Republicans Nominate Mazi Melesa Pilip To Succeed George Santos

New York Republicans on Thursday nominated Mazi Melesa Pilip, a Nassau County legislator, as their candidate to fill the vacancy created by former Rep. George Santos’ expulsion from Congress earlier this month.

Former Rep. Pete King, a Long Island Republican, confirmed the selection to Newsday.

“Mazi is the choice,” King told Newsday. “She’s going to be a great candidate. She’s really the American success story, the American dream.”

Pilip is due to face former U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.), the Democratic nominee, in a Feb. 13 special election that is expected to draw a massive influx of national resources and attention to New York’s 3rd Congressional District, a coveted swing seat.

Democrats, in particular, are eager to give President Joe Biden a jolt of positive political momentum and land an early victory on their road to retake the House.

But Pilip, a Modern Orthodox Jewish mother of seven who has helped run her husband’s cardiology practice, could make for a formidable foe. As an Ethiopian-born Israeli immigrant to the U.S. who served in the Israel Defense Forces’ paratroopers unit and is a relative newcomer to politics, she presents an interesting biographical contrast with Suozzi, an Italian-American lawyer and accountant who previously served as Nassau County executive and mayor of Glen Cove.

If elected, Pilip would join the House’s growing number of Black Republicans (there are currently four). But she would be the only Black Republican woman in the current Congress, and almost certainly the first Black Jew ever to serve on Capitol Hill.

National Republicans plan to paint Suozzi, a centrist who challenged New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) from the right, as an “extreme” liberal who has parlayed his Washington connections into a lucrative spot as co-chair of a major global consulting firm.

“Mazi’s incredible life of service stands in stark contrast to career politician Tom Suozzi, who uses his office to make life better for himself instead of his community,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesperson Savannah Viar said in a statement. “With Mazi in Congress, Long Islanders will have a representative who stands up to the extreme Hochul-Suozzi agenda making New York less safe and more expensive.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, House Democrats’ campaign arm, reacted to the news of Pilip’s selection by attempting to tie her to Santos. In September, Weihua Yan, Pilip’s unsuccessful Democratic challenger for the Nassau County legislature, surfaced an undated photo of her posing with Santos.

“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,” said Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), chair of the DCCC, 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.”

President Joe Biden carried New York’s 3rd, which encompasses northeast Queens and northwestern Nassau County, by eight percentage points in 2020.

But Santos flipped the seat in 2022 ― one of four House seats that the GOP retook in the state. Nationwide, Republicans enjoyed a net pickup of five seats in all, making New York the single most significant state for Republicans’ narrow takeover of the House.

The GOP benefited from a court-ordered redistricting in 2022, which replaced maps that Democratic lawmakers had drafted to benefit their party. New York Democrats hope to improve their chances with new maps approved by the state legislature, but those boundaries will not be in effect for the special election.

Despite Biden’s poor standing in the polls, Democrats feel good about the outcomes of several off-year elections this past November. On the strength of voters’ continued wariness of Republican efforts to curtail abortion rights, Democrats held on to the governorship in Kentucky and a seat on the Pennsylvania state supreme court, while taking control of Virginia’s House of Delegates.

That good fortune did not extend to Long Island, where Republicans expanded their winning streak in local elections ― breaking Democrats’ hold on the Suffolk County executive’s office and ousting a Democrat in the Nassau County legislature.

In a sharp contrast to just five years ago, the GOP now holds all four of Long Island’s U.S. House seats, as well as both county executive offices and legislatures, and both county prosecutors’ offices.

Pilip was an early part of Long Island’s red wave. In 2021, she flipped a Nassau County legislative seat long held by Democrats, and two years later, she won reelection by nearly 20 percentage points.

“It seems clever on the part of the Republicans to pick somebody who has the potential to be viewed as nuanced politically, because that district has historically been the Democratic portion of Nassau County.”

– Former New York Assembly Member Steve Englebright (D)

Pilip has already proven capable of winning over more conservative elements of Nassau County’s Jewish electorate, such as the Iranian-Jewish and Modern Orthodox communities in Great Neck. That strength is likely to be an asset in the district at large, which includes other pockets of Orthodox Jews whose votes Pilip has not yet had the chance to seek.

