Israel-Hamas war roils congressional race outside New York City, testing Democrats in pivotal clash

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TARRYTOWN, N.Y. (AP) — The war between Israel and Hamas is roiling a congressional primary election between two Democrats in New York, reflecting a divide that has splintered the party nationally since the conflict began last year.

U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman, one of several House liberals who have questioned the Biden administration’s vigorous support for Israel’s response to the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on civilians in southern Israel, is facing a tough challenge from centrist George Latimer, a top county official who entered the race with the backing of Jewish leaders in a mostly suburban district north of New York City.

Bowman, a former middle school principal seeking his third term, has been one of the House’s most critical voices on Israel. While he condemned Hamas’ attack, he has said Israel is committing genocide in Gaza. He was also among a few members of Congress who opposed a symbolic resolution to support Israel following the Oct. 7 attack because it didn’t urge a cease-fire or push to protect Palestinian civilians.

Latimer, 70, has been a political fixture in the district for more than three decades and serves as the Westchester county executive after holding posts as a local and state legislator. He said Bowman’s rhetoric on Israel was just part of the reason he hopped into the race. A bigger reason, he said, was that people want a more moderate, pragmatic representative than Bowman, who has sometimes been accused of being more concerned with his national profile than the district’s problems.

In a year when congressional races in New York are expected to play a pivotal role in determining who controls the House, this seat, which includes parts of the Bronx and Westchester, is expected to stay in Democratic hands regardless of who wins the June 25 primary.

Still, the result could give Democrats clues on how to frame their message in November, particularly on the war, and signal how crucial suburban districts might vote in the fall.

In an interview, Bowman defended his position on Israel.

“The same way there’s no way I can support or condone the horrible attacks of October 7th, there’s no way I can support or condone the genocide that’s happening in Gaza right now,” Bowman said. “So we’ve got to speak even louder in the U.S. because Israel is supposed to be an ally, and they’re not following international law.”

That stance has put him at odds with much of the Democratic establishment and has resulted in a campaign to unseat him from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a major lobbying organization that is working to oust progressives who have criticized Israel.

Bowman said the group is trying to “buy this race.”

“They’re leveraging all of their resources to try to silence me or bully me and intimidate me into doing what they want me to do,” he said.

Bowman won office as a liberal insurgent in 2020, defeating U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel, who had served 16 terms and was chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Bowman’s stance on Israel and Palestinians had been a minor issue in that race, too. Engel, who is Jewish, was a strong backer of Israel.

But Bowman, who is Black, proved to be the candidate of the moment in an election year that featured major protests against racial injustice in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. His victory came just two years after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s shocking upset in a nearby congressional district over U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley, who at the time was the No. 4 Democrat in the House.

In a potentially telling signal of where the Democratic Party is this year, former U.S. Rep. Mondaire Jones, a progressive Democrat who entered Congress the same year as Bowman and served one term, recently chose to endorse Latimer in the race.

“I’m making this endorsement to stand up for my Jewish constituents, because Representative Bowman and I have very different views on Israel,” said Jones, who is trying to regain a seat in Congress after he lost his old district in a redrawing of congressional boundary lines. “It is really clear that Mr. Bowman is focused on doing his thing and, I would submit, not enough on how it is impacting the environment here in the Hudson Valley.”

The strategy largely mirrors the Democrats’ political plans for New York’s congressional races this year. The party has tried to move toward the center to attract suburban voters who are typically more moderate.

Latimer, who has scored the endorsement of former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, is happy to rattle off the names of local officials with whom he’s worked and dive into the minutia of day-to-day governing — handling potholes, restoring a lighthouse and taking meetings about an issue at the local airport.

“If I go to Washington, I’m not going down there to be part of the verbal food fight. I’m going to try to figure out how to be a productive congressman that gets what results you can get,” Latimer said in an interview.

Both candidates have supported a two-state solution and say they want peace in the region. But where Bowman is pointed on Israel’s actions and wants a cease-fire, Latimer is clear in his support for Israel and said negotiating with Hamas is a nonstarter — though he said he won’t give Israel “a blank check” on everything it does.

“I clearly support that there be a two-state solution and that we negotiate for peace,” he said, but, “don’t tell me, ‘Cease fire now. Sit down, and let’s negotiate,’ when the guy I’m negotiating with in Hamas is a terrorist organization that’s committed to my destruction.”

Bowman, aside from his views on Israel, raised his profile nationally when he triggered a fire alarm in a House office building as lawmakers were working on a funding bill last year. He said it was a mistake as he tried to open a locked door while rushing to vote, though House colleagues later censured him for it.

Bowman said the fire alarm “comes up once every 200 conversations” when he’s back home, mostly when “older moms in the district, older Black women literally slap me on the wrist and say, ‘Stay out of trouble up there.’”

Jimmy Hickey, a 60-year-old who lives in the district and works as a concierge at a co-op building, brought up the fire alarm unprompted when an Associated Press reporter asked about the primary — “that’s childish,” he said. Hickey said he’s a registered Democrat but thinks the party has moved too far to the left.

“A guy like Latimer, he’s still moderate,” Hickey said. “He gets into Congress, he can work with people, get things done. The other guy, I don’t think so.”

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