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Long Island House hopefuls Tom Suozzi, Mazi Pilip joust on immigration, abortion in feisty debate

Democratic ex-Rep. Tom Suozzi, left, and Republican Mazi Melesa Pilip. (Getty Images)
Democratic ex-Rep. Tom Suozzi, left, and Republican Mazi Melesa Pilip. (Getty Images)

The two candidates in this month’s special House election on Long Island, Tom Suozzi and Mazi Melesa Pilip, met Thursday in a fiery hourlong debate, trading attacks over immigration, abortion and each other’s records.

Pilip, the Republican nominee and a Nassau County legislator, sought to tie Suozzi, the Democrat, to his party’s far left and to blame him for New York City’s migrant crisis. Suozzi, a centrist, responded by portraying himself as eager to work across the aisle to fix problems, and by describing his rival as inexperienced and evasive. At one point, he forced her into a baffling exchange on her position on abortion.

The debate, taped on Thursday afternoon in Bethpage and aired by News12 in the evening, arrived five days ahead of Election Day, as early voting grinds on and public polling shows a tight race.

Gov. Hochul called the special election after the district’s former Republican representative, George Santos, was expelled from Congress, felled by his serial lies and a 23-count indictment accusing him of fraud. Santos has pleaded not guilty.

The Thusday meetup between the candidates is the only debate scheduled in the race. The tilt was animated. At times, the rivals talked over each other, and the moderator.

“If you want safe communities, if you want secure communities, I am your first choice,” Pilip declared. She said Suozzi may be the smoother talker in the race, but that she would be the stronger advocate for the district.

And she charged that Suozzi’s policies paved the way to New York City’s migrant crisis.

Suozzi, who represented the district for three terms but gave up the seat to run for governor, said Pilip was falsely portraying him as a far-left progressive.

“George Santos got elected by lying about his record,” Suozzi said. “Ms. Pilip wants to get elected by lying about me.”

When the topic turned to abortion, Suozzi went on the attack, asking Pilip if she is pro-choice and if she supports the federal right to abortion enshrined in Roe v. Wade.

“It is a personal decision,” she said. “Every woman should have that choice.”

Suozzi repeatedly pressed, “So, you’re pro-choice?”

Pilip, a registered Democrat with a limited record, responded angrily, repeatedly accusing him of misrepresenting her positions before ultimately conceding, “I am pro-life.”

She never articulated a clear position on Roe v. Wade.

The issue of abortion plays to Suozzi’s advantage, according to polling of the race, but Pilip has hung tough with the experienced politician, apparently benefiting from her pitch on immigration and her support for tax relief.

Emerson College Polling released a survey on Thursday showing Suozzi leading Pilip by 3 points. The Siena College Research Institute, earlier in the day, published a poll finding Suozzi up 4 points. Emerson’s pollster predicted the outcome would hinge on turnout.

The race for New York’s 3rd Congressional District — which includes a sliver of eastern Queens and swaths of Long Island’s tony North Shore — carries significant symbolic and practical weight. In the short term, a win by Suozzi would limit Republicans’ paper-thin majority in the House to a two-vote margin.

And it would offer Democrats a much-craved moral victory in New York after the GOP flipped four seats in the state in the midterm elections, a disaster for the New York Democratic Party that has often been blamed on Hochul’s relatively narrow victory atop the ticket.

Hochul, who overcame Suozzi in a bitter Democratic primary for governor in 2022 that left their relationship in an arctic freeze, has firmly backed her former rival in the House race and called his success her “top priority.” 

A win by Pilip would modestly solidify the Republicans’ fragile advantage in Congress, and would signal that the GOP continues to own Long Island, territory that swings between the parties and can at times serve as a bellwether for the rest of the nation. 

Pilip has pinned much of her campaign to immigration. Her campaign has branded her opponent “Sanctuary Suozzi,” and released intense ads warning that Democratic immigration policies are driving a “record invasion” at the border and “violence right here” in New York.

She has presented his record as Nassau County executive and as a three-term congressman as woefully lacking on immigration.

“Tom Suozzi opened the border,” Pilip said in Thursday’s debate. “Tom Suozzi kicked ICE from Nassau County.”

The migrant crisis has led to internal Democratic finger-pointing and strife for months, and has been seen as a potentially key weak spot for the party going into November’s nationwide general election.

But Suozzi, who has chastised Pilip for not supporting a bipartisan plan to secure the border, may be neutralizing some of his rival’s attacks.

Both polls published Thursday showed only about half of district voters viewing Pilip as the better choice on immigration — she led Suozzi on the issue by 6 points in the Emerson survey and 9 points in the Siena poll.

“On immigration, I’ll support the bipartisan solution,” Suozzi said in Thursday’s debate. “My opponent opposes that.”

“I am pro-choice,” Suozzi added. “I’m not sure what she is after today’s debate, quite frankly.”

In a quirk of the pretaped debate Thursday, both campaigns issued statements before the tilt aired. The teams traded claims that the debate had been a disaster for their opponent.

“Mazi Pilip exposed Tom Suozzi for being Joe Biden’s accomplice in creating the migrant crisis,” Pilip’s campaign declared.

Suozzi’s campaign said in its statement that Pilip had “simply repeated tired talking points” on immigration, and that she broadly appeared “defensive, flustered and unprepared.”