George Santos’ Second Coming—This Time It’s Personal

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty Images
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty Images

On Nov. 30, 2023, the day before his expulsion from the House of Representatives, George Santos insisted to reporters that he still enjoyed a warm rapport with all his colleagues from his home state of New York.

“They love picking up the phone and texting me,” he told the journalists assembled for a pen-and-pad briefing in an office at the Capitol.

All his colleagues, that is, save one.

“With the exception of LaLota,” Santos said, referring to Rep. Nick LaLota (R-NY). “I don’t like Nick LaLota.”

Nobody had to ask the embattled lawmaker to elaborate on what he perceived as his fellow Republican’s faults.

“He’s not well-liked. He’s an arrogant person. He’s not a nice guy. He’s cocky,” Santos continued. “He’s a traditional meathead, somebody who’s not nice to you for no reason.”

Santos now plans a comeback campaign as an “Ultra MAGA” independent—but not in the Queens and Queens-adjacent district where he resides, and which sent him to Washington in 2022. The U.S. Constitution permits him to seek any congressional seat in New York, and the Empire State affords a smorgasbord of high-profile opponents for a candidate looking to make news or just raise and spend a little campaign cash.

Santos isn’t targeting one of New York’s Democratic mainstays like Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, or a left-wing lightning rod like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Rep. Jamaal Bowman, both members of the Squad. Nor is he challenging a Republican powerhouse such as Republican Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik, or one of her fellow upstate MAGA stalwarts, or any of the various embattled centrist GOP freshmen swept into office on the 2022 wave—or Rep. Nicole Mallotakis, who with Santos’ ouster became the sole Republican representing part of New York City.

He’s not even gunning for Rep. Andrew Garbarino (R-NY), whose district is not only the reddest on Long Island but also conveniently contains the federal courthouse where Santos is due to stand trial in late summer on charges of wire fraud, money laundering, theft, making false statements to Congress, illegal campaign contributions, and stealing supporters’ financial information.

Instead, out of 26 Republicans and Democrats representing New York in the House, Santos has decided to take on LaLota, the little-known congressman he singled out in his remarks just months ago.

U.S. Rep. Nick Lalota (R-NY) seen here speaking on removing Rep. George Santos (R-NY) from Congress in Oct. 2023

U.S. Rep. Nick Lalota (R-NY) seen here speaking on removing Rep. George Santos (R-NY) from Congress in Oct. 2023.

Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Santos hotly denied his bid for New York’s 1st Congressional District, covering the easternmost reaches of Long Island, is a “revenge run” against its current occupant. Instead, he said that moving to LaLota’s turf would allow him to fulfill a longtime dream of owning a backyard chicken flock while remaining within the New York City metro area.

“My husband and I both enjoy that kind of life. We’re dying to have a chicken coop and stuff like that, and in Suffolk County it’s much easier to get that,” Santos said, contrasting the county where LaLota’s district sits with the Queens-bordering suburbs of his former seat. “In Nassau County, it’s full of restrictions on where and how much, and can you get chickens and can you get roosters because of neighbors and noise and that stuff.”

Regulations on chicken ownership are generally looser in Suffolk County, though statutes across all of Long Island vary by municipality, and bans on roosters are common in both counties. Santos also claimed he had spoken with Suffolk County Republican Chairman Jesse Garcia before launching his second bid for his old district about trying for what’s now LaLota’s seat, but that the party boss had discouraged him.

Garcia, a LaLota ally, told The Daily Beast he had no memory of this conversation.

Still, in discussing his history with LaLota, Santos’ remarks quickly turned personal. He asserted that, during his first run for Congress in 2020, a Suffolk County Republican operative approached him about homophobic comments LaLota allegedly made about him and his candidacy.

“‘Why are we running homosexuals as Republicans? What the fuck are we doing?' That was essentially what was communicated to me,” Santos said.

The operative did not respond to multiple calls from The Daily Beast, and LaLota denied ever making such remarks, and cast the accusation as part of Santos’ well-documented pattern of making false statements.

“Santos has many flaws but being gay isn’t one of them. I have gay family and friends and a voting record that has earned me the endorsement of Log Cabin Republicans,” the congressman said in a statement. “A Santos assertion to the contrary is just another one of his lies.”

But Santos also told The Daily Beast that the purported whispering about his sexuality wasn’t the real cause of his acrimony toward his former colleague (although he also alluded to it at the pen-and-pad briefing back in November). And the supposed story of how the enmity began is also, unsurprisingly, disputed by everybody else The Daily Beast spoke with for this story.

As Santos tells it, the true roots of his distaste for LaLota stretch back to the period immediately after Election Night in 2020, when Santos had an advantage in the in-person vote count but faced a tsunami of absentee ballots for his opponent, then and current Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-NY). The district at that time contained a slice of Suffolk County, and LaLota was then the county’s Republican Board of Elections commissioner, meaning he headed the body in charge of tallying those mail-in ballots.

In his conversation with The Daily Beast, Santos accused LaLota of accepting rules from his Democratic counterpart at the board that made challenging absentee votes “a nightmare.”

“That is why I did not like Nick LaLota: because he was weak and he literally didn’t do his job the way it was supposed to be done,” Santos said, also complaining about COVID-19 protocols at the counting process.

But in this instance too, Santos hedged by claiming this was based on information funneled back to him by campaign staff and volunteers involved in the tally, since he was attending freshman orientation in Washington, D.C. at the time.

