Tom Suozzi and Mazi Pilip clashed at their first and only debate in the abbreviated special election to replace expelled U.S. Rep. George Santos as the candidates challenged one another over how to tackle the district’s pressing issues.
The sole debate of the campaign hosted by News 12 came just days before Tuesday’s Election Day, but five days after early voting had begun.
Former Democratic Congressman Suozzi and Republican Nassau County Legislator Pilip are facing off in the Feb. 13 special election, which could help determine the balance of power in the House with Republicans clinging to a tiny majority.
The candidates debated topics including the migrant crisis, abortion, cost of living, Israel, gun legislation, climate change and their predecessor — George Santos — with questions also coming from the audience.
The debate got rowdy at moments, with the candidates delivering jabs at one another, talking over each other and audience members cheering – notably the GOP leadership – amid calls to hold their applause until the end.
From the jump, tensions were clear between the candidate as their opening statements focused on the wrongdoings of their opponent. These attacks continued throughout the debate.
In the wake of Santos’ expulsion and Port Washington resident Ilana Broad calling his brief tenure in the House “major damage” to the district’s reputation, both candidates denounced the infamous congressman.
Suozzi and Pilip both touted their integrity, but Suozzi took a moment to attack Pilip’s lack of transparency and unwillingness to participate in public debates and forums during the campaign. He said this has been detrimental to voters in vetting the candidate they choose to vote for.
“How can you run for Congress in this post-George Santos world and not be completely transparent?” Suozzi asked. “It’s shocking to me and I think it’s shocking to the voters as well.”
But with Santos in the rear window, at the forefront of the campaign is the migrant crisis issue and border security with the the bipartisan Senate national security bill hanging in the balance.
When asked what she would do to secure the border, Pilip said she would close the border, continue building the wall, increase border patrol agents and be “tight” on asylum-seeking standards.
“Even though that I immigrated, I came to this country legally,” said Pilip, who was born in Ethiopia and later raised in Israel. “I believe in the American dream. I want people to come to this country legally.”
Suozzi criticized Pilip for opposing the bipartisan Senate border deal, saying it delivered on much of what she and the Republican Party had called for to aid in addressing the migrant crisis. The Democrat strongly supported passage of the bill.
“All these problems, terrorists are coming over, fentanyl, all these problems – and I agree there’s problems – we finally have a chance to have a solution and we’re not going to do it because President Trump said it will help Biden?” Suozzi said.
Bellerose resident Zunair Ahmed, who lives near a migrant housing center, asked the candidates what they would do about the migrant issue locally.
In response, Pilip repeated her border security stance.
When asked by the moderator to address local migrant issues, Pilip said the first step is securing the border and then devising a plan to respond. She did not go into details on a plan, saying she could not elaborate until the border was secured.
Suozzi criticized Pilip for not proposing solutions, saying an obvious path is to push forward the border deal struck down in the Senate, which he backs and Pilip does not.
“She has no solutions whatsoever,” Suozzi said. “Just ‘there’s a problem, there’s a problem, oh, by the way, it’s a really big problem.’ That’s not enough, that’s not how you govern, that’s not how you get things done.”
Pilip continued to blame Suozzi for the migrant issue, which Suozzi denied and blamed on extremism.
While both advocated for the release of Israeli hostages, Suozzi said it begins by continuing to support Israel and once again called for passage of the bipartisan national security deal that would provide aid to Israel and Ukraine. Pilip said aid to Israel should not be part of bill.
While the candidates differed in their support for a national security bill, both found some common ground in their advocacy for bolstering affordability in the district.
Suozzi and Pilip supported the reintroduction of the State and Local Tax, or SALT, deduction, which provides methods for taxpayers to reduce their federal taxes.
Suozzi touted his ability to pass SALT while a congressman, calling out the Republican Long Island representatives for not doing it already. He said bipartisan efforts are necessary to do so.
Pilip attacked Suozzi for raising taxes while county executive, which he explained was due to turning the county around during a “fiscal disaster.”
“I know how to get things done in government and to serve people,” Suozzi said. “Not by talking, Mrs. Pilip, but by accomplishing things and bringing money back to solve problems.”
Pilip said her commitment to affordability was reflected in her role in cutting taxes in Nassau County as a legislator. Blank Slate media fact-checked this statement and found it to be untrue.
Since Pilip joined the legislature in 2022, the county has kept taxes stagnant by not increasing or decreasing the levies. Democratic legislators proposed a tax decrease for the 2024 budget. which was struck down by Republicans, including Pilip.
With the repealing of Roe v. Wade and abortion bans sweeping across states in the wake, another issue concerning voters is abortion.
Pilip, who has seven children, said that women should have a choice over their reproductive decisions, denouncing a national abortion ban but refusing to say she was pro-choice and not answering whether she would codify Roe v. Wade after being pushed by Suozzi to respond.
In the wake of the debate, both candidates said it was a success for their campaigns.
“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,” Pilip’s campaign said.
“Mazi Pilip’s performance was incredibly unsettling,” Suozzi’s campaign senior advisor. Kim Devlin, said. “Pilip was completely uninformed, constantly repeated scripted talking points, and grew increasingly erratic over being challenged on issues.”