In their 3rd Congressional District race, Democrat Tom Suozzi and Republican Jack Martins have each told voters they are best equipped to get things done in a polarized, deadlocked Congress.
While their messages are similar, Suozzi contends there’s an important difference — he has fought “powerful interests” to accomplish his goals, but Martins never has.
“If you want someone who has proven throughout their career that they’re willing to fight on your behalf, even his own party when necessary, then I’m the candidate,” Suozzi said in a sit-down interview with Blank Slate Media last week. “Jack Martins has never demonstrated any inclination to take on powerful interests, certainly not taking on his own party.”
Suozzi’s political gumption has been a cornerstone of his campaign to replace retiring Democratic Rep. Steve Israel in the district stretching from northeast Queens to northwest Suffolk County. He beat four other Democrats for his party’s nomination in June.
He has cast himself as a politically courageous official whose unpopular moves ultimately proved to be the right ones even when they got him in trouble.
For example, Suozzi said, his fight to get money-saving concessions from Nassau’s police unions as county executive led the Nassau County Police Benevolent Association to run a multimillion-dollar ad campaign against him, he said.
And his support for state Assemblyman Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove) in a 2004 Democratic primary as part of his “Fix Albany” campaign led to a tiff with then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and got Suozzi disinvited from the Democratic National Convention.
Suozzi’s record has given him strong name recognition and helped voters understand who he is, leading him to a 16-percentage-point lead in a recent Newsday poll, he said. While the race is tightening, Martins has run an “awful campaign” focused on criticizing Suozzi and keeping opponents off the ballot, Suozzi said.
“He’s part of the same old thing, quite frankly,” he said.
Martins’ decision to vote for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump but not warmly endorse him is “phony-baloney political talk,” said Suozzi, a supporter of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Polls show 3rd Congressional District voters will likely reject Trump and carry Suozzi to victory, but there is a chance some might support Trump but tell pollsters otherwise, Suozzi said.
“I’ve taken things for granted before,” he said. “... I will never take anything for granted, so we’re running very hard to the finish.”
E. O’Brien Murray, Martins’s senior strategist, said that Martins is “focused on his race” and “will serve as a check and balance in Congress” no matter who is elected president.
Martins and the National Republican Congressional Committee have painted a darker picture of Suozzi’s administration, criticizing Suozzi for raising taxes by hundreds of millions of dollars while in office from 2002 to 2009, and for taking hefty raises as county executive and as mayor of Glen Cove.
“Tom Suozzi has a proven record of standing up for himself, like raising his salary and pocketing over $500,000 more in taxpayer funded income,” Murray said. “The only time he went against his party was to promote himself and
advance his career; that’s not a qualification for office.”
While he admitted a home-heating tax he imposed in 2009 was “stupid,” Suozzi said his tax hikes were part of a strategy that led to 13 bond rating upgrades and left Nassau County in “as good a shape as any other municipality” after being on the brink of bankruptcy before his first term.
The raises he and other top county officials took in 2008 were recommended by a bipartisan commission to make the offices more attractive, Suozzi said.
As a lawmaker, Suozzi said he is an idealist interested in finding the “root causes” of problems while implementing pragmatic solutions, even when short-term fixes contradict long-term goals.
For example, he said he supports a higher minimum wage because Americans cannot make a living without it, even though most economists say it would make the U.S. less globally competitive.
“I agree you have to have long-term fixes, but you also have to get stuff done in the meanwhile,” he said.
But Suozzi said he would oppose any federal income tax increase, diverging from Clinton’s campaign proposal to raise taxes on the wealthiest earners. He also favors cutting the corporate tax rate to lure offshore companies back to the U.S., he said.
The 3rd District is a “net donor” to the federal government, and Suozzi would not back an income tax hike unless there was a guarantee more federal money would come back to its residents, he said.
“We’ve got a lot of poor and middle-class people here that are being choked because their property taxes are so high, and we’ve got lots of wealthy people,” Suozzi said. “Let’s have that money come back here.”
Suozzi did not offer specific solutions to some problems, such as how to make lawmakers more responsive to the public, or whether the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba should be closed.
While he still strongly supports a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, Suozzi said he now thinks they should have to learn English to become citizens. He took that position after hearing strong support for it at a “town hall” event, he said.
“That’s part of the deal,” Suozzi said. “If you could take down this temperature a little bit by giving that, that’s like a no-brainer.”
Suozzi said he would support putting U.S. troops on the ground as part of an international effort to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria and eliminate the Islamic State group, he said.
But more broadly, the U.S. must become energy-independent to mend relationships with Middle Eastern countries after decades of letting dependence on foreign oil guide its foreign policy moves, Suozzi said. The U.S.’s actions have destabilized the region and inadvertently aided terrorist recruitment, he said.
“When they see a kid blown up by the Americans, by a drone strike, and it’s a baby and it’s dead, they say, ‘The Americans are against you. Look at what they’re doing to your children,’” he said.
Suozzi and Martins face off in the Nov. 8 election.