Candidates clash and tempers flare at New York special election debate

GOP-backed Mazi Pilip and Democrat Tom Suozzi faced off over the border, abortion and more.

NEW YORK — Tempers flared Thursday with the candidates repeatedly shouting over each other in the lone debate of the high-stakes special election on battleground Long Island.

Democrat Tom Suozzi blasted GOP-backed Mazi Pilip for highlighting challenges like border security without detailing how she would resolve them.

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“She has no solutions whatsoever,” he fumed. “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.”

Pilip sought to portray Suozzi, a former member of congress, as polished but not practical.

“You know the difference between me and you?” the county legislator challenged. “You are a talker. I am the person who will deliver.”

The heightened tensions on the debate stage ahead of the Tuesday vote underscored just how prized the parties consider the seat vacated by George Santos. A Republican victory would help the party grow its narrow majority in the House. A Democratic win would buoy a party that needs to flip seats in November to capture the gavel.

The race is a statistical dead heat. A Newsday/Siena College poll earlier Thursday showed Suozzi leading Pilip by a 4-point spread that is within the survey’s margin of error.

The confrontational face-off, hosted by local TV station News 12, also served as a study of contrasts. Suozzi, who had spent 30 years in elected office, was steady and his answers specific while Pilip, a political novice, retreated to familiar lines. But Pilip made an impassioned case against Democrats, her tone turning angry and accusatory at several points.

Emotions ran highest on questions about border security, the prevailing issue in the district that straddles the border of Long Island and New York City, which is confronting an influx of migrants.

Suozzi was forced again to defend a 2022 gubernatorial debate clip in which he boasted that he kicked federal immigration agents out of Nassau County. He explained that ICE hadn’t been cooperating with local police and noted that he was later one of only 18 Democrats in Congress supporting funding ICE.

“Would you say to your police commissioner, Oh, I don’t want to listen to you,” he asked Pilip, referencing how he deferred to local officers over federal ones.

Suozzi has campaigned on a platform of compromise, saying he is willing to buck his party while Pilip toes the line.

“She says she’s concerned about the border, but she opposes the bipartisan solution that would actually close the border,” Suozzi said.

One of Pilip’s strongest moments on the stage was her recounting of her anxieties around gifting her son a Star of David necklace for his bar mitzvah as she discussed how the Israel-Hamas war has impacted the district.

“I was very concerned. Should I give him or not?” she said, adding, “Since October 7, we are seeing antisemitism out of control.”

Perhaps the only moment of solidarity between the candidates on the campaign trail came when they appeared together in late January to rally for the release of Jewish hostages after Hamas’ attack on Israel.

Pilip, an Ethiopian-born Jew who immigrated to Israel and served in that country’s military, has leaned on her compelling backstory to appeal to the district’s sizable Jewish population. But Suozzi also is a vocal defender of Israel, saying he wants no conditions on U.S. aid to the Jewish state.

Thursday’s questions from debate audience members included queries about abortion access and gun safety.

Pilip raged at Suozzi for lying about her position on a ban on abortion. Suozzi sought to get Pilip to clarify her stance on codifying Roe v. Wade and banning semi-automatic weapons — policies he supports.

Pilip didn’t answer directly, though she said she backs a woman’s right to choose even if she herself is personally anti-abortion. Pilip said of guns, “I don’t see any reason why average American or individual should have more powerful weapons than our cops.”