GOP nominee in Santos special has unique biography but one troublesome photo

Multiple media outlets reported Thursday that Republican leaders have chosen Nassau County Legislator Mazi Melesa Pilip to be their nominee for the Feb. 13 special election to succeed expelled GOP Rep. George Santos, with an official announcement set for the following day.

Pilip would take on former Rep. Tom Suozzi, who was awarded the Democratic nomination last week. (Primary voters in New York do not select nominees in special elections.) The Long Island-based 3rd District, which includes northern Nassau County and a small portion of Queens, supported Joe Biden 54-45 in 2020, but it’s swung hard toward the GOP following the president’s inauguration.

While Suozzi has spent more than two decades as one of the most prominent Democrats on Long Island, his rival is a relative newcomer to local politics. Pilip was airlifted from Ethiopia to Israel as a child refugee and went on to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. She immigrated to the United States in 2005 and won a seat on the County Legislature during the 2021 GOP sweep by unseating Democratic incumbent Ellen Birnbaum 53-47.

Pilip went on to secure reelection last month 60-40 against Democrat Weihua Yan during what was another strong night for Long Island Republicans. In one odd detail recently reported by Politico, however, Pilip has remained a registered Democrat during her years as a Republican elected official.

But Pilip’s unusual biography could make her a formidable nominee, a belief some Democrats may share. “There is an undercurrent out there that Suozzi is concerned about running against Mazi,” an unnamed source told Jewish Insider earlier this month. “He keeps calling around to find out, ‘Is it going to be her, is it going to be her?’”

However, Pilip’s detractors have already found one potentially damaging item from her recent past. In September, Yan posted a photo on social media of the legislator smiling alongside Santos. The New York Times reported that this photo was shared with reporters this month through “an unsigned, untraceable email” in an apparent attempt to convince party leaders to pick someone else.

One of the Republicans those leaders passed over for the nomination, Air Force veteran Kellen Curry, seemed to have had this picture in mind last week when he shared the results of an internal poll. The survey showed Suozzi leading Pilip and Curry 43-40 and 43-39, respectively, but the memo also found 58% of respondents said they were “less likely” to support someone who has backed Santos in the past. In a possible reference to Pilip, pollster Brian Wynne added, “Thankfully, my understanding is that you did not endorse Santos and no photographs of you exist with him.”  

However, it was a different topic that gave Pilip trouble when she spoke to the New York Times’ Nicholas Fandos on Thursday afternoon. “When Ms. Pilip was asked to state her position on a national abortion ban,” Fandos writes, “a spokesman for the Nassau County Republican Party cut in to say that the candidate did not intend to ‘get through the whole platform here.'” Fandos says that, in addition to abortion rights, Pilip has expressed “no known public opinions on major issues” like gun safety and Donald Trump’s indictments.

Fandos also notes that, unlike Suozzi, Pilip has “almost no experience raising money.” National Republicans, however, are likely to ensure that she has access to as much cash as she needs in what will be a closely watched special election.

Suozzi, for his part, is making use of his head start to go on the air early. The Democrat’s first ad, which debuted Thursday morning, touts him as a bipartisan figure who knows the area well.

P.S. New York’s highest court this week ordered the state’s bipartisan redistricting commission to draw a new congressional map to be used in next year’s elections, but this special election will take place under the existing lines. The contest for a full term, however, will be conducted using the new boundaries.

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