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Feb 13, 2024, 6:18am EST
politics

Tom Suozzi thinks he has the Democrats’ answer to the migrant crisis in the NY-3 race

REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
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The Scene

BAYSIDE, N.Y. — In the final hours of his comeback bid for Congress, Tom Suozzi found a shortcut to convincing voters to support him. He’d grab his phone. He’d find a link to the only debate between himself and GOP nominee Mazi Pilip. Then, he’d press send.

“After she debated, I know why she didn’t want to debate!” Suozzi told supporters at a packed Democratic Party campaign office here. “Anybody you show the debate, I guarantee you: They will vote for Tom Suozzi in this race. Guaranteed!”

The special election to replace Rep. George Santos, removed by his colleagues in Congress just 72 days ago, gives Republicans a chance to move on from embarrassment in a region — eastern Queens and western Nassau County — where they’d been racking up wins. Pilip, an immigrant from Ethiopia who’d served in the Israeli Defense Forces, had a thin political resume but an inspiring personal story.

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For Suozzi, who’d left the 3rd congressional district in 2022 to challenge Gov. Kathy Hochul as a “common sense Democrat,” the special election offers a chance to prove he’d been right.

He challenged Hochul over progressive bail reform; Long Island Democrats got wiped out in the midterms over crime, and Hochul changed course. He denounced the slogan “abolish ICE” in 2018, as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was riding it to a primary victory; now, New York’s top cop is warning that “a wave of migrant crime has washed over our city.”

In this race, he accused Pilip of having nothing but “talking points” to offer, and believed that he’d proved it onstage, contrasting his support for last week’s doomed Senate immigration bill with her generic promise to fix the border.

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“Everybody knows that I ran for governor on the issue of crime, on lower taxes, and on fighting corruption,” Suozzi said in an interview here. “That’s kind of what the people care about. So I have a reputation in the district of being a reasonable person who will work across party lines to get things done.”

Both major parties have poured resources into the district, with Democrats outspending Republicans, $9.6 million to $6.8 million, for a chance to regain the seat and shrink House Speaker Mike Johnson’s slim majority. Suozzi, who was a decade into his political career when Pilip immigrated to New York, has held far more public events and sat for more interviews, to highlight how much his opponent has relied on better-known campaign surrogates — and police unions, which she rallied with in her final public pre-election event — to introduce herself.

Pilip and allies have attacked Suozzi as a Biden lackey, running ad after ad with the Democrat’s face next to footage of migrants crossing the border and scuffling with cops. Suozzi’s own ads have highlighted his longtime support for a border security/path to citizenship deal — “a grand compromise,” he recalls, quoting the headline the New York Times gave his op-ed with Republican ex-Rep. Peter King — and Democrats have pummeled Pilip on abortion.

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Onstage, she opposed a “national abortion ban,” but mail pieces from the House Democrats’ super PAC point out that the Conservative Party, which gave her its ballot line, favors “a ban on abortions with no exceptions for rape and incest.”

Curtis Sliwa, the GOP’s 2021 nominee for mayor of New York City, said the issue hung over Republicans “like the sword of Damocles,” helping Suozzi with Democrats. On Saturday, as he was about to march ahead of Suozzi in Flushing’s Lunar New Year parade, Sliwa said that Republicans might struggle in Queens. They were going to be strong in the suburbs. A 2022 clip of Suozzi saying he’d removed ICE from Nassau County, played nonstop by Republicans, had sharpened the contrast they wanted on immigration.

“That might have worked last year. But this year? It’s devastating,” said Sliwa. “She’s very strong in Nassau.”

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David and Kadia's View

The Republican case against Suozzi has boiled down to a single sentence uttered on June 7, 2022, when he faced Hochul in a televised debate. He was a “great supporter of immigrants,” he said, reminding the audience — mostly Democratic primary voters — that his family had immigrated from Italy, and that he’d started the first day worker center on the East Coast.

“When I was county executive in Nassau County, I kicked ICE out of Nassau County,” he added.

Two months later, the first bus of migrants apprehended in Texas arrived at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan. Queasiness with some of the Trump administration’s immigration policies, like family separation, has been supplanted by dread about the more than 170,000 migrants relocated to New York.

Suozzi has explained his decision many times: His police commissioner had complained that ICE was not cooperating with law enforcement, and he’d worked closely with county police to lower crime. “Would you say to your police commissioner, Oh, I don’t want to listen to you?” Suozzi asked Pilip at the debate last week.

