In the first and only debate in the special election for New York’s 3rd Congressional District, both Democrat Tom Suozzi and Republican nominee Mazi Melesa Pilip endeavored to convince voters in the swing district that they were the most moderate candidate. Suozzi, a seasoned politician, pressed Pilip, a political newcomer who has been averse to press and other debates, to elucidate clear policy proposals. Pilip struggled to express her specific positions on key issues, relying on statements like, “I have great skills, working with people, communicating with everyone. When I want something, I will deliver.”
Democrats are attempting to flip the seat after disgraced Republican George Santos was expelled last year. The suburban district is seen as a bellwether for what’s to come in November. Suozzi said he’s “more conservative than 90% of the Democrats,” while Pilip, a registered Democrat who is running as a Republican, appeared to adopt Democratic talking points on abortion and guns. Both insisted they would be the most hawkish on closing the border, and each blamed the opposing side for not doing enough to stem the flow of asylum-seekers to New York. Pilip repeatedly tried to tie the former member of Congress to President Joe Biden and the Squad, often saying “Suozzi and Biden” when just “Suozzi” would have sufficed.
Pilip watched the pre-taped debate at a party at a Republican headquarters in Franklin Square. Republican Former Rep. Peter King, who spoke with City & State at the party, praised her performance. “She was totally unflustered, she never backed down,” King told City & State. “She kept going at him, she never lost her composure. You’re up against a guy who’s been doing this for 30 years, the first debate she’s ever had, and I thought she did very well.”
King downplayed instances when Pilip seemed to mispeak or stumble over policy positions. “All she had to do was hold on, and she did more than that because she’s ahead,” King said, referencing private internal polling. “So Suozzi’s the challenger right now.” Suozzi held marginal leads in all three public polls released on the race, two of which came out the same day as the debate. But King suggested their data was not accurate. Observers across the political spectrum expect the race to be very close.
Discussion of immigration kicked off the debate, an issue that Republicans have campaigned heavily on. Polling has also shown that voters in the district expect Pilip would do a better job than Suozzi on the topic, and Pilip has been endorsed by the union representing Border Patrol agents. She said she supports adding more border patrol agents and continuing to build a border wall. “The border crisis again is out of control,” Pilip said. “Even though I immigrated, I came to this country legally.”
Suozzi, meanwhile, hammered Pilip for not supporting a bipartisan border deal that Republican leadership in Congress also rejected. “The idea that you're not for the bipartisan deal when you say you're so concerned about the border, you want to wait a year until President Trump gets in and the Republicans win the majority?” Suozzi said, accusing her of supporting a slow-walked response for political reasons.
But Pilip seemed to fumble a question about what steps she would take immediately to help New York City address its migrant crisis. Despite having hosted multiple press conferences at a migrant tent shelter at the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, she said during the debate she had no solution about how to reduce the migrant population sheltered there, or close it. “We have to make sure first and foremost, we have to secure the border… I can’t answer how we’re going to take care of it before we’re going to secure the border,” Pilip said. Suozzi jumped on the nonanswer. “Ms. Pilip points out there’s a problem, there’s a problem, there’s a problem,” he said. “She has no solutions.”
Suozzi made a point of needling the relative political novice at every opportunity during the debate. When asked about abortion rights, Pilip began what sounded like a well-prepared response in which she utilized her identity. “I am a mother of seven children,” Pilip said. “I think when it comes to abortion, every woman should have that choice to make that decision.” She suggested it was ironic that Suozzi, a man, would lecture a woman on reproductive rights.
But Suozzi turned the statements back on her. “So you’re saying your pro-choice?” Suozzi asked. Pilip began to visibly lose her composure as she responded to Suozzi’s questions, reiterating her belief that reproductive decisions are a personal choice while she is personally pro-life, and talking around using a liberal buzzword. “I’m asking you very clearly, are you pro-choice?” Suozzi asked again as Pilip attempted to toe the line between Republican talking points and assuring she would protect a woman’s reproductive rights. Pilip repeatedly insisted a woman has the choice to make a personal decision about her health, a talking point generally associated with Democrats, while saying that states have the right to make their own policy.
Still, the exchange played well among her supporters at the debate watch party. Her abortion comments earned her applause from attendees as she watched with a smile. One supporter could be heard commenting that Pilip’s “got the gloves,” apparent praise for her going toe-to-toe with the seasoned Suozzi.
Despite the support in the room, there were several other instances of Pilip’s apparent missteps in the debate. She failed to offer clarity on her position on a federal assault weapons ban, instead saying that she would ban automatic rifles. Such a ban has existed for decades. When Suozzi confronted her over her enthusiasm over her endorsement from the Conservative Party, which supports a national abortion ban and is skeptical about human-caused climate change, Pilip insisted that she disagrees with them on some issues.
Pilip attacked Suozzi for failing to get the state and local tax deduction cap repealed – leaving Long Islanders with a higher tax burden. “You know the difference between me and you? You are a talker,” Pilip said. “I am the person who will deliver when I promise I will deliver.” But when Suozzi pointed out that New York Republicans have failed to get a SALT bill to a vote despite 13 months in the majority, she only offered that “they’re working on it.” Suozzi called it “an embarrassment” and reminded viewers he had helped pass the repeal three times in the House. “The reality is you can't just do a tweet, you can’t just do a press release,” Suozzi said. “You have to actually build relationships with people from both parties.” Pilip interrupted to say she’s “very good at that.”
Before the debate even aired, both candidates were declaring victory while slamming their opponent. “Mazi Pilip’s performance was incredibly unsettling,” Suozzi senior adviser Kim Devlin said. “Pilip was completely uninformed, constantly repeated scripted talking points, and grew increasingly erratic over being challenged on issues.” In a press release sent hours before the televised debate, Suozzi’s campaign accused Pilip of failing to provide specifics when asked for them and simply repeated canned Republican talking points.
Pilip’s campaign spokesperson put out a statement a few hours after the release from Suozzi’s team. “Mazi Pilip exposed Tom Suozzi for being Joe Biden’s accomplice in creating the migrant crisis and held Suozzi accountable for lying about her, especially her position on abortion,” spokesperson Brian Devine said. “Neighbors should watch the debate and join the Mazi Team as we move forward toward victory on Election Day.”
Team Pilip released a more fleshed out statement about 15 minutes before the debate started, in which they said she “crushed ‘Sanctuary Tom Suozzi.’” And after the debate, Pilip told supporters, “I think I did great.”