In late 2021, Tom Suozzi made an announcement that infuriated Democratic Party leaders: The third-term representative would give up a re-election bid for his highly competitive New York House district to mount a primary challenge. long-range against Governor Kathy Hochul.
Suozzi was defeated, but the ripple effects of his unfortunate career extended far beyond his Long Island district. Democrats ended up losing their narrow majority in the House, in part because the seat vacated by Suozzi went to a little-known Republican named George Santos. He is no longer so little known. He is also not in Congress, as he was expelled in December after his colleagues discovered that his stated biography was a fiction and that his campaign was an alleged criminal enterprise.
In a special election next week, Suozzi will try to win back the seat he abandoned and bring Democrats closer to taking back the House. He has made peace with party leaders (including Hochul), but does not apologize. “I don’t regret any of my decisions,” Suozzi told me recently. “When things don’t work out, that’s how it is.”
Suozzi, a pro-business moderate, helped start the cross-party Problem Solvers Caucus in the House after Donald Trump won the presidency. He told me that his penchant for bipartisanship makes him “a very poor candidate” in a Democratic primary (he’s now lost two of those gubernatorial races by more than 50 points), but much better in a general election. .
Officials from both parties give Suozzi a slight advantage; He has more money and is much better known than his Republican opponent, Mazi Pilip, a county legislator who spent her teenage years in Israel and served in the Israel Defense Forces. But Suozzi is trying to run as an underdog, eschewing a Democratic brand he believes has been tainted on Long Island by voter frustration over the migrant crisis, the high cost of living and turmoil abroad. . He has stayed away from President Joe Biden, who, according to Democratic and Republican strategists, is no more popular in the district than Trump. “If I campaign to say, ‘I’m Tom Suozzi. “I’m a Democrat and my opponent is a Republican, I lose this race,” Suozzi said at a rally before members of the carpenters union on Saturday.
The 3rd Congressional District borders the blue stronghold of New York City and includes a portion of Queens, but Republicans have defeated Democrats on Long Island in recent years. Tuesday’s special election represents Democrats’ first attempt to recapture some of that territory and test messages they hope can resonate in suburban swing districts across the country this fall.
Like other Democrats, Suozzi is emphasizing his support for abortion rights, an issue that has helped the party limit GOP gains since the law’s repeal. Roe v. Wade. But he also presents himself as a bipartisan negotiator: his campaign slogan is “Let’s fix this!” Suozzi is betting that voters are as angry about congressional inaction on issues like immigration and border security as they are about Biden or his policies. If he is right, the GOP’s rejection this week of a bipartisan border deal that its leaders had initially demanded will work in his favor.
Whether Suozzi’s campaign is effective next week will offer clues about swing districts that could determine control of Congress. A victory could point the way for Democratic candidates to redirect attacks on Biden’s record and ease fears that the border impasse could be an insurmountable obstacle this fall. But his loss in a district Democrats should be able to win would suggest the party is in real trouble as the general election begins.
Next week’s election will also serve as a test of whether Democrats can win voters for a candidate who, like Biden, does not inspire much enthusiasm.
Suozzi, 61, is a familiar figure on Long Island; He became mayor at age 31 and then won two terms as county executive overseeing a population of 1.3 million people in Nassau County. But he has also suffered some defeats. Eliot Spitzer beat him by more than 60 points in the 2006 gubernatorial primary. Suozzi then lost two races for county executive before winning a House seat in 2016. “He felt like he was destined to be president of the United States.” ”said former Rep. Peter King, a Republican who served alongside Suozzi in the House and knew him. for decades, he told me he. “Tom started out as a young superstar and all of a sudden you’re old.”
On Saturday, local labor organizers gathered several hundred carpenters union members into a banquet hall for the rally. Most of them had been bussed in from outside the district, and many of them weren’t exactly thrilled to be there. “We’re here under protest,” a union member complained as I searched the crowd for actual Suozzi supporters. The mumbling workers showed so little interest in the speakers promoting Suozzi that at one point the candidate awkwardly grabbed the microphone and implored them to pay attention.
