In the Land of George Santos, Machine Politics Fuels a GOP Revival

MASSAPEQUA, N.Y. — It was the biggest event of Mazi Pilip’s campaign in a must-win special House election in New York. The No. 3 House Republican had flown in. A half-dozen congressmen led a crowd in chants of “Mazi! Mazi!”

There was just one thing missing from the Republican show of force at a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall the other day: the candidate, who was home observing Shabbat.

In any other race, her absence would have been a deal breaker. But on Long Island, the event vividly illustrated an open secret animating Tuesday’s contest to replace former Rep. George Santos. Pilip’s name may be on the ballot, but the campaign belongs to the Nassau County Republican machine.

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After decades of electoral losses and corruption scandals, the organization has roared back to life in the New York City suburbs, reviving a political tradition that has largely become an anachronism elsewhere in the country.

In just the past three years, Republicans have swept every major office in the county, filling high-profile posts and hundreds of patronage jobs with party regulars often obliged to return the favor come campaign season.

Joseph Cairo Jr., the group’s silver-haired chair and de facto boss, hand-picked Pilip, 44, a part-time county legislator, and is now serving as her chief strategist, fundraiser and surrogate. He has dispatched loyal lieutenants to be her spokespeople and campaign handlers. And in previously unreported conversations, he browbeat party leaders in Washington to spend more on advertising.

One need only drive the streets of Levittown or Glen Cove on Long Island to understand the party’s reach. On any given Saturday, some of the 2,000 local Republican committee members — many of them taking time off from plum government jobs — have fanned out to get out the vote door by door.

Pilip’s election filings, by contrast, do not show a single person on her campaign payroll, an extraordinarily unusual arrangement.

“Hakeem Jeffries wants to be the speaker. He’s put $8 million into this race,” Cairo told volunteers at another recent canvassing kickoff. “How are you going to compete with that? The answer’s right here, all of you.”

It is the kind of organized force that has made the group perhaps the most powerful remaining political machine in the country, one that could make it possible for Pilip to upset Tom Suozzi. The three-term former Democratic congressman enjoys a partisan enrollment edge, a major fundraising advantage and decades of political experience.

At a time when Republicans have struggled in the suburbs nationally, Cairo’s party now controls all three of Nassau County’s powerful towns, the county executive’s office and, until Santos’ expulsion, the region’s four House seats — equal to the Republicans’ narrow majority in Washington.

“I don’t think in the country there’s ever been a local chairman as good as he is,” said Alfonse D’Amato, a former three-term senator who has known Cairo since the 1970s.

There has just been one, enormous blemish: Santos, the serial liar now facing 23 criminal counts. He sailed through Cairo’s candidate-screening process and won the group’s enthusiastic backing. (It helped that Santos donated $180,000 to local Republican groups.)

When The New York Times revealed that key elements of Santos’ biography had been forged, the party was humiliated. Santos, it turned out, had submitted a written resume riddled with falsehoods and lied about his criminal record. Cairo’s team had taken him at his word.

Cairo immediately began laying the groundwork for an eventual campaign to replace him. He has described the current election in terms of post-Santos redemption.

“When you make a mistake and see all the evidence, you got to immediately own up to it,” he said in an interview.

Democrats are relying on their more diffuse network of supporters to turn out votes after years of staggering local losses. More than 1,000 union carpenters, health care workers and hotel employees were dispatched across the district on the first day of early voting. Kim Devlin, a senior adviser to Suozzi, said the campaign had made 1 million contacts with voters.

Democrats were pleased with the results. As a week of early voting wound down Sunday, Democratic turnout had outpaced that of Republicans and independents and looked stronger than in other recent elections.

But even Suozzi has warned supporters about the headwinds still ahead.

“We have to accept the fact that the Republican machine in Nassau County is the strongest it’s been since I was the county executive,” he recently told volunteers in Port Washington, referring to his tenure from 2002 to 2009. “We took the wind out of their sails for a good 15 years, and guess what? They’re back.

The renaissance began around the time Cairo, 78, took over in 2018, after three decades serving as the No. 2 to Joseph Mondello.

For much of the 20th century, the Nassau Republicans were thought of as the suburban counterpart to the Daley machine in Chicago and, earlier, New York City’s Tammany Hall. They dominated elections and controlled the spoils, doling out patronage jobs and lucrative government contracts.

By the turn of the millennium, the model was sputtering, weighed down by corruption scandals, demographic shifts and a financial mess in the county. A backlash helped put Suozzi in the county executive office.

But in the past few years, the Republicans in Nassau have deftly positioned themselves to capitalize on their own backlash. At a time when the national party was moving right, they largely eschewed divisive social issues to reorient around intensely local policies that jumped party lines: property taxes, inflation and, above all, fears about a pandemic-era spike in crime.

“Honestly, middle-class people are kind of fed up,” said Cairo, who describes his personal politics as “middle of the road.”

New York City, a laboratory for progressive policies, served as a convenient foil. An analysis of voting patterns shows that Republicans succeeded in part by winning over independents, but also by simply getting more of their own to the polls than Democrats.

“We’re winning in places like North Hempstead, where I don’t think we’ve had a supervisor and a majority in the town board since I was 4 and the Mets were in the World Series,” said Rep. Anthony D’Esposito.

As chair, Cairo has a say in hundreds of political appointments across local government offices, better known as patronage posts. By his own estimate, roughly 70% of the appointees are active in party politics.

“They are taught they got their job because they are going to be loyal when the organization needs them, which is election time,” said Jay Jacobs, the Democratic chair in Nassau County.

“I won’t say we don’t do the same thing,” he added of Democratic administrations, “but it’s not with the same hammer.”

Cairo has reaped personal benefit. In addition to his $150,000-a-year job as party chair, he earns another $200,000 or so as president of Nassau County’s off-track betting agency and maintains a private legal practice.

He had to forfeit his law license in the 1990s after he admitted to misusing $400,000 in client funds. But even adversaries say they have found no reason for suspect improper behavior since he became chair.

Now, Cairo may be facing the most closely scrutinized test of his political career.

He turned to Pilip in part because her life story seemed to perfectly match the political moment despite the fact that she was a registered Democrat. She was born in Ethiopia, later served in the Israeli military and has said she was galvanized to run by Hamas’ attack on Israel on Oct. 7.

But her lack of political experience has shown. She just began her second term on the part-time Nassau County Legislature, where much of her work involved nonpartisan, local issues.

The candidate has rarely appeared without an escort committee of party regulars, including the Nassau County executive, Bruce Blakeman, and D’Esposito, who run interference when potentially damaging questions about former President Donald Trump or thorny policy issues arise.

Until the last few days of the campaign, Pilip had held just two news conferences and agreed to only one debate with Suozzi, who has been comparatively ubiquitous across the district. “My opponent is unvetted and unprepared,” he said on the debate stage. “We’ve been down this road before with George Santos.”

Pilip and Republican leaders appear willing to take the lumps, hoping that in a close, low-turnout election, the party that does a better job turning out its most reliable voters will be rewarded.

Cairo trusts his field operation. After the rally at the VFW hall, he retreated to a private room upstairs to discuss the race.

Midway through the conversation, an aide approached with an old-fashioned silver attendance clicker. Cairo squinted and read the total.

“All locations today, 1,374,” he said, adding a prediction. Next week, he said, the number would be higher.

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