Tribal divisions trump George Santos scandals in knife-edge New York special election

Mazi Pilip speaks to reporters after voting in Massapequa, New York (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Mazi Pilip speaks to reporters after voting in Massapequa, New York (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Fred Forgione doesn’t bring up politics with family and friends anymore.

He doesn’t engage with political posts on Facebook, and certainly doesn’t mention his progressive abortion views to fellow members of the Knights of Columbus Catholic fraternal order.

“Most of my family and friends are staunch Republicans, I don’t get it. I used to have arguments all the time to the point where I just shut up. I don’t talk anymore,” the 67-year-old retired banker told The Independent in a strip mall car park in New Hyde Park, Long Island, on Monday.

Tuesday’s by-election in New York’s 3rd Congressional to replace the scandal-plagued, federally indicted former Congressman George Santos has largely turned into a national referendum on immigration, abortion, Donald Trump and the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Democratic veteran Tom Suozzi, 61, and the GOP’s Mazi Pilip have spent around $20m on negative adverts that have bombarded local news channels and sportscasts, and even ran during Sunday’s Super Bowl.

Mr Suozzi has tried to paint Ms Pilip, a 44-year-old Ethiopian-born, Israeli-American Nassau County legislator, as an extremist, Santos 2.0.

He claims she is unvetted and untested in Washington DC, and that she has refused to give a straight answer on whether she would support a national bill to protect womens’ reproductive rights.

Republican ad spots have tied Mr Suozzi to Democratic failures to rein in illegal immigration, the dominant issue on voters’ minds in the district, according to an Emerson poll in January.

What used to be a Democratic stronghold has in recent years turned into a Republican-leaning bellwether for how suburban districts across the country could vote in November’s general election. Recent polling suggests the race is a statistical dead heat.

The sharp tribal divisions that have convulsed national politics were evident among voters in the NY03 district as they did their grocery shopping and ran errands on Monday.

Motorists sped past the candidates’ duelling lawn signs on busy intersections, an indication of the energetic campaigns both have run.

Mr Forgione said he plans to turn out to vote Democrat regardless of dire weather forecasts that suggest up to five inches of snow could fall on Long Island on Tuesday morning.

A special election to replace the serial liar and alleged conman George Santos is being held in New York’s 3rd Congressional district on Tuesday (Associated Press)
A special election to replace the serial liar and alleged conman George Santos is being held in New York’s 3rd Congressional district on Tuesday (Associated Press)

“I’ll make it, snow storm or whatever.”

Mr Forgione says he can’t abide Republican policies on abortion and immigration, and sees Ms Pilip as an extension of the divisiveness being sown by Donald Trump.

“I think she’s another liar, she’s a Trump supporter. I have taken grief from relatives about what a loser (Trump) is. And I think he and his people have become the radical right.

“I don’t agree with her abortion stance. I’m in favour of women having a voice and if the Democrats gain control of Congress, they will protect those rights.”

Regardless of who ends up winning, he says, “anyone would be better than Santos”.

Mr Forgione lives near the shuttered Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens, where New York City last year opened a tent shelter to house more than 1,000 asylum seekers.

Duelling yard signs in New York’s 3rd district for Tom Suozzi and Mazi Pilip (Bevan Hurley / The Independent)
Duelling yard signs in New York’s 3rd district for Tom Suozzi and Mazi Pilip (Bevan Hurley / The Independent)

He says that the city’s migrant crisis is upsetting, and he agrees border security needs to be tightened.

But he believes Mr Trump’s demonisation of migrants is poisoning the discourse around how to solve the problem, especially after Republicans backed out of a bipartisan Senate deal last week.

Perhaps due to the entrenched partisan divide, Republican voters spoken to by The Independent said that Mr Santos’s fall from grace had done nothing to dissuade them from voting for the party again.

Mr Santos became only the sixth lawmaker ever to be expelled from the House of Congress after the release of a damning House Ethics Committee report late last year.

He was indicted in October on fraud and dishonesty offences that included stealing campaign donors’ credit card numbers and using their credit cards to ring up tens of thousands of dollars in unauthorized charges. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Frank Williams told The Independent he felt the scandal had been blown out of proportion.

Tom Suozzi speaking in Plainview, New York (AP)
Tom Suozzi speaking in Plainview, New York (AP)

“Compared to half the people in Congress, he’s a saint,” he said. “A lot of people like to brag about things. It’s a shame because we lost the seat, and it’s going to be difficult to get back.”

He said he and many of his friends preferred Mr Suozzi, who is a more known quantity after serving three terms in Congress. The Democrat has held elected office in the district for much of the past three decades, first as mayor of Glen Cove, and later as Nassau County executive.

Mr Williams, a registered Republican, said he would be voting for Ms Pilip because of her tough stance on immigration.

“Suozzi is aligning with the mayor of New York City Eric Adams, who I cannot stand.”

Dorothy Di Lazzaro, a fellow Republican, told The Independent that Ms Pilip’s extraordinary backstory was proof she had what it takes to represent the district.

Ms Pilip left Ethiopia at the age of 12, when she was among the 14,500 Jewish people airlifted out of the country during Operation Solomon.

After serving in a gunsmith unit in the IDF, she earned a bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy from the University of Haifa and a master’s in diplomacy and security from Tel Aviv University.

“She speaks to me,” Ms Di Lazzaro said. “Suozzi is rinse and repeat. He’s been in Congress, and he’s done nothing except raise our taxes. Some new blood is needed here in Nassau County.”

She claimed that Mr Santos had become a convenient punching bag for Democrats, who attacked him “just like they denigrate Trump”.

“Trump hasn’t been in office for three years and they still blame him for everything. Santos’s problem was that he just couldn’t shut up.”

Ms Di Lazzaro doubted the predicted blizzard would deter voters from coming out. “If they don’t shame, on them.”

Not everyone has been overtaken by the partisan fervour.

Bill Fink, a retiree from Nassau County, told The Independent that neither candidate had done enough to get his vote.

“Forget it,” he said in brief remarks while heading to the supermarket. “If I had to pick the lesser of the evils, it would be Suozzi. Pilip’s too conservative. Especially her stance on abortion. You gotta have some heart, and she doesn’t.”

In a race this tight, the weather could yet have the final say.

Early voting in the race has heavily favoured the Democrats, with results so far suggesting Mr Suozzi will take a sizeable lead heading into election day.

Republicans tend to prefer same-day voting, which will require a strong turnout potentially in up to half a foot of snow and 40 mph gusts of wind.

NYC Emergency Management issued a travel advisory on Monday afternoon saying the hazardous travel conditions could make roads and public transport routes dangerous.

It recommended avoiding any unnecessary travel.