The Campaign Against Jamaal Bowman Was Dirty Politics at its Worst

Whatever you think of the New York congressman, no election should look like this.

In New York’s 16th Congressional District, Jamaal Bowman—a democratic socialist and member of the progressive “Squad”—has lost his campaign for reelection to the House of Representatives. He got just 41.4 percent of the vote, compared to 58.6 percent for George Latimer, his centrist challenger. Immediately afterward, the machinery of media “spin” started up, with countless liberal pundits telling us what conclusions we should draw from the outcome. In the Atlantic, staff writer Russell Berman claims that Bowman “veered too far left of his constituents” and “alienated the Jewish voters in his district with his denunciations of Israel.” For the New York Times, Nicholas Fandos has written three separate articles on the subject, saying that Bowman was seen as “too extreme to help solve the nation’s problems” by voters who had once supported him. More floridly, the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank writes that Bowman was a “Democratic Trump” whose defeat is an “encouraging sign” for his party’s “ability to stand up to extremism.” 

All of these commentators are trying to push the same narrative: that Bowman’s electoral loss means The Left Has Gone Too Far and is being rejected by the general public, which prefers Good Moderate Liberals. This narrative is both predictable and false. Instead, this election is best understood not as a rebuke to leftist values—though it was a defeat—but as a triumph of dirty politics. The campaign that brought George Latimer to power had three main planks: gerrymandering, race-baiting, and an unprecedented influx of dark money. Together, these elements were enough to sweep a progressive politician from office and replace him with one to his right, to the detriment of New York and the nation.

To begin with, it’s important to remember that the 16th District was completely re-shaped since Bowman’s last election in 2022, which he won handily. This fact has been glossed over in most of the biggest newspapers, but it’s acknowledged in both the Jewish Insider—which ran the headline “Updated New York map ensures Latimer has fighting chance to oust Bowman” in February—and in Forward, which notes that “Redistricting dimmed Bowman’s prospects even before the pro-Israel lobby got involved in the race.” (More about that lobby in a moment.) On a map, the change looks like this: 

 

(Maps: Redistricting and You)

 

As you can see, the entire 16th District shifted upward, subtracting communities in the Bronx (where Bowman’s support was strongest) and adding wealthier, majority-white ones in Westchester County. The population of the district went from 770,401 to 776,972, and City and State New York reports that it became “20.5% Black – a 9 percentage point decrease from the previous district” while “White residents [made] up 40% of the new district, up from 33%.” Demographically, it’s not exactly surprising that this influx of well-off white suburbanites would be skeptical of a Black socialist as their representative. And sure enough, Matt Karp writes for Jacobin that the suburb of Scarsdale—where the average income exceeds $500,000 a year—became a particularly strong bastion of Latimer support. Ultimately, Latimer won the Westchester portion of the district by 64 percent to Bowman’s 36, while Bowman won the Bronx side by an overwhelming 84 to 16. It’s just that there were proportionately fewer Bronx voters left—only 7,989 people voted there in the 16th District, compared to 69,044 in its Westchester portion. Through the redistricting process, Bowman’s working-class Black and Hispanic base had been whittled down to almost nothing. 

This brings us to the ugly subject of racism, which is never far from the surface in U.S. politics. Throughout the campaign, George Latimer made some truly shameful racialized comments about his opponent, each more offensive than the last. Among other things, he said Bowman had an “obvious ethnic benefit” against him, claimed that Bowman didn’t “mention people who are not Black or brown” during the campaign—a flat-out lie—and told him that “your constituency is Dearborn, Michigan” (which has a large Arab and Muslim community) rather than New York. He also accused him of “taking money from Hamas,” which prompted Bowman to threaten a defamation suit. Latimer’s proxies engaged in race-baiting too, with a group called the Fairshake PAC running an attack ad that slammed Bowman for putting a picture of Black Panther activist Assata Shakur on a “Wall of Honor” when he was a middle-school principal. This was nasty stuff, and Bowman was understandably angered by it. In response, he amped up his own rhetoric, promising to show Latimer and his funders “the power of the motherfucking South Bronx.” For that, he got scolded by New York Times opinion columnist Pamela Paul, who was simply aghast that Bowman had “proudly cursed in a manner unbecoming to a public official.” 

