Politics / June 14, 2024

Hillary Clinton Just Made the Wrong Choice in One of 2024’s Most Crucial Races

The 2016 Democratic presidential nominee knows George Latimer is using racist GOP talking points to attack Jamaal Bowman. Yet she has endorsed Latimer. What an embarrassment.

John Nichols
Hillary Rodham Clinton appears on stage during Vital Voices 3rd Annual Global Festival on May 30, 2024 in Washington, DC.

Hillary Rodham Clinton appears on stage during the Vital Voices 3rd Annual Global Festival on May 30, 2024, in Washington, DC.

(Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images for Vital Voices Global Partnership)

George Latimer says he wants to represent New Yorkers in Congress as a Democrat. But the Westchester County executive is mounting a congressional campaign that relies on precisely the talking points that Republicans have for decades used to attack Democrats.

Latimer is blasting the Democrat he seeks to displace in a June 25 New York primary, US Representative Jamaal Bowman, with charges that are clearly intended to suggest that the incumbent is more concerned about Muslim Americans in Michigan and liberals in San Francisco than about his constituents in the Bronx and suburban Westchester County. Noting that Bowman’s stances—in favor of a cease-fire in Gaza and progressive domestic policies—have earned him support from across the country, Latimer charged in a League of Women Voters debate this week, “Your constituency is Dearborn, Michigan. Your constituency in San Francisco, California.”

Democrats have heard these kinds of ad hominem attacks before. But this is different. Latimer, who has been the Westchester executive since 2018, is mounting a primary campaign where, thanks to his high name recognition and heavy spending to advance his candidacy by conservative donors and PACs associated with the American Israel Political Action Committee, some polls put him in the lead.

Yet a Latimer victory would be anything but a model Democratic primary win. Rather, it would be a win for the sort of politics that Republicans have for years used to denigrate and defeat Democrats.

Latimer’s decision to adopt right-wing talking points as central themes of his campaign has drawn rebukes from savvy Democrats and from progressive political commentators who recognize the importance of pushing back against racist stereotypes and regional pejoratives. “For Latimer to attack Jamaal Bowman using a bigoted attack on Arab Americans in Dearborn, Michigan, is a disgrace,” says Arab American Institute President James Zogby, a longtime member of the Democratic National Committee’s executive board who has advised numerous Democratic presidents and candidates. Mehdi Hasan, the former MSNBC host who recently founded Zeteo News, accused Latimer of spouting “straight up Islamophobia.” And senior political strategist Waleed Shadid, who has worked with the pro-Bowman group Justice Democrats, said of Latimer’s statement, “This is racist bigotry.” Shadid argues, “If George Latimer was a progressive primary challenger you’d get Hillary Clinton, Hakeem Jeffries, Nancy Pelosi, and [New York State Democratic Party chair] Jay Jacobs all weighing in on such a bigoted comment.”

Latimer is not a progressive. He’s a career politician whose desire to oust Bowman has aligned him with the Republican campaign donors who are pouring millions into political action committees linked with the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee. Bowman is a top target for AIPAC due to his high-profile support for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza. As Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders notes, “AIPAC, funded by right-wing billionaires, supports extremist Republican candidates. They will spend $100 million against progressives this year, including $25 million against [Bowman].”

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Sanders’s point about Latimer’s attracting support from right-wing donors has been backed up by a widely circulated New York Daily News article headlined, “Pro-Trump GOP donor hosts fundraiser for George Latimer in primary challenge to Representative Jamaal Bowman,” and by a recent Gothamist report that more than 60 donors who supported the Republican candidate in a recent New York special election for the seat of former US representative George Santos are now backing Latimer’s Democratic candidacy. Responding to the revelation, the Bowman campaign explained, “In George Latimer, Republicans have found a perfect vessel for their right-wing interests and Democratic voters will be the ones that suffer the consequences.”

Senator Sanders, along with New York Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, will be campaigning for Bowman in New York’s 16th Congressional District, with a rally in the Bronx set for June 22.

But Latimer just attracted a prominent supporter of his own. This week, Hillary Clinton, one of the leading Democrats whom Shadid mentioned, announced her endorsement in the race. Not for the first time, the 2016 Democratic nominee for president has positioned herself on the opposite side of Sanders and progressive New York Democrats such as AOC and Bowman.

