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Mazi Melesa Pilip discusses her policy platform in pivotal special election 

Pilip stakes out moderate ground on abortion and Donald Trump in first in-depth interview since entering the race

In the special election to replace recently expelled Rep. George Santos (R-NY), Republican leaders have pinned their hopes on Mazi Melesa Pilip, an Ethiopian-born Jewish county legislator and Israel Defense Forces veteran who is now preparing for a high-stakes battle against a formidable Democratic opponent.

Owing largely to her compelling biography, Pilip, 44, is widely viewed as a rising star among New York Republicans seeking another upset in a Long Island-based swing district that could help decide the balance of power in the House. But the political newcomer, picked as the GOP’s nominee last week following an extensive vetting process, has drawn criticism from Democrats for not taking positions on hot-button issues, raising questions about her political inexperience and offering fodder for partisan attacks.

Speaking with Jewish Insider on Monday, however, Pilip was ready to clarify her views on a range of key topics, including abortion rights and the criminal charges against former President Donald Trump, while addressing her longtime party registration as a Democrat and past support for Santos, who was ousted from Congress a few weeks ago.

In her first in-depth interview with a news outlet since entering the race, Pilip, who launched her campaign on Friday, cast herself as a moderate Republican voice reflective of the swing voters in the district who backed President Joe Biden in 2020 but later voted for GOP candidates in last year’s midterms.

With regard to Trump, whom recent polling has shown is unpopular among most voters in the district, Pilip refrained from defending the former president as he faces multiple indictments that have contributed to a surge in GOP support. “Trump has to go through his process,” she argued. “Nobody’s above the law.”

Still, Pilip vowed to stand behind the nominee no matter which candidate ultimately prevails. “Trump is one of the candidates,” she reasoned. “The debate is ongoing. We have great candidates right now. We have to wait and see, and once we know who is the Republican nominee, we’re going to support that person.”

While Pilip had dodged a question from a reporter asking for her position on a national abortion ban last week, the Nassau County legislator — who has focused largely on defending Israel and supporting the police during her time in office — expressed no hesitation in explicitly opposing the prohibition in the interview on Monday, amid mounting criticism from Democratic groups over her initial response.

“Abortion is a very personal decision, OK?,” Pilip told JI. “Now, I am a religious person, I have seven children, so I am pro-life. However, I’m not going to push my own beliefs on any woman. Therefore, I’m not going to support a national abortion ban.”

Moments after her nomination was announced, Democrats sought to exploit another potential vulnerability for Pilip: her publicly documented connection to Santos, whom she had called an “amazing friend” before he was outed as a serial fabricator who lied about his Jewish heritage and professional experience, among other things.

In conversation with JI, Pilip distanced herself from the disgraced former congressman, who is facing federal charges of campaign finance misconduct. “There is no relationship with Santos, OK?,” Pilip said, stressing that she had been one of the first Republican officials on Long Island to call on him to resign, even as she acknowledged that she had campaigned with him before she became aware of his deceptions. “He lied to us. Everything he said was a lie.”

“I came here to this country, I registered as a Democrat,” Pilip explained. “But very quickly I realized that the Republican Party is the one who shares my values, and as a county legislator, if you really see my voting record, you will see that I am all about law enforcement, I’m all about public safety, I’m all about lowering taxes, and I’m all about securing our borders and creating safety. This is me.”

“This election is not about Santos,” Pilip countered, turning her focus to such issues as inflation, rising crime, border security and support for Israel in its war with Hamas, a top issue to voters in the heavily Jewish district.

Though Pilip has long been a registered Democrat, she said her official party affiliation had no impact on her own personal identification with Republican causes. “I came here to this country, I registered as a Democrat,” Pilip explained. “But very quickly I realized that the Republican Party is the one who shares my values, and as a county legislator, if you really see my voting record, you will see that I am all about law enforcement, I’m all about public safety, I’m all about lowering taxes, and I’m all about securing our borders and creating safety. This is me.”

Pilip said she had no objection to switching her registration if party leaders on Long Island, who have claimed they were aware of her Democratic affiliation before she was picked to run, asked her to do so. “I don’t mind changing it,” Pilip told JI. “I can change it at any time because it doesn’t have any meaning. The paper itself doesn’t have any meaning.”

Republican leaders, she said, “wanted a strong person, somebody who shared their values that they never bothered to ask me, but I can switch it at any time.”

“I’m not a politician,” she concluded. “I’m a simple person who likes to deliver.”

The election on Feb. 13, which is expected to be among the most expensive House races in New York history, will pit Pilip against former Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-NY), a moderate pro-Israel Democrat who held the seat for three terms and is seeking to return to Congress after a failed bid for governor last cycle.

