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Long Island GOP taps Mazi Melesa Pilip for special election

The Ethiopian-born Nassau County legislator is expected to officially launch her campaign on Friday

Mazi Pilip speaks during the #EndJewHatred Day event at the Center for Jewish History on October 24, 2022, in New York City.

John Lamparski/Sipa via AP Images

Mazi Pilip speaks during the #EndJewHatred Day event at the Center for Jewish History on October 24, 2022, in New York City.

Following an intensive search, New York Republicans on Thursday chose Mazi Melesa Pilip, an Ethiopian-born county legislator and Israel Defense Forces veteran, to run for the seat recently vacated by expelled Rep. George Santos (R-NY), according to a source familiar with the matter.

The selection, which withstood a rigorous vetting process that included several prospective candidates, sets the stage for a closely watched race against former Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-NY), whom Democrats selected as their nominee last week. The special election will be held on Feb. 13, leaving candidates with just under two months to campaign for a key swing seat that could help determine the balance of power in the House next year.

Pilip will officially launch her campaign on Friday at noon in Massapequa, according to a flier shared with Jewish Insider on Thursday.

The race, a high-stakes prelude to the regularly scheduled 2024 primary season, pits a 44-year-old Black and Jewish refugee with a compelling biography but limited political experience against a veteran moderate Democrat, who held the seat before Santos and has long been well-known to voters on Long Island, where the district is largely based.

Despite clear differences, the two rivals each tout strong records of support for Israel and deep ties to a significant population of Jewish voters who could be a decisive bloc in what is expected to be a closely fought race.

Though President Joe Biden won the district by eight percentage points in 2020, Long Island has been trending conservative in recent elections amid rising fears over crime and immigration, driving Republicans to flip several House seats last cycle in a red sweep that helped the party win the majority.

While the election will take place before the state’s House lines are redrawn, mandated this week by New York’s highest court, it remains to be seen if the Democratic-controlled state legislature, which is expected to shape the process, will find a way to give Democrats an edge on Long Island, according to a party insider who is close to the deliberations.

“I haven’t heard from anyone what their strategy is to get enough Democrats in NY-03 and NY-04 to flip both those seats,” said the insider, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to address private discussions, referring to the seat held until recently by Santos and a neighboring seat represented by a freshman Republican. “The climate on Long Island is getting more and more difficult. Democrats have alienated conservative voters.”

Even as a relatively untested recruit who happens to be a registered Democrat, Pilip, a female military veteran who would likely be the first Black Jewish lawmaker elected to Congress, still fits all the criteria that former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has attributed to recent Republican gains, suggesting that she will be a formidable candidate.

A recent poll released by a Republican candidate who had also been seeking the nomination showed Suozzi leading Pilip 43-39% in a hypothetical two-way matchup. The survey indicated that Suozzi is much better known across the district: Among 900 respondents from both parties, just 4% said they had never heard of Suozzi, compared with Pilip at 47%. 

Most voters also said they would be less likely “to vote for a candidate who has previously endorsed and supported” Santos, who fabricated most of his biography and is facing multiple criminal charges.

Suozzi, 61, has evidently been worried about running against Pilip. “There is an undercurrent out there that Suozzi is concerned about running against Mazi,” a source familiar with the matter told JI last week before Pilip was nominated. “He keeps calling around to find out, ‘Is it going to be her, is it going to be her?’”

The former IDF soldier in a paratrooper’s unit, a mother of seven who was among more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews airlifted to Israel from Addis Ababa in 1991, flipped a Nassau County legislative seat in 2021 and was reelected to another term last month. During her time in office, Pilip has vowed to fight antisemitism and positioned herself as a fierce defender of Israel — which polling shows is important to voters, particularly in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack.

As the Biden administration exerts pressure on Israel to ramp down its war with Hamas in Gaza, Pilip could take advantage of potential friction between Washington and Jerusalem to draw a contrast with Suozzi — even as he was among the most outspoken non-Jewish supporters of Israel as a congressman. 

A Republican operative on Long Island who is close to Joe Cairo, the Nassau County GOP chair who led the search for a nominee, told JI on Thursday that he was uncertain if Israel would ultimately become “a wedge issue” in the race, acknowledging that Suozzi “has been a longtime friend” of the Jewish state.

Still, he added, “It’s going to be hard to outflank Mazi on the Israel issue.”

Pilip did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

Shortly after news broke of her nomination on Thursday afternoon, the Republican Jewish Coalition announced that it was endorsing Pilip, calling her “a remarkable candidate whose strength of character and firm principles are clear to anyone who looks at her life story and her work.”

In rival statements released on Thursday, the House Republican and Democratic campaign arms, meanwhile, tested new lines of attack, indicating that the race will be bitterly contested.

Rep. Richard Hudson (R-NC), who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, dismissed Suozzi as a “career politician” who “uses his office to make life better for himself instead of his community,” in contrast with what he described as Pilip’s “incredible life of service.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, for its part, sought to tie Pilip to Santos, whose name is all but toxic in the district after he was expelled from Congress. 

“Time and again, the Republican Party desperately tried to expunge their own history of protecting a criminally-indicted liar at the expense of Northeast Queens and Long Island constituents,” Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-WA), the DCCC chair, said in a statement. “Now, Long Island Republicans have chosen Mazi Melesa Pilip, serial fraudster George Santos’ close friend and MAGA extremist, to clean up their mess.”

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