Tom Suozzi was sitting at home with a cold on Jan. 5 when his phone started to ring.
That was the day U.S. Rep. Steve Israel announced he would retire from Congress at the end of his 16th year, a surprise that caused a political stir on the North Shore.
The deluge of calls Suozzi got that afternoon encouraging him to run for Israel’s 3rd Congressional District seat took the edge off the cold and the existential questions he was asking himself about what to do next in his career.
“I’m getting texts, I’m getting messages, and I’m like, ‘Ooh, this is the happiest I’ve been in a while,’” said Suozzi, a former Nassau County executive from Glen Cove, on a recent Saturday afternoon, following a few hours of campaign events.
Suozzi has said he lost his last three elections because he relied too heavily on political consultants who sought to curb his passion and idealism.
But as he looks to return to public office, he and his aides say this campaign represents a return to Suozzi’s former political self — a firebrand unafraid to fight big fights with big ideas. Consultants are on board this time, but Suozzi is behind the wheel, he said.
“This is more like how I used to campaign,” he said.
That’s reflected in Suozzi’s stump speech, which he delivers exuberantly without written notes. It’s centered on his pledge to take on powerful interests to make change in Washington as he did in New York, interspersed with jokes and one-liners.
It’s also reflected in his retail campaigning, which Suozzi said is a part of the job he loves.
“The great thing about politics is you have a window into people’s lives,” Suozzi said. “I get to see so many different cultures and people’s lives, and great celebrations as well as tragedy. But I really get to see — I see life.”
Suozzi defeated four Democrats in a June primary to become his party’s nominee.
Blank Slate Media was unable to spend time on the campaign trail with Suozzi’s Republican opponent, state Sen. Jack Martins of Old Westbury.
Suozzi displayed comfort with meeting new people, no matter how brief the interaction, during campaign stops across the district on Oct. 29.
Between addressing a Shabbat service at Temple Chai in Dix Hills and a group of senior citizens at The Bristal Assisted Living in North Hills, Suozzi stopped briefly at a parade in Bellerose, Queens, celebrating a Sikh holiday.
He stopped at every table during a meal after a Shabbat service at Temple Chai in Dix Hills while taking time to discuss the Iran nuclear deal and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with members.
Suozzi said he likes to break the ice with phrases in foreign languages.
On this particular day he greeted people in Hindi, Hebrew and Italian, and sang a song in Polish.
He’s also spoken Chinese, Korean and other languages on the campaign trail.
The practice gives people a sense of comfort as Suozzi tries to persuade them that he would best represent the ethnically and culturally diverse district stretching from northeast Queens to northwest Suffolk County, he said.
He hopes personal connections will give supporters faith in him when he starts fighting the battles against “powerful interests” that he has promised, he said.
“When they start doing the TV commercials and they spend the time trying to knock me down, I’m going to need you more then than even now to stand up and say, ‘You know what, I met that guy, he’s a pretty good guy,’” Suozzi told about three dozen seniors at The Bristal.
A loss to Martins this year could effectively end Suozzi’s political career.
Suozzi has stayed ahead in the polls, but his lead has shrunk from 16 percentage points to seven, according to a Newsday/News 12/Siena College poll published Saturday.
Suozzi said this campaign more closely resembles his successful runs for mayor of Glen Cove and Nassau County executive than the last three races he lost, putting him on political hiatus.
He is focused now on this campaign and no longer has the ambition for higher office that voters have associated with him, he said.
The names on his campaign roster also look familiar.
Kim Devlin, his primary political strategist and a campaign spokeswoman, ran his successful 2001 and 2005 county executive campaigns and worked on his failed run for governor in 2006.
Suozzi’s campaign is the first Mike Florio, his campaign manager and former aide, has ever run.
Suozzi brought him on because he’s “an honest person who I trust,” he said.
Suozzi’s personality and passion resonated with some voters at his campaign events.
“He’s a fighter, apparently, and we need fighters,” said Felice Pester, a Democrat who lives at The Bristal. “And he’s willing to work with the opposite side, which nobody is today.”
One man at Temple Chai said he would vote for Suozzi along with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at the top of the ticket.
“He’s an honest man,” he said of Suozzi.