How a Perfectly Normal New York Suburb Elected a Con Man
Democratic complacency, Republican extremism, and media decline helped George Santos take over my old congressional district.
How did George Santos, a Republican newly elected to New York’s Third Congressional District, on Long Island, get away with running for office with an almost completely fictitious résumé? The answer is a combination of Democratic complacency, Republican extremism, and media decline in a House district that I know intimately.
On Election Night, Republicans swept all four of Long Island’s House seats. Democrats didn’t realize the severity of the loss, however, until The New York Times revealed that Santos had lied about his education, work experience, philanthropic pursuits, and finances, among other things. This was no familiar case of a politician embellishing around the edges: Santos appeared to have made himself up. On Monday, he admitted that he’d engaged in serial falsehoods, but said that he intended to join the House majority anyway.
I represented parts of Long Island in Congress from 2001 to 2017, including, in my final two terms, most of the current NY-3 (gerrymandering has carved up the district three times since 2000). I also chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. I’ve shaken a lot of hands in NY-3.
The district has a bit of glamour, here and there, if you look closely enough. Sean Hannity and Billy Joel are neighbors on Centre Island, which juts like a fishhook into the Long Island Sound and can be reached only by bridge (or, if you’re those two, helicopter). Their disparate political attitudes reflect the ideological diversity of the area, which swings gently from red to blue and back again.
But by and large, the district is as normal as Santos is extreme. It’s a place of strip malls and nail salons, good pizza and chain restaurants, white picket fences and PTA meetings. It begins at the outer edges of Queens, crosses the upper-middle-class communities of North Hempstead and Oyster Bay, and finally plunges down to contain America’s first suburb: Levittown. The district is about 66 percent white, 19 percent Asian, 11 percent Latino, and 3 percent Black.
In every poll in every election I ran in, voters were left-of-center on social issues, right-of-center on taxes and spending, and concerned about preserving their quality of life. They hovered quietly near the center, and they were more likely to watch the local-news affiliates to check weather and traffic than to be glued to Fox News or MSNBC. The people I represented did not treat partisanship like a sport or an essential aspect of their personalities.
That seemed healthy, but their mellowness could sometimes border on apathy. My town-hall meetings were always sparsely attended. Typically, fewer than a dozen constituents would show up, despite my staff’s best efforts to get the word out.
Voter disconnection must be part of the explanation for why Santos won. Voters in NY-3 say they value integrity and honesty, and I believe they do. But they weren’t on the lookout for a huckster politician; they didn’t think that could happen here, because it hadn’t before.
Moderate Democratic candidates have fared well in the region since 2000. Had Joe Biden run in the redrawn NY-3 map in 2020, he would have won by 8.5 points instead of 10.5, according to Politico. This year, most political observers viewed the district as naturally Democratic, especially against a Republican who’d lost his last election. That’s what I mean by Democratic complacency: the complacency of the establishment.
When he ran against Tom Suozzi, my successor, in 2020, Santos was a complete unknown. I asked Suozzi if he’d found anything of note in his opposition research, but Suozzi said he hadn’t bothered to do much. “It was the middle of COVID,” he said. Santos “had only $40,000 in his campaign account, and he was a nut. We ignored him and won by 12 points.”
Santos ran again in 2022, maybe because he understood that being ignored was a strategic advantage. This time around, the DCCC prepared an initial research document that raised plenty of red flags. The committee turned that document over to the Democratic candidate, Robert Zimmerman, who says his campaign “was unrelenting in getting people’s attention.” But, according to Zimmerman, the prevailing response was along the lines of This guy isn’t going to win, so he’s not a story.
Only after Santos defied expectations did that dynamic change. And by that time, it was too late for voters to react to Santos’s long con. Here’s where media decline enters the story.
The media’s failure to dig into Santos shows the predicament that local newsrooms face in 2022. Newsday dominates the media landscape on Long Island. And its reporters do quality work—they turned out an important investigation just a few years ago that exposed racism in the local real-estate industry. But they don’t have the resources to cover everything—not even everything in their political backyard—and they appear to have written off NY-3 as low priority given the district’s Democratic tilt. So did all the other once-mighty New York–area media operations.
Some observers have also criticized Zimmerman’s campaign for not fully investing in opposition research based on the initial DCCC project. Perhaps that criticism is justified, but we shouldn’t let the Republican Party off the hook. Republicans accepted Santos’s narrative without due diligence because they prioritized extreme ideology over actual qualifications. Santos was at the Ellipse on January 6, 2021, and has even claimed that he helped arrested insurrectionists with their legal fees.
NY-3 voters should have had an honest choice between two candidates—not a choice between Zimmerman and Santos’s fan-fiction version of himself. Politicians embellish résumés; if that were a crime, every candidate in America would be in prison. But Santos’s lies are an assault on democratic norms. The Republicans should have vetted Santos. The Democrats should have checked him out more thoroughly. The media should have as well.
But now, barring a surprise Santos resignation or action following investigations by the House Ethics Committee and the Department of Justice, Long Islanders—and the nation—are stuck with a congressman who is a figment of his own imagination. The caucus of unhinged representatives—the Marjorie Taylor Greenes, the Lauren Boeberts, the Matt Gaetzes—has just increased by one.
It’s a shame for my old district. But it’s more than that for the country. This should be a warning. There were failures on multiple levels in this election, leading someone unfit for office to attain it through willful deception. The chief casualty of this election was the truth.