In a recent interview with JI, Suozzi acknowledged that his opponent would be a strong Republican voice on Israel, but he argued that voters would be better served electing a pro-Israel Democrat to act as a bulwark against the far left, which has become increasingly critical of Israel amid its ongoing war with Hamas.

“Israel is a big deal for me, and I want to make sure, here in the United States, that we understand what Israel is about and how important it is to continue to support Israel,” Pilip, who said that some of her family members are now fighting in the war, told JI. “Israel is our true ally, a democratic country that shares our values. Nobody can tell this story more than me. Even if you are here and supporting Israel, nobody can be me. You cannot argue with that.”

But Pilip disputed that claim, arguing that Suozzi would be in the minority if he is sent to Congress and is “not going to have that voice,” particularly in a party she argued is dominated by Israel detractors in the Squad. “All the protests we’ve seen here, the rallies we’re seeing supporting Hamas, are because” the Democrats “gave them too much power,” she said.

By contrast, Pilip said, her unique personal ties to Israel, where she served in the army before settling in New York, would only boost her standing in the House as a defender of the Jewish state.

“Israel is a big deal for me, and I want to make sure, here in the United States, that we understand what Israel is about and how important it is to continue to support Israel,” Pilip, who said that some of her family members are now fighting in the war, told JI. “Israel is our true ally, a democratic country that shares our values. Nobody can tell this story more than me. Even if you are here and supporting Israel, nobody can be me. You cannot argue with that.”

Born in the late 1970s, Pilip grew up in a remote village in Ethiopia with no electricity or running water, she recalled. “Sometimes you have shoes, sometimes you don’t have shoes,” she joked. In 1991, she was among more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews who were airlifted to Israel during Operation Solomon. “It was a special moment for me and my family,” she told JI. “We were kissing the ground and crying because finally we had made it to Israel, our dream country, our Jewish land.”

The process of acclimating as a 12-year-old to her adoptive country, however, was difficult, she said, citing her struggles to learn Hebrew and fit in at boarding school. “But life made me very strong,” she said. “I learned. I chose not to cry. I chose to stick with the positive and to be myself.”

Pilip joined the IDF at 18 and served as a gunsmith in a paratroopers unit, not as a parachutist as some reports have suggested. “I was in charge of all the weapons,” she explained. “I had a great year and nine months in the army, when you feel you’re part of this society, giving back to this country. Seeing Russians, Ukrainians, Ethiopians, all immigrants together for one goal, to protect Israel, is something that has been there for me for many, many, many years.”

Later, Pilip earned a master’s degree in diplomacy and security from Tel Aviv University, where she met her future husband, Adalbert Pilip, who was born in Ukraine and now works as a cardiologist on Long Island. They moved to the U.S. in 2005 and live in Great Neck. “I didn’t want to leave Israel because I felt very comfortable,” she said, recalling the challenges of learning a third language and adjusting to a foreign culture. “The first few years were very, very hard,” she said. “But I’m a fighter, and I said, ‘I’m going to make it here in the U.S.’”

“When I think about this race, I just remember the little girl in Ethiopia,” Pilip said. “If somebody told me, ‘One day, you will go to the United States of America and you, Mazi Melesa Pilip, will run for Congress,’ I would think that person had definitely lost his mind. But that is the beautiful thing about America.”

In 2021, Pilip won her first campaign for office, flipping a Democratic-held seat in the county legislature. The election followed a flareup of violence between Israel and Hamas, which fueled an uptick in antisemitic incidents in New York, galvanizing her candidacy. “I have to be loud and clear and I have to bring pride to the Jewish nation,” Pilip said of her thinking at the time. “I want to be a voice.”

The Israeli-American lawmaker grew increasingly passionate as she discussed a renewed surge in antisemitic activity on college campuses and elsewhere as the Israel-Hamas war unfolds. “My district, my Jewish community, is worried, big time,” she told JI. “We have to draw the line and we have to say no to this. We have to be proud. We have to stand tall — and we are going to draw the line by saying we are not going to be silent about this.”

As she gears up for the weeks ahead, Pilip said it was personally energizing to imagine that she would almost certainly be the first Black and Jewish lawmaker to serve in Congress if she is elected next year. 

“When I think about this race, I just remember the little girl in Ethiopia,” she said. “If somebody told me, ‘One day, you will go to the United States of America and you, Mazi Melesa Pilip, will run for Congress,’ I would think that person had definitely lost his mind. But that is the beautiful thing about America.”

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