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A Test of the Left in NY-16

Primary challenges to Rep. Jamaal Bowman test progressivism of New York’s 16th district.

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Jamaal Bowman is facing two challengers in Tuesday’s Democratic primary in NY-16. They argue that a more moderate Democrat can better represent the district.

First-term representative and “Squad” member Jamaal Bowman is facing two challengers in the August 23 primary for New York’s 16th district, which includes southern Westchester County and a portion of the Bronx. Vedat Gashi and Catherine Parker, both Westchester County legislators, are vying for Bowman’s seat, arguing that a more moderate Democrat can better represent the district.

Bowman’s primary victory in 2020, in which he successfully unseated 16-term representative Eliot Engel, was heralded as a major victory for the Democratic left. But in 2022, amidst high inflation, an intermittent-but-widespread national backlash to progressive politics, and less-than-certain fortunes for Biden and the Democratic Party this fall—as well as a redistricting process that made the 16th district wealthier and whiter—the primary will help to reveal whether that progressive energy can be sustained.

Where the Candidates Stand

Bowman’s two challengers have largely built their campaigns on accusing Bowman of being out-of-step with the district, gambling that a more rote centrism can attract disaffected voters wary of the reputation of the Squad. “I will not play petty or performative politics in Washington,” Vedat Gashi says in comments to The River. “I am a commonsense Democrat who [will fight] to safeguard and protect abortion rights, marriage equality, access to affordable health care, quality public schools and equitable housing.”

Parker has served in local government since 2007 and leans on that experience in her campaign, telling The River: “We need a representative who has proven she listens to our communities, who speaks for our communities, and has delivered results for our communities.” She is also outspoken about being the only woman in the race while reproductive freedom is under assault nationally.

On some level, both challenges mirror a shifted 16th district. New York’s redistricting process this year notably shifted the boundaries of the mostly Westchester County district north, cutting out majority-Black communities in the Bronx and adding voters in the upper part of the county.

Bowman himself has spoken out against the shift, tweeting in May: “The map created by the special master splits NY-16’s historically low-income Bronx communities into three congressional districts and decreases the Black voter population by 17%… despite an outpouring of testimony urging redistricting officials to protect the Black vote by keeping the Northeast Bronx with lower Westchester together.”

The Israel-Palestine Issue

The issue of American support for Israel has been one of the most explicit in the race; both Parker and Gashi have made unqualified support for the Middle Eastern state a centerpiece of their campaigns.

A Vedat Gashi campaign ad that attracted attention because of an apparently darkened photo of Bowman that was used to contrast him with Gashi. Gashi’s campaign has denied this.

“Israel has been our Democratic ally in one of the most critical and volatile regions of the world. A strong relationship with Israel is critical for our national security,” says Gashi. “The incumbent has handled our foreign affairs with some of our strongest allies poorly by withdrawing support and voting against the Abraham Accords in the Israeli Relations Normalization Act, which is a critical step towards peace in the Middle East.”

Parker is also hawkish on Israel. “Peace in the Middle East is a beautiful goal but one that requires a two-state solution where Israel and a demilitarized Palestinian state both enjoy sovereignty,” she says. “As an important democracy in that region, I believe we need to support them in their efforts to defend themselves and reduce civilian loss as they combat terrorism and terrorist organizations such as Hamas.”

Bowman’s record on Israel, though, has been more nuanced than his opponents suggest—and less strident than his supporters on the left might like. He made a highly publicized trip to the country in late 2021, which contributed to the Democratic Socialists of America withdrawing their support for his reelection, and voted for $1.3 billion in funding for Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system.

“I support security, human rights, and peace and dignity for all Israelis and Palestinians,” Bowman tells The River. “America must be more diplomatic in how we engage with this conflict. We have to make sure that all of our actions are in service of human rights and safety for people in the region.”

“I also think we have to have an honest conversation about why there has yet to be a peaceful, two state solution,” he adds. “This decades-long conflict isn’t going to be solved by a couple votes. It will be solved when both governments come together in good faith negotiations to establish a peaceful solution that works for both the Israeli and Palestinian people.”

Unlike his opponents, Bowman has also spoken out explicitly for Palestinian rights, co-sponsoring H.Res.1123, which recognizes the rights of Palestinian refugees. In 2021—in the midst of an Israeli assault on Gaza that killed upwards of 250 and injured over 2,000 Palestinians, he tweeted: “The Palestinians are an occupied people… They are an oppressed people… Innocent people and children are suffering as America supports the occupation and denies Palestinians freedom.”

This topic of Israel featured prominently on controversial mailers that the Gashi campaign sent to voters in the district in early August. Ostensibly emphasizing Gashi’s differences with Bowman on several issues, the mailers—first described in City & State NY—attracted attention because of an apparently darkened photo of Bowman that was used to contrast him with Gashi.

While the Gashi campaign has denied altering the photo, the Bowman campaign has accused the challenger of employing a racist campaign tactic.

“There is an ugly history behind facial distortion to spread hate and disdain for political purposes,” says Bowman. “Republicans do this all the time. It’s unfortunate that Democrats are beginning to use the same tactics on other Democrats.”

Future of the District

Despite the challenges from his right, Bowman has retained significant establishment support in the primary. In addition to left-wing Democrats like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, he has the endorsements of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

But Gashi has attracted at least some establishment support for his bid. His August FEC filing shows he has raised over $800,000 this year, and he has been endorsed by former district representatives Eliot Engel and Nina Lowey.

His fundraising does trail Bowman, however, who has raised over $1.5 million; as of August, Bowman also has nearly $200,000 more on hand. (Parker has raised nearly $400,000 this year, $139,000 of which she loaned to the campaign.)

Gashi’s, and possibly Parker’s, performances in the race may also be strengthened by an explicit right-wing push encouraging Republicans to vote in the Democratic primary. Right-wing leaders like New York billionaire John Catsimatidis—CEO and owner of Gristedes Foods and a talk show host on WABC—are openly encouraging this effort to elect conservative Democrats, and the primary will be a test of whether the tactic is effective.

Ultimately, whether either challenger can prevail in a three-way race is unclear—and neither indicates an intent to drop out. Gashi did not comment specifically on Parker’s role in the race, but Parker has accused Gashi of playing spoiler.

“Gashi only has two-and-a-half years of experience as a county legislator,” Parker tells The River, also noting that Gashi lives outside the district. “For voters who want an alternative to Bowman, I’m the most experienced option for them.”

Bowman, for his part, believes his record speaks for itself, and intends to continue work on behalf of a shifted 16th district. “In my first term in Congress, I’ve delivered hundreds of millions of dollars to the district to invest in the towns and cities across NY-16, including money to stop violence, improve tele-health services for seniors, federal grants for community centers and YMCAs, and funding for projects like the transformation of an abandoned Putnam rail line into a bike path,” says Bowman. 

“There’s real joy, listening, and learning in every conversation I have with the people of the district. We’re going to keep working together to protect the community that we love.”