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Politics

The First Crack Just Opened in the Climate Left

The Earth will have one less friend in Congress.

Jamaal Bowman.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

There will be many chances this week to dissect why two-term New York Congressman Jamaal Bowman lost his primary to Westchester County Executive George Latimer, which The Associated Press called less than an hour after the polls closed on Tuesday. Post mortems will focus on the financial angle (the 16th District primary was the most expensive in House history) and, of course, the Israel-Palestine angle (nearly $15 million alone came from an American Israel Public Affairs Committee-affiliated super PAC that aggressively portrayed Bowman as antisemitic). Others will say it had been a forgone conclusion and point to the disturbing way Latimer co-opted Republican racial dog-whistles in his attacks, or claim Bowman sabotaged his own chances by shifting too far to the left.

It’s probably still a stretch to say that Bowman’sresounding loss was a referendum on progressive climate movements like Sunrise, which attached itself both to Bowman and to the Green New Deal. But look at it the other way around: In the context of Governor Kathy Hochul’s reneging on congestion pricing and the state legislature’s failure to pass the NY HEAT Act, one of the staunchest allies of progressive climate policy losing his election represents another blow to New York’s image as a national leader on the issue — and its ability to remain one.

The Sunrise Movement played a pivotal role in Bowman’s 2020 win against 30-year incumbent Eliot Engel — who was, himself, an original co-sponsor of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal bill. But Bowman, then 44, represented a fresh face for environmentally minded progressives in a district that once voted more overwhelmingly for Barack Obama than any other locality in the county. When Bowman ultimately defeated the then-73-year-old establishment figure, he also became the first Black representative of the majority minority district that covers the southern half of Westchester County and the northern lip of the Bronx.

In Congress, Bowman’s senior policy advisor reportedly helped spur Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer into action on the Inflation Reduction Act during the summer of 2022. Somewhat less gloriously, Bowman became only the 27th member of Congress to be censured after he pulled a fire alarm in the Capitol during spending bill negotiations. (He claimed he thought it opened a door.) But his legacy also includes the pursuit of progressive climate policies, such as the Sunrise-backed Green New Deal for Public Schools Act, which he’s introduced in each of the past two congressional sessions and, if passed, would invest $1.6 trillion to reduce emissions and lower environmental justice-related barriers at public schools. Still, that sort of aggressive public spending hasn’t always sat right with the powers that be in the Democratic Party; tellingly, Hillary Clinton endorsed Bowman’s challenger, Latimer, even as pro-Trumpers poured money into his campaign.

Fast-forward to 2024, and the Sunrise Movement is going through a reckoning of its own over whether President Biden’s climate record outweighs his handling of the crisis in Gaza. (Ironically, Bowman “probably had the worst politics on the issue of any Squad member early on in his tenure,” the progressive Discourse Bloghas argued.)

That’s not to say that the climate is “losing” to Middle East policy in Americans’ hearts and minds, exactly; on the contrary, climate is a proven election winner, albeit not always in those words. “The NY16 race is a setback for the climate movement, but it also shows the popularity of our ideas,” Saul Levin, the campaigns and political director of the Green New Deal Network, wrote me. “It took the most money in primary history and GOP donors to buy Green New Deal champion Jamaal Bowman’s seat.”

But elections are about, and influenced by, many things, and whatever the combination of reasons may be, the truth stands that with Bowman’s defeat, Congress is now down one more progressive climate ally than it otherwise would have been. (Latimer has called climate change an “existential threat” but has not foregrounded it as a primary concern.)

Bowman’s loss might not sound like much in the bigger picture of the many climate elections happening this year — including, of course, the Big One. But if former President Donald Trump manages to take back the White House this November, every House and Senate seat sympathetic to the urgent realities of climate change will matter critically. That’s not to say, necessarily, that Latimer won’t fight for such causes, but it seems unlikely he’ll be a leader the way Bowman and other Squad members have been, at times pushing more centrist Democrats further to the left and to action.

So yes, you can draw many conclusions from the 16th District primary — that it represents the collapse of the progressive influence of groups like Sunrise; or that, with Bowman being the first Squad member to lose reelection, it reveals a growing impatience with absolutist politics; or that big-money interests have finally figured out a winning strategy in outspending scrappy underdogs; or how all these things in combination might spell trouble for Biden in a few months. But a loss is a loss, and it’s the nature of post mortems to leave out the most important question: What happens next?

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Jeva Lange profile image

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City.

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