For his part, Suozzi is already touting his potential appeal with swing voters. He held his first campaign event last Saturday in Levittown, a suburb that Suozzi represented as county executive but that was not in the district he represented in Congress. The event took place on the front lawn of Tom Kavanaugh, a retired New York Police Department deputy inspector, who introduced Suozzi.

“I’m a registered Republican,” Kavanaugh said. “But I have such trust and such faith in him, he’s the only Democrat I ever voted for.”

The Republican parties of Nassau and Queens County took their time announcing a candidate, in an effort to avoid a repeat of Santos’ biographical fabulism.

The vetting process got nasty, however, and spilled into public view, with different campaigns apparently placing unflattering opposition research about their rivals in the media.

Mike Sapraicone, a retired NYPD detective turned private security magnate who was self-funding his campaign, was the runner-up for the nomination. But earlier this month, Politico reported that Sapraicone was the target of a lawsuit accusing him of coercing a false confession during his time at the NYPD, and that Sapraicone had recently admitted he used to be afraid of Black people.

At the same time, Politico also broke the news that Pilip is still a registered Democrat, despite having won her county legislative seat on the Republican ballot line.

National Democrats have made light of Republicans’ chaotic nomination process.

Ellie Dougherty, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s spokesperson for New York races, sent reporters an email on Monday touting the success of Suozzi’s campaign launch, with the headline: “Tom Suozzi Builds Momentum While Republicans Still Can’t Agree on a Nominee.”

“Messy, chaotic, and dysfunctional Republicans ― who repeatedly protected criminally-indicted liar George Santos ― still haven’t agreed on a nominee in New York’s Third District,” Dougherty wrote.

But voters might soon move past the nomination drama.

In a region where conservative voters routinely register as Democrats to have more influence in New York’s closed-party primaries, Pilip’s party registration is not especially unusual. And while Pilip vocally opposed Hochul’s plan to build more housing in the suburbs, and has ramped up her statements of support for Israel in recent months, less is known about her views on federal issues like abortion, immigration and government spending priorities.

Former U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi, left, poses with conservative pundit Bill O'Reilly at a 2022 charity event. In a race for a swing seat, Suozzi and Pilip both hope to wield crossover appeal.
Former U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi, left, poses with conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly at a 2022 charity event. In a race for a swing seat, Suozzi and Pilip both hope to wield crossover appeal.

Jared Siskin via Getty Images

“It seems clever on the part of the Republicans to pick somebody who has the potential to be viewed as nuanced politically, because that district has historically been the Democratic portion of Nassau County,” said Steve Englebright, a Suffolk County Democrat who lost his state Assembly seat in 2022 and won an open Democrat-held seat in the Suffolk County legislature this past November.

Despite decades of sending Democrats to Congress, Long Island has a culturally conservative streak. Many of the region’s suburbs more closely resemble the right-leaning, police- and fire-heavy enclaves of New York City’s outer boroughs than the liberal bedroom communities of the lower Hudson Valley.

Rather than rally to Democrats amid a national attack on abortion rights, voters on Long Island ― who remain overwhelmingly in favor of such rights ― have apparently prioritized concerns about crime, unauthorized immigration and taxes, a close cousin to the electorate’s more general concerns about the cost of living.

New York Democrats’ adoption of a “congestion pricing” system to charge commuters extra for driving into the busiest parts of Manhattan during rush hour could be a burden for Suozzi, despite his opposition to the policy.

Former Rep. Lee Zeldin, a Suffolk County Republican whose unsuccessful 2022 gubernatorial bid nevertheless powered a string of down-ballot wins, attributes the shift to a growing wariness among a racially diverse set of voters of progressive influence in New York’s Democratic Party on questions of crime and immigration.

“The electorate is not happy with what they see coming out of the city,” Zeldin told the New York Post following Republican wins on Long Island this past November. “There are issues like the migrant crisis and cashless bail.”

Englebright, who was a champion of environmental protection in the state legislature, sees Republican success on those issues as an ugly feature of the party’s demagoguery.

“The Republicans tend to run on issues that people are highly reactive toward ― within the fear factor,” he said. “Pick one of a dozen issues that they have made people fearful of ― most of them domestic, but the international scene is also very unsettling.”

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