Pilip’s relative evasiveness may have helped Suozzi, who made himself widely available for earned media and jumped at chances to differentiate himself from his party’s left. When Semafor asked how many migrants might have to go if he got his way, and the Senate bill was resurrected, he said immediately that most would be removed.

“Let me tell you something: If we did the bipartisan deal we’d have a faster asylum adjudication process,” Suozzi said. “Eighty percent of them would have to go right away.”

The interviews Pilip has done have mostly been friendly; a round of Monday interviews on Fox News ended with host Dana Perino incorrectly saying that Suozzi had previously lost to Santos, and Pilip saying “yes” (Perino later corrected herself). But getting in front of microphones isn’t a guarantee of special election success. In early 2018, when former Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb flipped a deep red district around Pittsburgh, he sat for very few media interviews and rarely gaggled with reporters after events.

Lamb’s victory set the tone for his party in that year’s midterms, and a Pilip win could do the same for Republicans. In 2022, with Long Island’s own Lee Zeldin leading the ticket, Santos flipped the 3rd district by 7.6 points — a 15.8-point swing from Joe Biden’s victory in 2020, as Nassau County voters stampeded towards Republicans and nearly 272,000 voters turned out.

Just over 70,000 voters had cast ballots before Election Day, and before a major winter storm that could affect turnout. Democrats are confident that they won the early electorate, and know what victory would look like — decisively winning the Queens portion of the district, which makes up around a fifth of the likely vote, and doing no worse than a tie in Nassau County. Santos had won the area by 22,000 votes, and with it, won the election.

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The View From Voters

In Glen Cove, the city where Suozzi’s political career began, there was visible support for the Democrat. Bob Conticchio, an 81-year old retiree, said he’d supported Suozzi since the election was announced and had ignored the TV ad wars. He was pro-choice, he typically voted for Democrats, and like Suozzi, he blamed Donald Trump for the collapse of an immigration funding bill last week.

“It’s the blind following the pied piper — the whole thing is ludicrous,” said Conticchio. “There ought to be an avenue for the ‘dreamers,’ so-called. And obviously, there needs to be more staffing of the department that takes care of these people coming in, because we’re overloaded. Obviously.”

Nick Naymushin, 40, had immigrated to the district from Ukraine after Russia’s invasion into the country in 2022. He considered Pilip’s messaging to be “very repulsive and divisive,” focused on immigration as a problem but not clear about how to solve it.

“They’re doing all this political trickery, where they create a problem and then they try to run on it,” he said. “They have a solution on their desks, yet they are refusing to resolve it, because they get political gain from this still being an issue.”

Other locals were much more ready to blame Democrats for the migrant surge. Patricia Ross, 65, met Suozzi after he stopped at a deli in Whitestone, a town on the outskirts of Queens. He stopped to send her a link to his debate with Suozzi, assuring Ross that she’d agree with his immigration stance if he watched it. She was skeptical.

“They’ve just let [the border] stay open, and brought them in, and now they’re committing crimes in the city, and nothing is happening,” Ross said. “They just shot somebody yesterday!” His support for the Senate immigration compromise was not an asset. “From what I understand the bill was a lot of baloney,” she said. “It was not really about immigration. It was mostly giving money to Ukraine, and I find that they get way too much money.”

In Pilip’s home of Great Neck, voters lined up at their polling site largely agreed with the Republican. Leonard Katz, a retiree, said that “wide open borders” concerned him, and Pilip had impressed him: “She’s for immigration, but legal immigration. She’s very strong for the police.”

He preferred her approach to Suozzi’s, because he “basically has voted with the current administration,” and if he won, the House GOP’s majority would be narrower, allowing “worse things to happen” on immigration. And he was hopeful that the GOP’s second vote to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas would succeed. “He should go, I think,” said Katz. “The guy’s done a terrible job.”

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Room for Disagreement

Some Democrats are trying to manage expectations about the race. Yes, Biden carried the district three and half years ago by about the same margin he’d won Minnesota. But there were few suburban districts in America where the GOP was so well-organized, and where local issues had so badly wounded Democrats since 2020.

“I don’t think it’s necessary in terms of the math that goes towards winning back the House,” said Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., who has campaigned extensively for Suozzi and lent staff to his turnout operation. “But I think it would be a great morale booster.”

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Notable

  • In HuffPost, Daniel Marans explains how each party is war-gaming its immigration message in New York, and why a GOP win would mean “that Democrats’ efforts to seize the high ground on border security are going to be harder than they think.”
  • In the New York Times, Nicholas Fandos studies how the GOP’s recent wins in Nassau County have helped Pilip, after a focus on “property taxes, inflation and, above all, fears about a pandemic-era spike in crime.”
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