Paul is educated, if not smart. She surely knows what the term “tone policing” means, and how it’s historically been used to silence and marginalize people of color who speak out about social injustices. That’s exactly what she was doing to Bowman. Notice, for contrast, that the liberal press never raised a stink when Joe Biden called a Fox reporter a “stupid son of a bitch” onstage in 2022, or referred to Donald Trump as a “sick fuck” in closed-door meetings. Joe’s a white man; he’s allowed to get angry. Bowman, apparently, is not.((Nor, for that matter, is Rashida Tlaib, who the right-wing Christian Broadcasting Network referred to as a “foul-mouthed Islamic congresswoman” after she said to “impeach the motherfucker,” meaning Donald Trump, in 2019.)) In this respect, the treatment Bowman received from the New York Times wasn’t much different from what he experienced with Marjorie Taylor Greene, who claimed to feel “threatened” by Bowman’s “aggressive” mannerisms last year. Like Greene, both the Latimer campaign and the press dealt freely in stereotypes and insinuations about Bowman’s race whenever it suited their agenda. And because of the aforementioned gerrymandering, there was a wealthy white audience just waiting to be pandered to. 

And then, of course, there’s the millions of dollars the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) donated to Latimer’s campaign. According to Democratic operative Lis Smith (who’s better known for other work), it’s a “disgusting antisemitic trope” to even mention this. That’s an odd thing to say, since AIPAC themselves have been loudly bragging about their role in Bowman’s defeat, saying in a public statement that “The outcome in this race once again shows that the pro-Israel position is both good policy and good politics.” To any Democratic politician paying attention, that’s a veiled threat: If you step out of line, we’ll flood your primary with dark money and bury you. It’s not even a secret at this point. Speaking to Axios, an unnamed senior House Democrat said that “spending at this volume inevitably has a chilling effect on lawmakers” and that “They [AIPAC] do that a lot.” Barack Obama has also admitted as much, saying that “Those who criticized Israeli policy too loudly risked being tagged as ‘anti-Israel’ (and possibly anti-Semitic) and confronted with a well-funded opponent in the next election” in his 2020 memoir, A Promised Land. (Is Obama antisemitic now, too?)

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Altogether, AIPAC spent $14.5 million against Bowman—as much as $17,000 an hour—which made this the most expensive House primary on record. By one estimate, they outspent the progressive groups who supported him by a margin of 8 to 1. The deluge of money is just one part of a larger effort to purge the “Squad” from Congress altogether, for which $100 million has reportedly been budgeted. In the New York Times, Pamela Paul (yes, her again) echoes Lis Smith, implying that it’s antisemitic to question any of this: 

 

We’ve heard plenty about the outsize funding for Latimer, particularly from AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying group. The question said aloud by Bowman supporters has been, “Why so much money from a foreign government for a local congressional candidate?” The unspoken question has been, “Why are the Jews funding this candidate?”

 

But AIPAC does not represent “the Jews.” Many Jewish people vehemently oppose it, most notably the thousands of activists who make up groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow. And AIPAC’s political operations are not funded by “the Jews” as a group. Rather, they’re funded by a small handful of wealthy people with political ties to the State of Israel, who couldn’t care less about the well-being of the average Jewish person. For In These Times, Branko Marcetic recently published an in-depth report on the United Democracy Project (UDP), the division of AIPAC that handles political donations, and found the following: 

 

[T]he 528 individuals and corporations who gave to UDP between January 2023 and February 2024 are largely top-level executives from the finance and real estate industries, along with a smattering of billionaires and other members of the 1%. Nearly 60% of UDP donors are high-level executives, including CEOs and other corporate officers. This dynamic is essentially flipped when it comes to those funding Squad members like [Summer] Lee, [Jamaal] Bowman and [Cori] Bush, whose 2023-24 donor pool is made up of just 4% CEOs and other top executives, while 60% are non-executives. 

 

It’s this small group of donors who want Bowman and the rest of the Squad gone. In fact, AIPAC and UDP will even marshall their millions to take down Jewish candidates when it suits them, as they did with Representative Andy Levin back in 2022. (Levin’s only offense, as far as anyone can tell, was to sponsor a bill calling for “an end to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.” That was enough to unleash a tidal wave of money against him.) At one point, an AIPAC donor even circulated an email encouraging Republican voters to switch parties in order to vote against Bowman in the primary. And apparently, the public faces of the Democratic Party—like Hillary Clinton, who endorsed George Latimer in mid-June—are perfectly fine with their electoral process being meddled with in this way. 