“With Trump on the ballot, we need strong, principled Democrats in Congress more than ever,” said Clinton, in an enthusiastic endorsement of Latimer. The former US senator from New York portrayed Latimer as someone who, despite his high-profile breaks with Democrats on priorities such as taxing the rich, will “fight for President Biden’s agenda.”

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Clinton’s decision to back Latimer even after he was called out for his jabs at Dearborn and San Francisco was notable because, if anyone recognizes that harm that has been done by wrongheaded Republican talking points, it should be the woman who for decades was the prime target of “the vast right-wing conspiracy.”

For the better part of 40 years, Republicans have charged that Democrats take their cues from San Francisco supporters of LGBTQ+ rights, abortion rights, gender equity, fair wages, and humane budget priorities. Democrats in Washington and statehouses around the country, claims the GOP, embrace “San Francisco values.” Political historians trace this attack line back to the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas. That’s when neoconservative Jeanne Kirkpatrick, a former Democrat who served as Republican President Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations, ripped into Democrats for holding their convention in the Bay Area—and condemned “San Francisco Democrats” for adopting a “blame America first” mentality. A rising generation of conservative politicians and talk-radio hosts expanded the assault, attacking Democrats such as Hillary Clinton for attending fund-raising events in San Francisco and portraying the political rise of Nancy Pelosi, a Democratic representative from the Bay Area who would become speaker of the House, as a threat to American families. In a 2006 letter to GOP donors, then–House Speaker Newt Gingrich asked, “Will everything you’ve worked so hard to accomplish be lost to the San Francisco values of would-be Speaker Nancy Pelosi?” The term eventually became a staple in ads attacking Democratic candidates across the country, as part of negative media campaigns that often featured images of Pelosi and Clinton. In his 2016 race against Clinton, Trump repeatedly attacked San Francisco as a “sanctuary city” that rejected the targeting of undocumented immigrants.

Trump’s 2016 campaign expanded on the Republican penchant for regionalized attacks that sought to demonize ethnic and racial communities—and the Democrats who defended them. In particular, he targeted Muslim Americans, attacking refugees from predominantly Muslim countries, proposing a temporary immigration ban, claiming that Muslim Americans refused to assimilate, and charging that residents of communities with large Muslim American populations gathered to “cheer” and “celebrate” terror attacks. When Clinton pushed back against Trump’s racist and xenophobic politics, Trump declared that his Democratic rival’s stance proved that she had “bad judgement and is unfit to serve as President at this delicate and difficult time in our country’s history.”

“Trump Rants Terrorize US Muslim Capital,” read a 2016 campaign season headline from Dearborn, where Michigan immigration lawyer Muna Jondy said, “A lot of people are terrified, if you want the truth. One of his main campaign points is targeting Muslims.”

On Election Day that year, Dearborn voters gave Trump just 30 percent of the vote. Almost two-thirds of them backed Clinton instead.

But Clinton is not on the same side as Dearborn this year, as US support for the Israeli assault on Gaza has left voters in the Michigan city frustrated with leaders of both parties. Around the same time that Clinton announced her endorsement of Latimer, Dearborn Mayor Abdullah H. Hammoud ripped into the congressional candidate’s crude comments about his city, saying, “AIPAC is so afraid of Dearborn that they passed on that talking point.”

Clinton knows this is what has happened. Yet she has chosen to back Latimer anyway. Her refusal to reject Latimer’s bigotry and to stand on the right side of history is tragic for her and for her party. As actress, activist, and former New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon said to Clinton, “The candidate you just endorsed is funded by Trump donors, who are spending tens of millions to defeat a good Democrat. You know as well as anyone how dangerous Trump Republicans are. Don’t reward their meddling by endorsing the Republicans’ candidate in a Democratic primary.”

Good advice. Unfortunately, Clinton rejected it.

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John Nichols

John Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation. He has written, cowritten, or edited over a dozen books on topics ranging from histories of American socialism and the Democratic Party to analyses of US and global media systems. His latest, cowritten with Senator Bernie Sanders, is the New York Times bestseller It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism.

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