Is New York’s Third Congressional District suddenly cursed with obscurely unlikely candidates? It 2022, it elected human GOP punch line George Santos, who was eventually expelled by his peers for falsifying everything imaginable, from his religion to his mother’s time and place of death, and, maybe more significant, identity theft, misuse of campaign funds, and more. The race to replace him in a special election features a Republican candidate who is actually a registered Democrat, and who is less known to this Queens and Nassau County district than Santos when he was chosen.
The candidate challenging newcomer Mazi Pilip is Tom Suozzi, who gave up the seat to run an unconvincing, tough-on-crime primary campaign against Governor Kathy Hochul and make way for Santos. That was a blow to Democrats’ chances to hold the House. But Democratic leaders haven’t held a grudge: They embraced Suozzi as the Democrat most likely to take the seat. Hochul paused and forced a sit-down with Suozzi where she got promises on protecting abortion rights and got him to eat some crow—before, as predicted, endorsing him.
The special election is February 13, and it’s been a lackluster campaign so far. Pilip could have been compelling: an Ethiopian Israeli immigrant who served in the Israeli Defense Forces and is the mother of seven children. But she’s been hard to find, avoiding local press, missing her biggest rally to date because she was celebrating Shabbat. She refused to meet with Long Island’s Newsday, and the paper endorsed Suozzi in a withering editorial. She will not say whether she voted for Donald Trump in 2016 or 2020.
Politico called the race “a suburban crystal ball” that could predict the outcome of the Joe Biden–Donald Trump rematch in November. Biden beat Trump by eight percentage points in the district, but Santos beat Democrat Robert Zimmerman by seven. Ironically, it’s partly thanks to Suozzi that the district is at best purple: Not only did he leave a probably safe seat; the scare campaign about crime that he ran against Hochul proved a template for New York Republicans; Lee Zeldin came within five points of upsetting Hochul, and he won Suozzi’s old district.
Two recent polls show Suozzi up by four points over Pilip, which is within the margin of error and not a great sign for the former incumbent. But Suozzi has had the money to take over the airwaves—Suozzi and outside Democratic groups have spent $9.5 million on ads, so far Republicans have spent $5 million. Voters could break for the known quantity. Or not. The stakes were evident in a Thursday night local mini-debate (30 minutes!) between the pair—the only one held because Pilip refused to agree to more than one.
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Suozzi, frankly, decked her. If it was a boxing match, it would have been called by the ref.
Crime is not the issue it was in 2022; this year’s hot button is immigration. An immigrant herself, Pilip grabbed the issue avidly, hosting a brief press conference at Creedmore Psychiatric Center that was housing desperate migrants. New York is bearing more than its share of the migration problem, as red-state governors like Texas’s Greg Abbott send them by the busload to the Big Apple, which has taken in 170,000 migrants since the end of 2022. Pilip has labeled her opponent “Sanctuary Suozzi.” (He branded her “George Santos 2.0.”) She got the endorsement of the Border Patrol union.
In the debate, he got an early question about kicking ICE out of Nassau County back in 2007 (the root of “Sanctuary Suozzi”). He blamed it on ICE’s complete incompetence in serving warrants and tracking dangerous migrants—and the recommendation of his police commissioner—which was common around the country at the time. “Should I have overruled my police commissioner?” Suozzi asked. Still, local analysts say the ads highlighting the decision playing in regular rotation could be a problem.
Pilip has also tried to grab the issue of the Israel-Gaza war, given her military service, but in Congress Suozzi was a reliable rubber stamp for Israel’s requests, and AIPAC announced that it would not endorse in the race. “What’s needed is a strong Democratic voice” pushing back on pro-Palestinian colleagues, he told Jewish Insider. “It’s just very needed at this time.”
And while Pilip trys to portray herself as non-MAGA, the Nassau County Republican Committee hosted MAGA Mike Johnson, House speaker, at a fundraiser for her in Long Island restaurant last week. Early in the debate, Suozzi hung the failed border deal, torpedoed by Trump, on Pilip. She never recovered.
Suozzi got to talk about working across the aisle to get things done, and bringing money into the district. When Pilip said she’d be the one to bring back the state and local tax deduction, he noted that he’d passed it three times and asked her how she’d do that.
Toward the end, Pilip seemed to have a strong moment, claiming Suozzi is lying about her position on abortion and insisting she’s pro-choice. But under Suozzi’s pushback, it quickly became clear that she wouldn’t support laws that make that choice possible, and then she ended with “I’m pro-life.”
I’m no Suozzi fan—I told him not to run!—but there’s no denying he’s qualified to be in Congress and Pilip is absolutely not.