Politics / June 24, 2024

In the Battle for the Bronx, Jamaal Bowman’s AIPAC-Funded Opponent Definitely Has the Money

But if Saturday’s rally was any indication, the progressive champion may not have the many on his side.

D.D. Guttenplan
Jamaal Bowman speaks at a campaign rally at St. Mary’s Park in the Bronx on June 22, 2024, in New York City.(Steven Ferdman / Getty)

St. mary’s park, the bronx—It wasn’t just the heat, though by the time the speeches began the temperature in the shade was already in the 90s—which must have been nice for those able to find a patch of shade. Near the stage, where the sun was as pitiless as the Trump administration’s border policy, the heat was easily into triple digits.

But it wasn’t just the heat. It was the humility. In a fight that has been billed as a battle royale between progressives and the pro-Israel lobby, and in a race that has drawn not just national attention but millions of dollars in donations to Representative Jamaal Bowman’s hand-picked opponent, former Westchester County executive George Latimer, the signs are not encouraging.

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Bowman was neither the first member of Congress to call for a cease-fire in Gaza, nor the most vociferous congressional critic of Israel’s assault on the Palestinian population—both of those honors would probably go to his colleague and fellow squad member Rashida Tlaib. Yet, as The Nation and many others have reported, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has decidedly made him the main target of its ongoing campaign to silence Israel’s critics. History doubtless played a part in that decision: Bowman’s upset victory in 2020 over nine-term incumbent Eliot Engel, which came in the wake of the short-lived national reckoning on race following George Floyd’s murder, deprived the Zionist lobby of one of its most reliable votes in Congress. It helped that Engel had also long ignored his constituents of color. But Bowman, a charismatic educator who founded a popular and successful middle school in the South Bronx and was already an eloquent critic of high-stakes testing before the Justice Democrats recruited him to take on the seemingly unbeatable chair of the House Foreign Affairs committee, easily won reelection two years later, taking 54 percent of Democratic primary ballots and 64 percent in the general election.

Yet that didn’t deter the United Democracy Project—AIPAC’s super PAC—from putting $14.5 million into the race for the 16th Congressional District, with two-thirds of that going to ads attacking Bowman. The representative, whose district includes significant Jewish populations in Riverdale, Co-op City, and Westchester, was first attacked by the left: When he visited Israel and voted in favor of funding the country’s Iron Dome missile-defense system during his first term, the Democratic Socialists of America (which had endorsed him and claimed him as a member) threatened to expel him in 2021, prompting him to resign from the group. The incident may well have put a target on his back.

On Saturday the left seemed united behind Bowman. “It was hot when they marched on Selma,” said Jonathan Smith, president of the New York metropolitan area America Postal Workers Union. “It was hot when they marched on Washington.”

Jumaane Williams, who as New York City’s public advocate endorsed Bowman in his first race, told the crowd that Bowman’s strong condemnation of the Hamas attack on October 7—which also saw him criticized by some on the left—was a mark of leadership. “Leadership can say that something terrible happened on October 7, and call it out,” said Williams, warming up the crowd while also illustrating the nature of Bowman’s dilemma. “But the story does not end there.” After reminding the crowd that Bowman had also been a consistent and early advocate of a cease-fire, he said, “Humanity should be rewarded, not punished.”

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It would certainly be a better world if that were the case, just as it would be a better world if the crowd at this rally were even half as large as the thousands who turned out in the Bronx a few weeks ago to listen to Donald Trump. The Guardian estimated the attendance at 1,000—which seemed generous from where I stood, just outside the VIP enclosure where dozens of seats remained empty throughout the proceedings. Despite the presence of both Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders, the crowd in a park—located a few miles outside of Bowman’s district—was a tiny fraction of the turnout in the same location in 2016, when the lines to get in to a Sanders-for-president rally stretched 10 blocks from the park.

As performers, though, Saturday’s headliners did not disappoint. “My dad grew up a couple blocks from this park,” said Ocasio-Cortez. “He grew up when the Bronx was burning.” In a speech that was part rabble-rousing—“Are you ready to fight? Are you ready to kick some Wall Street ass?”—and part history lesson, the squad’s founding member deftly connected “the underlying forces that have been undermining our communities for decades” with both “Robert Moses [who] constructed the Cross Bronx Expressway designed to cut off our community from itself” and AIPAC, whose billionaire donors, many of whom also donate to Trump, are funding Bowman’s opponent.

Bowman himself then took the stage to the strains of Wu-Tang Clan’s anthem “Triumph.” The self-described “hip-hop congressman” rapped along for a few lines—“Battle-scarred Shogun, explosion, when my pen hits tremendous”—before launching into his stump speech with the claim “Our movement is more powerful than their money.”

Again, it would be pretty to think so. Especially since, as Sanders, the top-billed act (who, in a rare concession to the heat, though clad in his customary baseball cap, flannel slacks, and blue oxford shirt, rolled up his sleeves), told the crowd, the election in the 16th CD on Thursday has become “not about Jamaal versus Mr. Latimer, but about whether the billionaire class will control the US government.”

Like Bowman and AOC, Sanders attempted to lay out a nuanced position on the conflict in Gaza. “Israel had the right to defend itself against a terrorist attack,” said the Senator, prompting a handful of boos from the otherwise adoring crowd. “But does not have the right to wage war against the entire Palestinian people.”

“Never before,” Sanders continued, “have powerful interests spent so much money trying to defeat a candidate…. They key point of this campaign is whether billionaires are able to buy this election.”

The only problem with the senator’s analysis is that they might well be. As one friend said to me afterward, “the ‘many vs. money’ is such a good slogan. They should save it for a candidate who is going to win.”

The Nation has been a fan of Jamaal Bowman since 2020, when he came (via Zoom, since this was the height of the pandemic) to a staff meeting and totally captivated his audience with his intelligence, candor, hope, and (frankly) charisma. He may not be the most savvy political operator in Congress, but it is impossible to argue that his current misfortune is even mostly his own fault—even if it is also impossible to argue that impeccable constituent work and a greater focus on local issues might not have blunted some of the force of AIPAC’s attack (as they did with Republican Representative Thomas Massie’s primary in Kentucky last month.)

But what does it say about the left when we can’t protect our own? Or when at least a hundred members of the crowd in St. Mary’s Park were from Within Our Lifetime—a loud group of pro-Palestinian ultras who condemn Bowman, AOC, and Sanders for falling short of their litmus tests, and who urge voters to boycott “Genocide Joe” Biden in November? Or when the DSA contingent who also made up a significant portion of the crowd—and who, once again, have vigorously backed Bowman—were so overwhelmingly white? Indeed, the crowd overall was far less diverse than at Trump’s rally in the borough.

Perhaps we should stop overstating the importance of battles we are likely to lose. Certainly the left—which, via Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party, seemed for a while to have found in the primary process an effective path to electoral power—might want to reconsider that strategy in the light of the torrents of cash that effort seems to have channeled to our opponents. Because AIPAC is not going away. And neither, without concerted, focused, sustained effort, is Big Money in politics—including Democratic primary races.

But sadly, judging by what I saw in the Bronx on Saturday, the answer to the question “How many divisions has the left?” is: Not enough.

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D.D. Guttenplan

D.D. Guttenplan is editor of The Nation.

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