One incident, in particular, shows just how sleazy and cynical the weaponization of antisemitism accusations was in this election. As Politico reported in May, AIPAC ran a series of TV ads against Bowman that “all but accuse[d] the New York progressive of being antisemitic.” They enlisted Elisha Wiesel, the son of famous Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, to make their case:

 

“My father taught me that antisemitism begins with lies and conspiracy theories, and it ends with violence that consumes any society that tolerates it,” Elisha Wiesel says in a 30-second online ad. “Will you make your voice heard? Will you confront Jamaal Bowman’s lies and conspiracy theories, or will you sit by silently?”... The 60-second version of the ad also features Wiesel asking, “Who are the antisemites engaged in falsely accusing Israel of genocide? Who stands up to oppose them? And who stands by silently? We know where Jamaal Bowman stands.”

 

Like the gerrymandering, this hasn’t been remarked on much in the bigger newspapers, but it’s stunning when you stop to think about it. At the time those ads went out, the Israeli military had already killed more than 34,000 people in Gaza, most of them civilians. So to splutter with indignation that Bowman called those actions genocidal, and to accuse him of antisemitism for doing so, beggars belief. Actual antisemitism wasn’t the issue; acknowledgement of the monstrous crime being committed against Palestinians was. And yet the ad pitch was, essentially, Do you dislike the Holocaust? Then don’t vote for Jamaal Bowman! That’s about as dirty as a political smear job gets. 

One person who can’t easily be slandered as antisemitic—though, amusingly enough, there have been attempts—is Senator Bernie Sanders, who’s both a Jewish man and a fierce opponent of AIPAC. In a public statement shortly after Bowman’s loss, Sanders blasted the outcome as “an outrage and an insult to democracy” from a “system which allows billionaire-funded super PACs to buy elections.” That sums up the situation nicely. The story here is not about a rebuke to the Left by voters; it’s about an extremely well-funded organization that set out to shift the outcome of a Congressional race and succeeded in doing so. If anything, this election just makes it clearer than ever that the U.S. democratic process is deeply corrupted by big money, and desperately needs reform. Repealing Citizens United and getting rid of super PACs entirely, as Sanders has called for, would be a lovely start. In the meantime, there’s the “Reject AIPAC” coalition that’s been organized by 25 prominent progressive organizations, including Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow. Among other things, this group urges members of Congress to take a pledge to refuse any endorsements or campaign money from AIPAC, and attempts to “counterbalance” its lobbying efforts with equal and opposite ones. Until more systemic reform comes to pass, that will be a crucial effort. 

Ironically, it was only a few years ago that Bowman was harshly criticized from the Left for being too pro-Israel. After he publicly opposed the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement during his first election, and voted to fund the Israeli “Iron Dome” missile system in 2021, he was almost expelled from the Democratic Socialists of America. But later in 2021, he took a trip to the West Bank and saw for himself the conditions Palestinians are forced to live under. He met a class of schoolchildren, much like the ones he’d worked with in New York, and his whole perspective shifted irrevocably. As he put it:

 

There are streets they cannot walk and places they cannot go, simply because they are Palestinian. 

When I asked about their dreams, their answer was simple: freedom. 

The occupation must end.

 

Here again, the politics of race play a part. There’s a recurring phenomenon where Black leaders and intellectuals visit Palestine and are viscerally horrified by the oppression they find there, connecting it to their own history. The same thing recently happened with Ta-Nehisi Coates, who returned from the West Bank convinced that the Israeli occupation is “evil,” and said that “There’s no way for me, as an African American, to come back and stand before you, to witness segregation and not say anything about it.” Likewise, it’s no coincidence that South Africans—who know apartheid and genocide all too well—are the ones who have brought the historic case against Israel to the International Court of Justice. For Bowman, like for Coates, it became impossible to keep quiet about Palestine even at the risk of his career. Since the West Bank trip, he’s called for an end to the Iron Dome funding he once supported, explicitly used the word “genocide” to describe the massacre of civilians in Gaza, and defended the rights of student protestors at Columbia University. In short, he chose principle and humanity over political convenience—and for that, AIPAC came for his head. 

