ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 140

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New York set to vote on replacement for disgraced Rep. Santos in Congress

Former congressman Tom Suozzi faces Ethiopia-born Israeli-American Mazi Pilip in race for seat formerly held by figure who lied about Jewish heritage, allegedly stole from donors

US House Representative George Santos leaves a House GOP conference meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 25, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
US House Representative George Santos leaves a House GOP conference meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 25, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

AP — An unusual special election in New York City’s suburbs on Tuesday could be a bellwether in the fight for control of Congress.

Former US Rep. Tom Suozzi, a Democrat, faces off with Republican Mazi Pilip, a county lawmaker, in a race for a House seat that became vacant when George Santos was expelled from Congress.

The contest, being fought in a district that includes Long Island suburbs and a small corner of Queens, has offered a preview of the political strategies both parties might use in the fall, with the campaigns testing messages on immigration, abortion and public safety. New York is expected to host a handful of congressional battleground races this year and the special election could provide clues on how crucial districts might lean.

Still, forecasting for November could be complicated given that turnout, which was already expected to be low given the abbreviated race, could be further hampered by a storm expected to dump several inches of snow on the district on election day.

The unusual midwinter election became necessary after Santos was ousted by his colleagues in December, partway through his first term. Santos won office in what had been a reliably Democratic district partly by falsely portraying himself as an American success story — a son of working-class immigrants who made himself into a wealthy Wall Street dealmaker.

Santos’s multiple fabrications were first exposed by The New York Times in December of 2022, shortly after his election and before he assumed office. Jewish publications including the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, following up on that article, uncovered evidence that he lied about being Jewish, about having Jewish ancestry and about being the descendant of Holocaust survivors.

A lengthy House Ethics Committee investigation only alluded to Santos’s lies about his Jewish background and focused mostly on the evidence underpinning the criminal charges he faces, including allegations he stole money from Republican donors. He has pleaded not guilty.

Suozzi, who previously represented the district for three terms, campaigned in the centrist lane, distancing himself from progressive policies that have not played well on Long Island and cast himself as a dealmaker who can work with the GOP.

Former Democratic Congressman Tom Suozzi (left) and Democratic Majority for Israel national co-chair Todd Richman (right) in Kfar Aza on December 22, 2023. (Courtesy Todd Richman)

Republicans sought to link Suozzi to criticism over federal immigration policy under Democratic President Joe Biden, a looming political vulnerability for Democrats because of an ongoing influx of migrants in New York. Democrats have framed the race around abortion rights, a centerpiece of their election year strategy.

Suozzi spent a lot of the campaign talking about the need to strengthen immigration policy. He said he would support a temporary closure of the US-Mexico border to slow the number of migrants into the city, signaling Democrats’ recognition of the political pressures surrounding the subject.

Pilip was born in Ethiopia but left the country at age 12 as part of Operation Solomon, when Israel airlifted some 14,500 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in less than two days as civil war ravaged the Horn of Africa.

She served in Israel’s military as an adult, moving to the US after marrying a Ukrainian-American doctor in 2005. In 2021, Pilip was elected to the Nassau County legislature.

Though Pilip publicly identifies as a Republican and won county office under the GOP banner, she is actually a registered Democrat. She says she registered as a Democrat when she got to the US but has drifted away from the party as it has become more liberal. A spokesman said Pilip intends to change her party affiliation after the election.

Nassau County legislator Mazi Melesa Pilip arrives for a press conference on December 15, 2023 in Massapequa, New York, after New York Republicans announced Pilip’s nomination as their candidate to run in the February 13, 2024 special election for the House seat vacated by former Rep. George Santos (R-NY). (Adam Gray/Getty Images/AFP)

Despite once being a migrant herself, Pilip has hammered Suozzi and Democratic President Joe Biden over US immigration policy. She has argued for additional border policing to stop illegal immigration as well as the construction of a border wall.

Suozzi counterattacked Pilip on abortion, saying she couldn’t be trusted to protect abortion rights in places like New York where it remains legal.

Pilip said she is personally against abortion but wouldn’t force her beliefs on others and would oppose any attempt by Congress to impose a nationwide ban. She has also said mifepristone, an abortion medication, should be available nationally.

In their only debate before the election, Suozzi pushed Pilip to further clarify her position on abortion, asking her whether she is “pro-choice.” She did not give a direct answer, instead accusing Democrats of lying about her stance on abortion.

Democrats spent heavily during the campaign to boost Suozzi and retake the district, one of a handful of New York House seats the party wants to flip as part of their plan to win control of Congress in November. Republicans have dominated on Long Island in recent elections.

“They see that, first of all I’m a very strong candidate. My proven record as a county legislator. My own story is very strong,” Pilip said in an interview. “And they are very nervous.”

JTA’s Ron Kampeas contributed to this report.

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