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Long Island special election could feature two candidates with deep Jewish community ties

Democrats are likely to pick Tom Suozzi, a moderate pro-Israel Democrat, as their candidate, while Republicans are eyeing Ethioipian Jewish IDF veteran Mazi Melesa Pilip

The expulsion of now-former Rep. George Santos (R-NY) is setting up the likelihood of a highly competitive special election in a battleground New York district. The Long Island and Queens district previously represented by the accused fraudster has a significant Jewish population, and both of the emerging candidates are strongly positioned to make a play for those votes.

“What is most key to watch is the Jewish vote,” said Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist in New York. “I think you’re going to see Jews voting on Israel, Jews voting on fear of antisemitism. I think you’re going to see a huge play for the Jewish vote.”

Democrats are expected to pick former Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-NY), the ex-congressman who gave up the seat to mount a primary challenge to Gov. Kathy Hochul. Suozzi would bring a strong pro-Israel Democratic voice back to the House, at a time when the party is grappling with its internal divisions over Israel policy. 

Suozzi was outspoken, in his time in office, about calling out colleagues over anti-Israel commentsat times he was the most outspoken non-Jewish member on the issue. And he otherwise bucked his party when he believed it wasn’t sufficiently pro-Israel. He was also a leader on pushing the administration to take a harder line on Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah.

In the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attack, Suozzi said in a statement, “I have always stood with Israel. Today I am asking you to stay united with Israel in the difficult days, months, and years ahead… Now is the time for America and the global community to redouble our commitment to Israel, employing every means necessary to dismantle Iran-backed Hamas, and put an end to their reign of terror. Our support must be unequivocal.”

“There is no place for second-guessing Israel’s efforts moving forward,” he continued.

“I think it would be monumental, it would be huge,” to have Suozzi back in Congress at this point, a Democratic insider told JI. “He was one of the most pro-Israel Democratic members of Congress… He’s got strong pro-Israel ties in this community dating back to his time as mayor of Glen Cove… There’s very few Democratic members of Congress or candidates who are more pro-Israel and a stronger defender of the Jewish people than he is.”

In a 2020 event with Democratic Majority for Israel, Suozzi said he considered himself “one of the most reliable non-Jewish Democratic votes in the House of Representatives” and said, “you can always count on me on every issue related to Israel.”

Suozzi’s first floor speech in the House after he was first elected was on condemning U.N. Resolution 2334, which condemned Israeli settlements, a move the Obama administration declined to veto.

“I think it would be monumental, it would be huge,” to have Suozzi back in Congress at this point, a Democratic insider told JI. “He was one of the most pro-Israel Democratic members of Congress… He’s got strong pro-Israel ties in this community dating back to his time as mayor of Glen Cove… There’s very few Democratic members of Congress or candidates who are more pro-Israel and a stronger defender of the Jewish people than he is.”

On the GOP side, several Republicans had declared primary challenges to Santos, but buzz has centered around Nassau County legislator Mazi Melesa Pilip, an Ethiopian Jewish refugee who served as an Israeli Defense Forces paratrooper and has strong ties in the local Persian and Orthodox Jewish communities. She’s been seen as a top GOP pick for the seat since the earliest days of the Santos scandal.

“I don’t want to hear Israel has a ‘right’ — Israel has an obligation to protect her people,” Pilip, whose family members are currently serving in the IDF, said in a Fox News interview on Oct. 31. “There’s no other choice. We saw enough. We cannot allow anything like this to happen ever again.”

Even Democrats see Pilip as potentially well-placed to pose a real challenge to Suozzi on Israel policy.

“There is an undercurrent out there that Suozzi is concerned about running against Mazi,” a source told JI. “He keeps calling around to find out, ‘Is it going to be her, is it going to be her?’”

“If I’m the Republicans, that makes sense,” the Democratic insider said. “Especially now in light of the war, she’s really made this her issue and made this a huge part of her identity.”

Pilip, in the Fox interview, called the current wave of antisemitism “frightening” and “out of control,” praising the White House for the steps it had taken to that point but calling for further action. 

Suozzi, too, is apparently concerned about running against Pilip.

“There is an undercurrent out there that Suozzi is concerned about running against Mazi,” a source told JI. “He keeps calling around to find out, ‘Is it going to be her, is it going to be her?’”

Pilip attended a rally at Columbia University to push back against antisemitism and support for Hamas on the Ivy League campus, calling it “shocking” that Jewish students had to demonstrate to ask for support from their school.

“I spoke with students — they’re scared, and I feel they are alone. To be honest, nobody’s doing anything,” she said on Fox. “It took them, what, 25 days to react? Even for Gov. Hochul? I’m happy, but it took too long… It’s unfair. I can’t see all the students suffering this way. Terrified. Why? Why do we deserve that? We are the victim here. Why is the world confused?”

Pilip said that she got into politics in the U.S. in part because of her experience advocating for fellow Ethiopian immigrants in Israel and through her advocacy in response to antisemitic comments her child faced in a local public school.

Pilip’s husband, whom she met in Israel and with whom she moved to the U.S., was born in Ukraine and is the grandchild of Holocaust survivors.

One of the biggest factors in the special election, expected to be held in February 2024: Will the embarrassing Santos scandal hurt the GOP’s chances in a district where the party has been making inroads?

Rep. Anthony D’Esposito (R-NY), another freshman Long Island Republican who helped lead the charge on the GOP side against Santos, dismissed concerns that the scandal would jeopardize Republicans’ chances of holding onto the seat.

D’Esposito highlighted conservative wins across Nassau County and Long Island in recent years — ”we won seats in towns that we haven’t had in 25 years,” he told reporters on Friday after the expulsion vote — and described Long Island as “a bright shade of red.”

“George Santos is not going to be the anchor around anyone’s neck,” he said. “Voters are smart, and they are going to see that we’re going to find a great candidate.” He predicted that many Republican House members from across the country would be visiting the district to campaign on behalf of the GOP’s nominee in the coming months.


Jewish Insider reporter Matthew Kassel contributed reporting.

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