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George Latimer on winning the most expensive primary race in U.S. House history

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The most expensive primary in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives concluded this week in New York. That's where incumbent Congressman Jamal Bowman lost his race to George Latimer, a Democrat who is currently serving as Westchester County executive. From a national perspective, at least, the October 7 Hamas attack and Israel's war in Gaza loomed large in the race. Bowman has accused Israel of committing genocide there. Latimer, on the other hand, enjoyed strong support from pro-Israel groups. We wanted to ask County Executive Latimer himself or his take on the race, so he's with us now. Good morning.

GEORGE LATIMER: Good morning. How are you today?

MARTIN: I'm great. So by now you've seen all the commentary. Why do you think you won?

LATIMER: I think it was won on the ground. The nature of the district - 85% of it is Westchester County, 15% of it is the Bronx - felt disconnected from the incumbent, that he was much more interested in making a national name for himself, which he had, and his appearance on, you know, major media outlets did not really reflect being present to deal with the local issues, issues of affordability, issues of transportation, jobs and so forth in the district.

And the district is more diverse than people might think. There are urban parts of this district, and there are poor people. But there are also middle-class folks, people in the upper middle class and wealthy. And there's a wide range of issues, many of which I felt he just wasn't attentive to. So I went out. I think I worked very hard. Certainly Israel, Middle East was an issue. And certainly there was a lot of spending done. But unlike two years ago or four years ago, the incumbent had a record. And he had done some things that were questionable. And I think that all led to the end result.

MARTIN: Well, you did get support from a national group. AIPAC is a national group.

LATIMER: I did.

MARTIN: So I'm just wondering why you got so much support from AIPAC.

LATIMER: Well, because I have a position in support of Israel, and he has a position in opposition to Israel. And he was very vocal. As you said in the lead-up to this, he had said that there was genocide on behalf of Israel and apartheid in the country. And those are very bold statements. Only a handful of members of Congress adhere to those statements. Most of the members of Congress, I think, are much more mainstream. They'd like to see peace, a negotiated peace, both sides having to make concessions. But it begins with the restoration of hostages. And you can't ignore that and immediately go to the role that Israel played in response. You know, discussion nationally about Israel and Gaza was not the most discussed issue on the ground. And if you really want to know what happened in the...

MARTIN: Yeah.

LATIMER: ....District and why he lost, he lost because he lost touch with people in the district. That's a message in every one of the 435 House seats all across the country. When you project national issues, and you forget that back home locally, people care about things, you run the risk of losing your seat.

MARTIN: So look. It's clear that at least some measure of your supporters did not like the way Bowman was comporting himself. I think it's also fair to say that some of his supporters didn't like some of what you had to say in the course of the race. I mean, you're saying that Bowman had a, quote-unquote, "ethnic advantage in this race," your comment that his constituents are in Dearborn, Mich. Some people...

LATIMER: May I get those quotes right?

MARTIN: Sure.

LATIMER: I did not say his constituents were in Dearborn, Mich. I said that he raised money from places like San Francisco and Dearborn, Mich.

MARTIN: OK. OK.

LATIMER: But there's an important reason why I said that - because he has a joint fundraising group with Representative Tlaib. I didn't pick Dearborn, Mich., out of the map. That is where he went to create a source to raise money from outside the district. And that's why, in many ways, there was a disconnect. He raised most of his money from outside the district, in places that aren't connected to the people who live here.

MARTIN: You've just pointed out that this is a very diverse district. Obviously, there are strong feelings. This was a hard-fought race. My question to you is, how do you bind the wounds? How do you unify the district going forward? What's your message going to be about that?

LATIMER: It's important to understand that I had support in the African American community, the Latino community. I think it was about split between both of us. So my base of support was broad based. And in that, I'm working through the various organizations, some in the Bronx, some in the urban parts of Westchester County. I've reached out to some of the elected officials that supported him during the race. And while the quotes that you pull out represent a perception that he tried to play, people who live in this district know that I have been, far and away, a unifying figure.

That was my message on election night when I spoke to people, that the thing is that we have to include everybody, not just a few people because we identified them as a target group, a unifying message, and I think we'll be able to do pretty well with that. And I think that does correlate to the national level, where Joe Biden as a president will be able to motivate people if he can show them, these are the things he's actually done to help people's lives become better, not just rhetoric, but actual results. That's the unifying message.

MARTIN: OK. Just one more question about that. Look. Given, as you've just pointed out, how diverse this district is, Hudson Valley had three Black Congresspersons in recent years. Now it will have none. So what do you say to that portion of the district that generally does feel that they're not adequately represented? As we've said, it seems that the Democrats on the whole, let's say, the top of the ticket, Mr. Biden, in particular, seems to have softening support among these constituencies that have been very important in the past. Now, that might not be particularly important to you individually, but it may be important in asking - in the Democrats trying to hold on to the House - or rather, trying to flip the House, which is a steep climb, anyway. How do you answer that? How do you speak to that?

LATIMER: I answered by saying that if I move to the House of Representatives, the deputy county executive that I appoint to this position is going to become the new county executive. He is African American. Prominent state legislators who represent Westchester, the state Senate majority leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Gary Pretlow, the assembly dean of our delegation, are also African Americans. So it is not at all true that the African American community in Westchester County feels unrepresented. They have many elected officials. Jamal Bowman the individual was defeated in this race. And there's still plenty of opportunities for that growth and that representation. Once again, I think there's a national perception of things that doesn't exist on the ground in this district.

MARTIN: That is Westchester County Executive George Latimer, also now Democratic nominee for the 16th Congressional District in New York. Mr. Latimer, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you for your time.

LATIMER: Thank you. It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.