Interviews & Profiles

Jay Jacobs is feeling positive after Tom Suozzi’s Long Island victory

The chair of the state and Nassau County Democratic parties has started the year with a major win after previous criticisms.

Rep. Greg Meeks and state Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs announce Tom Suozzi as the candidate for the 3rd Congressional District special election.

Rep. Greg Meeks and state Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs announce Tom Suozzi as the candidate for the 3rd Congressional District special election. Howard Schnapp/Newsday RM via Getty Images

The past three years have been tough for Democrats on Long Island as the party racked up major losses, including in the 2022 midterms. The congressional losses that year on Long Island, as well as in the Hudson Valley, drew criticism both locally and nationally for party leadership statewide as well as on Long Island. In New York, one person fit both bills – Jay Jacobs heads both the state Democratic Party and the Nassau County Democratic Party. He has consistently maintained the support of Gov. Kathy Hochul, who would have the power to replace him, even as he found himself on the receiving end of ire from some members of his party.

But Jacobs is off to a much better start to 2024. A little more than two months into the year, he has a major win under his belt to show to his detractors with the victory of former Rep. turned Rep.-elect Tom Suozzi in the February special election for the 3rd Congressional District on Long Island. The entire nation, as well as the whole state, closely watched the race to get an indication of voter sensibilities ahead of November elections later this year. And while a number of factors in the election won’t translate to every race, Suozzi’s victory represented a turning of the tide for Long Island Democrats after a brutal midterm last cycle and various Republican victories for municipal offices.

A broad coalition of groups came together earlier this month to help propel Suozzi to his 8-point win over Republican candidate Mazi Melesa Pilip, including the Nassau County Democratic Party. Jacobs spoke with City & State about the role that he and his organization played in getting out the early vote, lessons for upcoming races and the cyclical nature of politics that may now be favoring Democrats on Long Island again. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What led to the victory on your side of things? What did that organizing look like in Nassau County since that makes up about 80% of the district?

First things first, we had to select the candidate. There were a number of candidates who wanted it. Robert Zimmerman would have liked to have been the candidate, Anna Kaplan, there were others. There were issues with Tom Suozzi, in terms of, you know, the baggage from the gubernatorial primary. But early on, I saw it – and others saw it – as, look, we have to win this thing. And we had to have the strongest and best candidate and there was no question that it was Tom Suozzi. So through all of the hits – and we were taking hits on it in advance, of course, by people who wanted him and didn't want him. But I got together with (Queens Democratic Party Chair) Greg Meeks, and we were pretty clear about that. And I had a good sense that the DCCC wanted it as well, so we went with Tom Suozzi. 

When it became apparent that Santos was going to be leaving one way or another – well, in advance of his departure – we began strategizing. And Tom Garry, who's my first vice chair (in Nassau) – he's also the law chair of the state party – his expertise is in absentee ballots. So we put him in charge of the absentee ballot program with the assignment of blowing it up like it's never been done before. The other thing we did, as we got closer, is I met with our team. Greg Meeks was there as well with some of the members of his team. And I made a statement, which just turned out to be just coincidentally very true. I said, "You're having a special election in mid February. We don't know what the weather's going to be. We could have a blizzard on that day." And so I said early voting is essential, and we've got to really jack up the numbers in early voting to make sure we're banking votes just in case. And sure enough, it came to pass. The whole total vote was 170,000 in the entire district. And if you think about it, 81,000 of those came in through absentee ballots, led by Tom Garry. Did a fabulous job. And then you got (Nassau Board of Elections Democratic Commissioner) Jim Sherman and John Burns leading up, from our end anyway, coordinating with the (Suozzi) campaign, the early vote operation.

As you said, you need to start with a strong candidate. Can talk a little more about his selection, and the impact that choosing him versus Republicans choosing a very different kind of candidate in Mazi Melesa Pilip had on the outcome?

Very often, you want to be you want to be a little bit mysterious about who you're going to pick. You don't want to signal it too early to the other party. We took the other approach. Through back channels, I pretty much let it be known that we were going to go with Suozzi because we wanted to put the Republicans on a bit of a defensive posture. Suozzi came into the election, at my recollection in a poll I had seen, at 54% favorable. And he had a 94% name recognition among voters, so we didn’t need to introduce Tom Suozzi. What we figured was we would put up our best. And we knew what (Republicans’) choices were, and there weren’t many. In my view, what the strategy was on the Republican side was to take the Oct. 7 attack in Israel and utilize that with a candidate that could possibly peel away traditionally Democratic Jewish voters. This district, being one of the highest Jewish voting districts in the country, that's a good strategy, if it works. And unfortunately, I would say, it might have had a better chance, but the candidate just was particularly weak. 

