ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 141

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NY congressional candidates Suozzi, Pilip face off, with Jewish vote up for grabs

One candidate is an Israeli-American Orthodox Jew born in Ethiopia. The other has highlighted his support for Israel — and accused his opponent of endangering it

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Mazi Melesa Pilip (2nd from R), US Republican Congressional candidate for New York's 3rd district, speaks with reporters after voting early at a polling station in Massapequa, New York, on February 9, 2024. (Photo by Adam Gray / POOL / AFP)
Mazi Melesa Pilip (2nd from R), US Republican Congressional candidate for New York's 3rd district, speaks with reporters after voting early at a polling station in Massapequa, New York, on February 9, 2024. (Photo by Adam Gray / POOL / AFP)

New York Jewish Week via JTA — One candidate is an Israeli-American Orthodox Jew born in Ethiopia. The other has highlighted his support for Israel — and accused his opponent of endangering it.

On Tuesday, February 13, they will vie for the support of New York’s third congressional district — one of the most Jewish areas of the country — in a highly anticipated special election.

The race between Democrat Tom Suozzi and Republican Mazi Melesa Pilip kicked off when Rep. George Santos, who represented the district, was expelled from Congress last year after allegedly lying about large portions of his biography. The two candidates faced off on Thursday in their only debate.

The vote — in a swing district spanning Queens and Long Island that flipped Republican in 2022 after a decade in Democratic hands — is drawing national attention for its implications ahead of the November election. A Democratic victory would also narrow Republicans’ already slim majority in the House. Amid the Israel-Hamas war, sparked by the terror group’s October 7 massacres, the candidates’ support for Israel has emerged as a major focus of the campaign.

Pilip, a legislator in Long Island’s Nassau County who was elected in 2021, entered the race with a compelling backstory: She was born in Ethiopia and evacuated to Israel at age 12 during Operation Solomon, Israel’s 1991 mass airlift of Ethiopian Jews. She later served in a non-combat role in the Israel Defense Forces Paratroopers Brigade before moving to New York. Pilip married a Ukrainian-born Jewish American and gained US citizenship in 2009. She is Orthodox and a mother of seven.

Pilip ran for her seat on the Nassau County legislature in part because of the antisemitism she said her son faced in middle school, ousting a Democrat to win her seat.

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)

After Long Island Republicans selected Pilip as their candidate for the special election, questions surfaced about her voting record in the county legislature, history as a registered Democrat and support for former US president Donald Trump.

In an interview with CNN this week, Pilip defended her past voter registration, saying many immigrants had registered as Democrats, but that the party had “left me and many others.”

She said she would back Trump in the likely event that he wins the presidential nomination. But she refused to say whether she would support him if he were convicted of a crime, offering only that prosecutions of the former president were “politically motivated.”

“I know that he didn’t commit any crime,” she said.

She also refused to say if she had voted for Trump in 2016 or 2020.  “He was a great president, he did great things,” she said.

Suozzi is more of a known quantity. He represented the district for three terms before leaving office to launch an unsuccessful run for governor in 2021.

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)

Despite Pilip’s Israel bonafides, Suozzi has pitched himself as the more reliable defender of Israel in the race. He visited Israel in a show of solidarity in December, and has repeatedly stressed his support for Israel in recent campaign emails: He called for the chief of UNRWA, the aid agency for Palestinians, to resign due to some staffers’ alleged links to Hamas and participation in the brutal October 7 attacks, which saw thousands of terrorists burst across the border from Gaza, killing some 1,200 people and kidnapping another 250, mostly civilians.

Suozzi also spotlighted his support for a bipartisan Senate deal that coupled aid for Israel and Ukraine with a clampdown on illegal border crossings. The bill failed the Senate on Wednesday.

During a virtual press conference on Wednesday, Suozzi talked up his support for Israel while joined by some of the most staunchly pro-Israel Democrats in Congress: Reps. Ritchie Torres of New York, Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey and Brad Schneider of Illinois.

“The bottom line is I’m unequivocally supportive of Israel and always have been,” Suozzi said.

Torres, who is known for his unstinting support of Israel, said, “We’re supporting Tom because he is one of us, because he’s going to fight for the Jewish community and the Jewish state.”

During the briefing, Suozzi repeatedly attacked Pilip and the Republican party for holding up the Israel aid package, pitching himself as a more experienced politician capable of passing legislation to help Israel. He also decried Pilip and her fellow Republicans for “extremist” positions.

“My opponent is taking the position, ‘It’s my way or the highway,’” he said. “It’s not only a bad game, it’s endangering Israel.”

Suozzi added, “She’s unvetted, she’s unprepared and she’ll make things worse.”

Pilip has attacked Suozzi over the other component of the bill, immigration, dubbing her opponent “Sanctuary Suozzi” on social media. She decried the bipartisan aid package, alleging that it “basically legalizes the invasion of our country at the southern border” — an echo of Trump’s opposition to the bill. That post was accompanied by a photo of Suozzi and Biden.

As it happens, while they may disagree on immigration, both candidates hold similar policy positions toward Israel: Both are against an immediate ceasefire or placing conditions on aid to Israel, and both have stressed their support for freeing 132 hostages still held by the Hamas terror group since October 7 — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November.

The two candidates appeared together at a rally last month with the family of Omer Neutra, a Long Island native taken captive by Hamas in its October 7 attack. Both Suozzi and Pilip wore dog tags in support of the hostages, part of a broader advocacy campaign, while standing alongside the Neutra family.

Suozzi has sought to lean away from Biden, who won the district in 2020 but is polling poorly with voters there this year. The president is visiting New York on Wednesday, but will not make any appearances in support of Suozzi’s campaign.

Suozzi told CNN, “I don’t think it would be helpful, just as I don’t think Donald Trump would be helpful to my opponent.”

The area has drifted Republican in recent years, as evidenced by Santos’ 2022 victory. Suozzi defeated Santos in the 2020 election, when the Republican, like Pilip, was also a lesser-known challenger of color.

During the Wednesday briefing, Suozzi acknowledged that “the Democratic brand has been decimated over the past three years,” citing crime in New York City, bail reform policies and the surge of migrants.

The candidates faced off at a debate hosted by News 12 on Long Island on Thursday, covering key topics including aid for Israel and Ukraine and US border security. Early voting started on Saturday in the district — so far, more Democrats than Republicans have turned out, according to Politico.

As the election nears, Suozzi has campaigned more aggressively — his campaign said he held nine rallies over last weekend, while Pilip did not appear to have held any public events. Pilip observes Shabbat, limiting her activities on Fridays and Saturdays. Her campaign did not make her available for an interview with the New York Jewish Week.

Suozzi’s campaign has amassed far more funds than Pilip, with more than $4.5 million raised through January 24, compared to Pilip’s $1.3 million, according to data from the Federal Election Commission.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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