Some attendees who lived in Nassau County were not enthusiastic about the Democrat, repeating attacks from Republican ads that have aired nonstop in recent weeks. “Suozzi is terrible on the border,” said Jackson Klyne, 44, who told me he didn’t plan to vote for either Suozzi or Pilip next week. Klyne, a 2020 Biden voter, said it would “probably be Trump” for him in November.
Suozzi also must win over Democrats who are unhappy that he abandoned his congressional seat to challenge Hochul, leading to Santos’ election. “It was a dangerous choice,” Stephanie Visconti, a 47-year-old lawyer from New Hyde Park, told me. “I thought it was selfish.”
Visconti is a volunteer with Engage Long Island, an affiliate of the progressive organizing group Indivisible that endorsed a primary challenger to Suozzi for Congress in 2020. But she now fully endorses him; On Saturday, she and other members of the group were knocking on doors for their campaign. “He is the right candidate right now,” she said, citing the need for Democrats to regain control of the House. “If we look at the global picture, this is for us the first step towards making bigger and broader changes.”
Biden won the district in 2020, but Republicans have been dominant on Long Island since then. They swept the House elections in the midterms and won big local elections again last year. Santos defeated the Democratic candidate in the 3rd District by seven points in 2022, and Suozzi isn’t sure he would have won if he had been on the ballot. When I asked him what he would say to people who maintain that he bears some responsibility for Santos’ election, Suozzi responded: “’Thank you for his support, because he is saying that I am the only person who could have won.’ “
Republican leaders are relying on Biden’s unpopularity and their party’s prodigious turnout machine to keep the seat. They chose Pilip as their candidate (the special election had no primary) in part because after October 7 they hoped her connection to Israel would resonate in a district where about 20 percent of the electorate is Jewish. (Suozzi is also a long-time supporter of Israel. A week after Pilip’s selection, he traveled there to meet with the families of hostages held by Hamas.)
With only a few exceptions, Pilip has kept a low profile for a political newcomer. He has agreed to hold only one debate with Suozzi, three days before the election, and has not held many publicly promoted campaign events. (His campaign did not make her available for an interview.) Nassau County Republicans scheduled their largest rally of the election for a Saturday, when Pilip, who observes Saturday, would not be able to attend. He filmed a short video that will be played in his absence. “The strategy is intentional,” Steve Israel, a Democrat who represented the 3rd House District for 16 years, told me. “She has not been tested and Republicans fear that she will say something that could effectively lose the election. “They would rather receive criticism for hiding it.”
That approach could be risky given the district’s experience with Santos. “We already had someone we didn’t know. We don’t want that again,” said Judi Bosworth, a former Democratic municipal supervisor, as she campaigned with Suozzi.
Abortion has been a central issue in the race; Democratic ads have warned that a vote for Pilip could lead to a national ban. But in recent weeks, the migration crisis has come to the fore. Republican ads blame Suozzi and Biden for the “invasion” at the southern border, and Suozzi has criticized Pilip for opposing the bipartisan border security deal introduced this week in the Senate. Although national issues dominate the race, neither candidate wants to be associated with his party’s leaders in Washington. Pilip, until recently a registered Democrat, has refused to say whether she voted for Trump in 2020 and has yet to endorse her comeback bid. When House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries spoke at a rally for Suozzi on Saturday, the Democrat’s campaign did not invite the press. The day before, Pilip’s campaign was silent about President Mike Johnson’s appearance.
Next week’s outcome could have an immediate impact in the closely divided House of Representatives, where Republicans have just a three-vote majority. Earlier this week, Republicans were just one vote short of ousting Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas; a Suozzi victory would probably keep him in suspense, at least for the moment. But Suozzi wants to make a deeper impression in a second term in Congress. He has campaigned not as a dispassionate centrist but as an impatient negotiator eager to get back to the negotiating table.
He wanted a much more important job, but he assured me that he wouldn’t be bored if he returned to the House. I asked him what message his victory would send. He rattled off a list of bipartisan deals he wants to reach: on the border, Ukraine, housing, climate change and more. “If I win,” she said, “I can go to my colleagues in Washington and tell them, ‘Wake up. This is what people want.’”