How did it feel for you to see everything come together culminating in an election night victory, especially on Long Island and Nassau County where Democrats have had a rough few years? To see success after several years of coming up short?

I'm a numbers guy, and what I do is I try to project out what's going to happen in the election. Of course, you spend an election, always with a pit in your stomach, because you just don't know what the outcome is going to be. But I work the numbers. Looking at it in terms of the strategy, I felt all along that the likelihood is that Suozzi would win. And ending up winning, it's certainly gratifying, no question about it. But you know, you don't take it for granted along the way. 

What do you think can be translated from this race to other parts can be and should be translated to other parts of the state, especially as you help to coordinate state efforts as the head of the state party?

No. 1, you have to know your district. You don't (run) a campaign in the district you want, you run a campaign in the districts you have. And that means you've got to recognize what the mood of the electorate is, and you’ve got to be speaking to that. So when you're talking about a suburban area like Nassau County, which is really a moderate area, it swings sometimes to the left and swings sometimes to the right, and we see that. It’s all about the unaffiliated, and that thin group of Democrats and Republicans who can go either way. No. 2, and this is something I argue with consultants all the time and Tom Suozzi practiced this time, the argument is always do not focus on your opponent's strong point against you. Focus on where your strong points are. I disagree with that because what that does is leave a lot unsaid. Tom Suozzi took on immigration, that was their singular, strongest attack against him. You take it on head on. Don't allow the Republicans to deceive the voters about your position or the position of our party. You’ve got to be forthright and go lean into it, rather than shy away from it.

How are you feeling about the other seat in Nassau County and winning that back from Republican Rep. Anthony D’Esposito? That’s going to be a very different kind of race.

As county chair, my job is to try to make sure that we have a candidate that is best positioned to win in that race, just as we did in the prior race. Now, I can't certainly force anybody not to primary. But I can have those conversations to encourage people to take a close look at whether or not there's a good chance. Because realize, when you do a primary, you're going to use up resources that you won't have later. Now you take D’Esposito and he's, you know, he is somewhat popular in the district. And I think that's a function of people looking at him as his personality and how he comes across in the district, rather than how he actually votes in the Congress. And I think it's going to be incumbent upon us to create a campaign that clarifies for the voters exactly how radical this guy actually is. Fortunately, we're now in a position where we're going to have a lot more resources because folks in Washington understand that although New York is a blue state, districts like those on Long Island in the Hudson Valley, and certainly some upstate, are more purple. If you want to win those races, you need the resources. In this campaign, in the 3rd (District), in the special election, (House Minority Leader) Hakeem Jeffries and the DCCC came in with tremendous financial resources. I live in the district. I think I got a piece of mail if not every day, every other day favoring Suozzi. And that’s the kind of campaign intensity and financial resources that we’ve never had before in New York, that if we get that this time, we can make that argument.

What do you have to say to those who have criticized your leadership the past few years after the strong showing on Long Island in this special election and what it indicates for the rest of this year’s elections?

I would have to say that the success here belongs to the team. People I think our party, I see it elsewhere – look, I see it in professional sports. It’s everywhere. You suffer a loss, and everyone is searching for someone to blame and they feel that’s going to make them feel better. Sometimes somebody is to blame, there are mess ups. But you can't take responsibility without authority. I look at this election, as a part of the shift that takes place naturally. Joe Mondello, who was (Nassau County Republican Party Chair) Joe Cairo's predecessor, he said something to me, because we had just one. He said, "Just remember" – because I was riding high, you know – he said, "Just remember, politics is a cyclical business." And he's right. And you have to ride that cycle, but you just have to do your best. To those who had something to say after the last election, I understand it. People are looking for an answer, and maybe a quick fix, to make it better. I think the politics is far more complex than that. And we just have to continue to commit ourselves to working as hard as we possibly can. Given that politics is cyclical, we're going to get a good response and we're going to get a good result and I think we did in this election.