The Board itself told The Daily Beast that the rules it followed for counting and disputing absentee votes are all laid out in state law. An independent source with knowledge of the situation, who requested anonymity on the grounds that he did not believe it was in his career interest to be named in an article about George Santos, went so far as to call the fallen congressman’s allegations “bullshit.”

But Suffolk County GOP sources told The Daily Beast that it was around this point that animosity began to flow the other way. As the numbers shifted toward Suozzi, Santos began publicly attacking the counting process—and the county boards of election overseeing it—as corrupt. But under New York law, these boards are jointly controlled by the local Democratic and Republican organizations, and stocked with their hand-picked appointees. An attack on the boards thus amounted to an attack on the local GOP leadership itself.

Former Republican Representative from New York George Santos (C) chats with Democratic Representatives Al Green from Texas (L) and Democratic Representative from Illinois Jonathan Jackson (R)

Former Republican Representative from New York George Santos (C) chats with Democratic Representatives Al Green from Texas (L) and Democratic Representative from Illinois Jonathan Jackson (R).

Shawn Thew

Yet despite the ill will Santos’ comments engendered when his first campaign entered rigor mortis, those same county GOP organizations decided to support him again as he prepared a second bid. After all, at that time they believed Santos to be not just an openly gay Latino man but also a Wall Street tycoon with a massive trust fund, sprawling family real estate portfolio, and a thick Rolodex of donors. Moreover, after the 2020 census, an initial Democrat-led redistricting process redrew the seat to include huge swaths of blue turf in the Bronx and the northern New York City suburbs.

“You had a guy who could apparently raise a lot of money, apparently had a lot of professional connections, could add diversity to the Republican ticket, and on the surface, it seemed like that was an alright person to run in this district where it was understood a Republican could not win,” LaLota told The Daily Beast.

The state and county organizations stuck by Santos even after a judge tossed the initial lines, and a court-appointed master re-envisioned the district into a Democrat-leaning but winnable seat. The new lines also sheared away the district’s Suffolk County portions, making it a purely Nassau County and Queens affair.

But even though Suffolk County was done with Santos, Santos decided he wasn’t done with Suffolk County. And this is when everybody agrees things got ugly.

Well after Garcia’s county GOP organization backed LaLota for the 1st District—being vacated by Lee Zeldin, who ran a stronger-than-expected campaign for governor—Michelle Bond, the girlfriend of Sam Bankman-Fried’s business partner and now-confessed co-conspirator Ryan Salame, moved to get into the Republican primary. And when that happened, Santos confessed he saw dollar signs.

“Michelle Bond to me was, what I would say, an opportunity to tap into a whole new donor base. And she needed to tap into a local donor base, so it was very convenient for me,” Santos said in his interview with The Daily Beast. “So I said, ‘you know what? Fuck Nick LaLota.’”

Word quickly trickled back to LaLota and the Suffolk County Republican Party brass that some of their financial supporters had gotten calls from Santos urging them to support Bond. Santos also linked her to a noisy dissident faction in Suffolk County called Long Island Loud Majority, which began boosting Bond and blasting LaLota on their podcast and knocking doors for the crypto-backed insurgent, even though she was a former Democrat who had just recently registered to vote in the district.

The response was outrage. Santos and LaLota were both backed by the state and local Republican establishments. For one to meddle in the race of the other on behalf of an opponent was, in LaLota’s words, a “breach of trust.”

“It was so out of the norm, where an endorsed candidate then worked against the endorsed candidate in the adjacent county,” LaLota said in a phone interview, still sounding irate over the race nearly two years later.

The move also represented, inadvertently or not, yet another Santos attack on the infrastructure Suffolk County Republican organization itself, noted Mark Chiusano, author of the recent Santos biography The Fabulist and contributor to The Daily Beast.

“Bond winning would have been a big shock to the Suffolk GOP system, given how far outside the system she was and how late she jumped into the primary against the party’s chosen guy,” Chiusano observed. “Her winning would have shown the power of big money (which she had) over the party organization.”

LaLota ultimately obliterated Bond by nearly 20 points, but only after spending more than half a million dollars on a primary he hadn’t expected a serious rival in. An uneasy peace with Santos followed—one that ruptured when news of the incoming congressman’s fabrications broke.

LaLota ascribes Santos’ contempt for him to this period, when he became one of the congressman-elect’s earliest and most ardent Republican critics, pushing for a House Ethics investigation and even law enforcement action against his colleague-to-be as early as December 2022. Santos denied this, and accorded more credit for his eventual defenestration to Rep. Anthony D’Esposito (R-NY), who he noted was the first Republican to call for his resignation and introduced the resolution to expel him.

Still, Santos said he had a much friendlier personal relationship with D’Esposito than he ever did with LaLota. Above all, the now-independent candidate stressed that he was serious about winning a seat in Congress again, even if it requires multiple tries, and even though the charges he faces make it probable he would have to run one of those prospective races from inside a federal penitentiary.

“This is a long-term project. I might lose this time, I’ll win next time,” Santos said. “The reality is I want back in the game and I don’t care who’s in the way.”

Others, including Jesse Garcia, the Suffolk County GOP chairman, dismissed Santos’ bid as just a stunt to wring a bit more attention from the public—and doubted he could even obtain sufficient petition signatures from district residents to make the ballot.

“If he does file petitions, we will look at those petitions, and I bet they will have the same validity as his degree from Baruch College,” said Garcia, alluding to the Manhattan-based institution of higher learning where Santos was in fact neither a student nor a volleyball star.

Reese Gorman contributed reporting to this story.

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