That’s not to say Bowman didn’t make serious mistakes. He did, and there are certain errors future candidates should learn from. For one thing, the embarrassing incident where Bowman pulled the fire alarm in a House office building just before a vote—which he insists was an accident—seems to have done lasting damage to his reputation. In one of Nicholas Fandos’s three articles (and counting), he writes that “several voters brought it up without prompting to explain why they had lost faith in Mr. Bowman,” with one saying that “He’s making the party look really bad.” NBC also notes in its coverage that “voters repeatedly quizzed him about the fire alarm incident on the campaign trail.” One of the cardinal rules in politics is to avoid doing things that make you look ridiculous, and Bowman broke it. More seriously, some constituents felt he was focusing on national and international politics at the expense of their local concerns, and simply wasn’t around enough in his district: 

 

“I could see Latimer maybe five times a week,” said Paul Feiner, the longtime town supervisor of Greenburgh. “I’ve only seen Bowman maybe three or four times since he’s been a congressmember.”

 

Even Bowman’s last rally, where he brought in Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to campaign on his behalf, may have fed into this sense that he was too concerned with his national profile. It’s a criticism that’s familiar to the newest generation of leftist leaders. In the Amazon Labor Union, some rank-and-file members feel the same way about organizer Christian Smalls, criticizing him for making too many trips and speaking appearances while neglecting on-the-ground work. Closer to home in the Squad, plenty of people on the Left felt that AOC attending the Met Gala (and not the Black Lives Matter protest outside it) was a misstep. Like the vague air of silliness that comes with yanking a fire alarm, the perception of being out-of-touch with your base is hard to shake. 

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Still, there’s good news too. For Jacobin, Branko Marcetic (who’s becoming one of the foremost analysts of AIPAC and its skulduggery) argues that the pro-Israel group is actually a lot weaker than it seems. He points out that Bowman’s primary is virtually the only one where AIPAC has managed to score a victory this election cycle: 

 

Despite her censure and generally becoming a lightning rod for pro-Israel attacks, [Rashida] Tlaib is safe in her seat, with no serious challenger and out-fundraising everyone in Michigan, with AIPAC having failed to recruit a challenger to run against her despite dangling $20 million in front of them. [Ilhan] Omar has won the state Democratic Party endorsement — and has a fundraising advantage — over her primary challenger in a race the pro-Israel lobby has been pointedly absent from so far.

The lobby has also fallen flat on its face in non-Squad-involved races, blowing $4.6 million on beating centrist representative Dave Min in March over his mild criticisms of Israeli policy; the $400,000 it set on fire running ads against Representative Thomas Massie, a prominent GOP critic of Israel, didn’t move the needle an inch in that race, which Massie won with nearly 76 percent of the vote.

[...T]his year, AIPAC preemptively bowed out of [Summer] Lee’s race despite big plans to spend $10 to 20 million to beat her, because at least four people the lobby feverishly tried to recruit in Pittsburgh said no, deciding she wasn’t beatable. As Lee told me, “AIPAC lost because they couldn’t win.”

 

In other words, reports of the Left’s decline from outlets like the Washington Post (which, let it never be forgotten, is Bezos-owned) are more wishful thinking than anything. Meanwhile, some members of Congress are getting nervous about AIPAC’s strategy, with one anonymously telling Axios that “If anything that much money could backfire, because then you get people that are like, ‘This is just wrong.’” For the pro-Israel camp, defeating Jamaal Bowman may prove to be a Pyrrhic victory if it serves to draw greater attention—and opposition—to their lobbying operation. 

Whatever you think of Jamaal Bowman as a person or a politician, no election should look the way this one did. The borders of Congressional districts should not be drawn and redrawn in strange, counterintuitive ways that benefit one candidate at another’s expense. Political campaigns should not traffic in distasteful racial rhetoric, nor smear their opponents as antisemites simply for standing up for the rights of Palestinians. Above all, an organization of genocide enablers like AIPAC should not be able to dump millions upon millions of dollars into an election to buy its outcome. After this race, it’s clear that our alleged democracy is more broken and degraded than ever. Now, the task is to build a better one. 

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