One is a former three-term Democratic Congressman and failed gubernatorial candidate. The other is an Ethiopian-born, former Israeli Defense Force paratrooper and political newcomer whose life story appears almost as compelling as the one dreamed up by the disgraced fantasist she is running to replace.
Democrat Tom Suozzi and Mazi Pilip, a Republican, are vying to take George Santos’ seat in New York’s 3rd congressional district in a high-stakes special election on 13 February that could have major implications in Washington DC.
Should Mr Suozzi regain the seat he vacated in 2021, paving the unlikely path for Santos’s success, it would shave the Republican majority in the House of Representatives to just two votes.
The two candidates have largely steered clear of any mention of their parties’ historically unpopular leaders in campaign adverts, while heavily focusing their message on border security and New York’s migrant influx.
Mr Suozzi, 61, has expressed criticism of Democrats while trying to portray himself as tough on the border and crime.
Ms Pilip, a 44-year-old mother of seven who entered local politics in 2021, has cast herself as a moderate Republican. She recently declined to defend Donald Trump in an interview with Jewish Insider, and has pledged not to support a national abortion ban.
Polling shows the race will be tight. A December survey from Emerson College Polling/Pix11 showed Mr Suozzi with 45 per cent of registered voters, while 42 per cent of voters preferred Ms Pilip.
Whoever wins, the district that became a national punchline thanks to its scandal-plagued, federally indicted former representative is ready to move on from the long, tawdry shadow of George Santos.
‘I’m a legal immigrant’
Ms Pilip was selected as the GOP candidate in mid-December after an exhaustive vetting process by New York Republicans.
She has maintained a relatively low-profile ever since, and her campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Six weeks after launching the campaign, she held her first press conference in the parking lot of the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens on 26 January.
The site was carefully chosen as it has been home to a migrant shelter housing around 2,000 undocumented men since August.
Ms Pilip, who was elected to New York’s Nassau County Legislature in 2021, invited just a few local select news outlets, as Politico noted.
“My name is Mazi Pilip. I’m a legal immigrant,” she said in opening remarks, according to Politico, before running through a four-minute prepared speech.
She was flanked at the conference by New York Republican House member Anthony D’Esposito, who spoke for three times longer than she did.
Mr Suozzi “gate-crashed” the event, and held his own press conference immediately afterwards to try to counter her narrative on the migrant influx.
The tactic highlighted a curious feature of the by-election. Mr Suozzi, a quasi-incumbent who represented the 3rd district for six years before resigning in 2021 to run for governor, has taken on the mantle of underdog, turning out for press conferences and public events throughout the campaign on a daily basis.
“And Mazi who hasn’t run for Congress before is behaving more like the incumbent and not wanting to give the challenger opportunities or airtime to confront her,” Grant Lally, a local attorney and publisher of the North Shore Leader, told The Independent.
The timing of the by-election may work to Ms Pilip’s advantage, Mr Lally believes, due to the perception that Democrats are responsible for the migrant crisis in New York.
An estimated 161,000 asylum seekers have arrived in New York since April 2022, and the cost of housing them has blown a multi-billion dollar hole in the city’s finances.
Mr Suozzi has tried to emphasise his differences with the Biden administration over its handling of the crisis.
“I support strong border security... and anything else you hear is garbage,” reads the tagline of his latest advert, as he stands shoulder-to-shoulder with an imposing US Border Patrol officer.
“He has his own proposals to try to fix the problem, but as a Democrat he is part of that team and has received some of the blame for it,” Mr Lally told The Independent.
The national committees of both parties are pouring huge sums into negative advertising to try to smear their opponents as extremists who are soft on immigration.
Democrats have spent $8m on political adverts in which they portray Ms Pilip as a MAGA extremist, while Republicans have invested $3m attempting to paint Mr Suozzi as running to the left of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Mr Lally believes the enormous ad spends would have “zero impact” in a district that straddles the New York borough of Queens and Nassau County in Long Island and was the nation’s fourth wealthiest by median household income in 2022.
“They’re spending ridiculous amounts of money, and it’s just a waste. Most of the Washington money from both parties is almost cartoonish,” he said.
The candidates’ ability to get their messaging out through their campaign literature and door-to-door canvassing will have a far greater impact, he says.
“The rest is just neighbours talking to neighbours, it’s phone banking, ringing doorbells. That’s not free but it’s cheap,” Mr Lally said.
The district is estimated to have the fourth-highest number of Jewish voters in the country, according to the Jewish Democratic Council of America.
And while emotions remain high in the district after the 7 October Hamas attacks on Israel, the conflict has largely receded as a campaign issue, Mr Lally believes.
Mr Suozzi travelled to Israel in December to meet with relatives of the hostages taken by Hamas, and has described calls to limit US aid to Israel “clueless”.
On abortion, both candidates have vowed to maintain women’s right to reproductive care in New York, which has effectively neutralised it as an issue, according to Mr Lally.
Voters will get the chance to hear from both candidates at a town hall-style event hosted by Pix11 on Tuesday night (30 January).
News 12 will host a head-to-head debate between the candidates on 8 February.
Regardless of who wins, the special election result will deliver an important message to Washington DC on the need for tighter border security and asylum seeker reform, Mr Lally believes.
Mr Lally had the chance to meet both candidates when they visited the North Shore Leader on Monday.
The Conservative-leaning newspaper based in Long Island’s wealthy Gold Coast enclave, which was first to expose the former Congressman’s bogus campaign filings in September 2022, is still weighing up who to endorse.
“This is a tough call because they are both really good candidates, and unlike voting for George Santos, I don’t think anyone has to be embarrassed how they vote,” he said.
“This is not a Santos race. Both are relatively mainstream candidates. It’s amazing how quickly he has evaporated and disappeared.”
Who is Mazi Pilip?
Born into poverty in a remote Ethiopian village, Ms Pilip was one of thousands of Ethiopian Jews airlifted to Israel in Operation Solomon in 1991 at the age of 12.
She went on to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy from the University of Haifa and a master’s in diplomacy and security from Tel Aviv University.
Ms Pilip met her future husband, Adalbert Pilip, in college, and the couple moved to the US in 2005.
Ms Pilip is being touted by the GOP as a future star, despite the fact she is still registered as a Democrat.