a fight with AIPAC, arguing that the pro-Israel lobby is laundering Republican donor money and warping his chances in the race.

But Bowman was deeply vulnerable before the group ever started spending, including for reasons of his own making.

Last fall, he pulled a fire alarm in a House office building, he said, in hopes of opening a locked door as he raced to the Capitol. But there was no fire. His actions briefly sent Congress into chaos and resulted in a misdemeanor charge that his opponents have exploited in ad after ad.

Opposition researchers found old blog posts and poetry dabbling in conspiracy theories about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

And at a time when other politicians would lean on trusted surrogates back home, Bowman has had surprisingly little help. It is Latimer, the Westchester County executive, who has won nearly every local Democratic Party endorsement, including in Yonkers, Bowman’s hometown.

Several prominent elected Democratic officials and the head of Westchester County’s main business council told me they had barely heard from Bowman during his four years in office. (Bowman’s defenders say this is, in part, because he has prioritized poorer, Black and brown communities over affluent, whiter suburbs.)

Latimer, on the other hand, has been ubiquitous in his home county. A recent Politico article recently referred to him as “the Cher of suburban New York.”

He has repeatedly put his foot in his mouth, too, making comments about race that sound generationally out of touch at best. But many voters who spoke with me seemed eager to buy the main proposition of Latimer’s campaign: a reliable liberal vote without the drama.

Representative Ritchie Torres, an Afro-Latino New York Democrat who was elected alongside Bowman in 2020, summed up his colleague’s problem by referring to an old Biden joke about how Rudolph W. Giuliani made Sept. 11 the refrain of his campaign for president years later.

“The campaign of Jamaal Bowman is ‘a noun, a verb, and AIPAC,’” said Torres, who has close ties to the group. “His campaign has amounted to little more than scapegoating AIPAC, rather than coming to grips with his own role in losing the confidence of his constituents.”

BEHIND THE PHOTO

Ruth Fremson, a photographer for The New York Times, has been covering politics since 1992. She has seen some things. But never before had she seen a presidential candidate try — and repeatedly fail — to lure his pet raven to participate in a photo shoot.

That is what happened in Los Angeles the other week, when Ruth traveled with Rebecca Davis O’Brien for her story about the independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s swoopiest companions. In this hard-won photo, Kennedy leans forward on a patio chair, looking a little bit defeated as one of his sort-of-tame ravens begrudgingly accepts one of many scraps of steak littered across the patio.

I asked Ruth to tell us about it. Our conversation was edited and condensed.

Have you ever photographed ravens before?

No. This was one of my more uncooperative subjects. And that’s separating the ravens from Kennedy himself, because he was unusually easy to photograph. Usually, candidates are surrounded by handlers and staffers, people who worry about how their boss will be perceived. Kennedy was just wide open: Here’s my house, here’s my office, here’s my taxidermied turtle. He said that, when it died, he kept it in the freezer for two years before he stuffed it.

That’s a really odd detail. But I guess the whole thing was odd.

A lot of people might think that trying to tame ravens is a little out there. I can see other candidates’ staffers advising against sharing this with the world. But Kennedy seemed very comfortable with his eccentricities. He casually mentioned having an emu to Rebecca. And he doesn’t even think that’s unusual!

Right. So, Kennedy threw meat on the patio to make the ravens come down from their tree. And they weren’t having it. What did you do?

At one point, Kennedy said my cameras made the birds nervous and suggested I go inside the house. That felt silly. When I went back out, he chastised me, and I reminded him I could not photograph the ravens if I could not see them. Then I tried to hide myself as much as possible so I could photograph without disturbing them. It was all very cloak and dagger.

Appropriate for ravens.

I crouched on some stone steps, and photographed through plants. Kennedy did a raven call to make them come out of the tree. Finally, one raven came down. For me, it was a moment of panic. It wasn’t an ideal composition. You can drive a truck between Kennedy and that raven. But I couldn’t move, lest I scare the raven, so it was the best we could get.

Which humans have been uncooperative with your photographs?

Susan Sontag. I feel like people aren’t afraid of me as a photographer in general, except for her, maybe.

Thanks for reading! I’ll be back Monday. — Jess



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