Most residents of Rockland and Westchester counties would be hard-pressed to remember a time before Nita Lowey represented them in Congress. Now, with her retirement looming next year, residents of the 17th Congressional District are gearing up for their first competitive congressional primary in decades.
Lowey has been in office for over 30 years, and the primary will test how far left New York’s solidly blue districts might go and which style of leadership appeals to an electorate that hasn’t seen a competitive primary in decades.
The contours of the race testify to the impact of the Trump presidency – and of the 2018 primary in the Bronx and Queens in which a young Democratic Socialist, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, beat longtime party leader Joe Crowley in a major upset.
This race, which features three candidates ages 32-40, is likely to come down to style and personality, said Ross Barkan, a former reporter at the New York Observer and a candidate for state Senate in 2018. “In many congressional primaries, especially Democratic ones, there’s usually broad agreement on issues,” said Barkan. “What it usually comes down to is the kind of candidates.”
Though the 17th District is solidly Democratic, it is not as deep blue as the district that elected Ocasio-Cortez. In 2016, 58 percent of Lowey’s district voted for Hillary Clinton and 38.1 percent voted for Donald Trump. In Ocasio-Cortez’s district, 77.3 percent voted for Clinton and just 19.7 percent voted for Donald Trump.
Three primary candidates have already declared and more may come:
The most progressive position in this race was claimed early on by Jones, a lawyer from Rockland County who worked in the Obama administration. He launched a primary challenge against Lowey in June. Speaking to The Jewish Week in October, just after Lowey announced that she is retiring, Jones said he felt “grateful for that changed [political] environment” but was quick to differentiate his candidacy from that of his remaining opponents.
“We are offering a kind of leadership that other people in the race are not offering,” said Jones, who, if elected, would be the first openly gay black member of Congress. “To me, we need more people for whom policy is personal.”
Having begun the race as a primary challenger from the left, Jones is part of a wave of young, diverse candidates launching progressive primary challenges, particularly in New York. Reps. Eliot Engel, Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney are also facing challenges from the left. “I think it helps that I went into the lion’s den this summer because there can be no doubt that I believe in the things I say I do,” he said. Jones supports Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, though he does not call himself a Democratic Socialist nor has he sought an endorsement from Justice Democrats, the group that helped elect Ocasio-Cortez.
Like Jones, Buchwald, a state assemblyman from White Plains, is angling for the progressive lane. But he is also seeking to carry Lowey’s legacy. He interned for the congresswoman in 1997, and in a video announcing his candidacy shortly after she announced her retirement, Buchwald thanked Lowey for inspiring him to enter public service.
“The challenge we have as a party is how to convey leadership to the American public that’s an affirmative vision for our country and not just in opposition to President Trump,” Buchwald told The Jewish Week. “We have to build on real accomplishments and successes.”
In his seven years in the state assembly, Buchwald championed progressive causes including environmental protection laws as well as single-payer health care for New York State. After a spate of bomb threats were made against JCCs in 2017, threats later found to have been made by an Israeli teenager, Buchwald co-sponsored a bill in 2017 to put harsher penalties in place for bomb threats against community centers.
Buchwald received an endorsement last week from Amy Paulin, a state assemblywoman whose name was floated as a potential candidate in the race. He has also been endorsed by a number of local mayors and town supervisors.
State Sen. Carlucci, who announced his candidacy last month, also calls himself “a proud progressive.” (He could not be reached for an interview.) But Carlucci is sure to face strong criticism due to his membership in the Independent Democratic Caucus, a group of eight Democrats that, until last year, broke from the Democratic majority and caucused with Republicans. Opponents of the I.D.C. blamed it for keeping the state Senate from passing more progressive legislation.
When asked in a recent interview with City and State if he would seek to work with Ocasio-Cortez if elected to Congress, Carlucci said his style would be “more in line with the way that Congresswoman Lowey has governed,” seemingly carving out a more moderate lane in the race. He also brought up Israel in his answer. “I think you can see I’ll be following, just like Congresswoman Lowey has, being an avid supporter of Israel, being an avid supporter of middle-class families.”
The Jewish agendas
While the candidates are unlikely to match Lowey in her championing of the pro-Israel cause, particularly in her powerful role on the appropriations committee and on its foreign operations subcommittee, the three candidates hardly show any daylight between their positions on Israel.
Buchwald, who is Jewish, supports a two-state solution and co-sponsored a bill that would prevent New York State from contracting with businesses that support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. The bill is still in committee.
In June, Jones told The Jewish Week that he “would not characterize [Lowey] as out-of-step with her constituents” on Israel.
With anti-Semitism rising across the country and recent incidents of anti-Semitic graffiti in the district, both Jones and Buchwald expressed their commitment to supporting the Jewish communities and condemning anti-Semitism.
“I am deeply committed to my relationships to the Jewish community in the district,” said Jones.
“I have always worked to support more broadly religious institutions in my capacity as a government official, but in particular to work with allies in the Jewish community to address the spate of anti-Semitic incidents that have occurred in our region,” said Buchwald, who previously served on the Westchester board of the Anti-Defamation League.
Buchwald also condemned Rep. Ilhan Omar’s tweet earlier this year in which the freshman Minnesota Democrat wrote “it’s all about the Benjamins” regarding AIPAC’s influence in Congress. “If I have the honor of being elected to Congress, it’ll be my job to try to explain to colleagues the importance of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. It will be my responsibility to call out racism and anti-Semitism in the House,” said Buchwald.
The Orthodox community in Rockland County, which tends to vote as a bloc, is also a consideration. And the Jewish community as a whole, Orthodox and liberal, could play a large role in determining the nominee. “They could make a difference,” said Aaron Keyak, a managing partner at Bluelight Strategies and a former communications manager for Jerry Nadler, noting the high turnout among Jewish voters and the extent to which this primary could serve as a referendum on the future of the party. “At least among Jewish Democrats, we’re all having a conversation about the future of the party,” said Keyak.
What’s clear for now is that the race is wide open.
“This is a primary with no precedents,” said Barkan. “There’s no data to work off of.”
Editor’s note: After this story was published, Allison Fine, a Jewish woman and former president of her synagogue in Tarrytown, NY and Evelyn Farkas, a former Obama administration official, announced their candidacies for the Democratic nomination.