The decision by longtime Westchester Rep. Nita Lowey, the 82-year-old pro-Israel stalwart, not to seek re-election next year opens up the possibility of generational change in the district after 31 years of her leadership.
Lowey’s retirement and the fact that she was already facing a primary challenge from the left also shakes up a race that calls to mind the 2018 primary fight between Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Joe Crowley, the longtime representative of Queens and the Bronx whose defeat came as a shock to the Democratic establishment. Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning victory inspired a new wave of primary challengers, particularly in safely blue districts in New York like Lowey’s, where Mondaire Jones, a former attorney for Westchester County, announced his campaign for Lowey’s seat in July. Jones raised $218,000 in the third quarter of this year.
In an official statement and in questions to her press contact, the congresswoman, who chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee, did not provide a reason for her retirement.
The district, which spans parts of Westchester County and heavily Orthodox areas of Rockland County as well as sections of the Bronx and Queens, is considered safely Democratic. In 2016, 57 percent of voters in the district cast a ballot for Hillary Clinton and 38.1 percent for Donald Trump. In 2018, Lowey won 88 percent of the vote in her district with her Republican opponent winning 12 percent.
By comparison, Lowey’s colleague, Bronx Rep. Eliot Engel, who is being challenged from the left by multiple candidates, faces a district that leans further left. His district voted 74.5 percent for Clinton in 2016 and 22.3 percent for Donald Trump. Manhattan-Brooklyn Rep. Jerry Nadler faces progressive challengers in a district that voted 77.5 percent for Clinton and 18.6 percent for Trump.
Lowey and Engel have both long been favorites of the pro-Israel community, and Lowey was widely praised by pro-Israel groups following her announcement. “The removal of either one of them, or both of them, by resignation or defeat, is not good news for the pro-Israel community,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime New York political consultant, of Lowey and Engel.
Jones, who grew up in Rockland County, launched his campaign as a progressive candidate, embracing policies like Medicare for all, universal childcare and the Green New Deal, but has not gone so far as embracing democratic socialism. Jones does not appear to be taking far-left positions on Israel. When asked about Israel in an interview with The Jewish Week in July, Jones said he “would not characterize” Lowey “as out of step with her constituents,” noting that he shared her support for a two-state solution.
Where Jones may have trouble is with the Orthodox communities in Rockland County. “The ultra-Orthodox Jewish community has not been a fan of mine,” Jones admitted in July. He called himself a “huge proponent for public school education,” a reference to the caustic school board battles between Orthodox community leaders and non-Jewish or non-Orthodox Jews that have raged for years.
Now that Lowey is retiring, there may be others throwing their hats in the ring. One rumored candidate, and the one who would likely have the most name recognition, is Chelsea Clinton. Other names that have been floated include New York State Sen. David Carlucci and Assemblyman David Buchwald.
“If you raise $200,000, that’s impressive, but there’s a whole new field that just jumped into this,” said Jonathan Greenspun, a managing director at Mercury Public Affairs. “Now you could have as many as eight people running, so how he emerges out of that crowded field remains to be seen.”
But a proposal by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to consolidate the state’s Democratic primaries for state office and the presidential nomination to one day could further complicate the race. The current calendar has the presidential primary set for April 28 and the state primaries for June 23.
“If you combine a presidential primary with a congressional primary, what impact would that have?” asked Greenspun. “When you overlay the Biden-Elizabeth Warren dynamic into a congressional race, there you could see some shifts.”