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What happens now that George Santos takes office?

Jonathan Ernst

Steve Israel is “almost certain” that George Santos will be seated in Congress on Tuesday.

That means Santos, the Brazilian immigrant who admitted he made “resume embellishments” to represent New York’s third congressional district, will be the first Republican to hold the seat in nearly two decades since Israel was in office.

“My former constituents have been defrauded,” he said.

Israel, a Democrat who served as the representative of New York's second congressional district — until the 2012 election when he was redistricted into the third — until he retired in 2017, said Santos taking office is “a perfect storm.”

His forecast blames “democratic complacency, Republican extremism and the dynamic of opposition research, and the lack of investigative news resources in the suburbs.”

While Santos heads to the U.S. Capitol, federal, state and local investigations, and possible recourse in the newly GOP-led House, await him.

Lies to power

In 2020, his predecessor, Tom Suozzi, handedly won reelection against him. Santos was a “complete unknown” at the time and had no more than $40,000 in his campaign warchest, according to Israel.

Santos’ lies were relatively unknown before the New York Times report in late December. Last July, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee published oppositional research raising similar red flags.

Israel, who also served as a former DCCC chairman, said local Democrats likely did not want to elevate their lackluster opponent. “It was a strategic decision of the Democratic campaign against Santos in 2022. Unfortunately, it didn't have the same outcome,” he said.

“Bottom line is that neither party thought this was a competitive race going into it,” said Larry Levy, the executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. “The Republicans obviously didn't spend much time vetting him, certainly locally.”

Levy points to voting trends before the 2022 midterm election: Santos beat Democrat Robert Zimmerman by 20,000 votes in the historically blue district — in one of the county’s bluest states. This may be, in part, due to redistricting to represent the north shore of Nassau County and Queens. But all four of Long Island’s congressional districts turned red in a wave that secured the GOP’s narrow lead in the House.

“What could we have done differently?” New York Assemblymember Chuck Lavine, D-Glen Cove, who chairs the state judiciary committee, said at a “Stop Santos” rally last week. “And I just suggest to you that is the mindset of every single person who was the victim of a crime, of every single person who was the victim of a fraud. So as we stand here today, watching this George Santos train wreck, we need to stand together.”

Santos’ suburban district is now recoiling. Petitions online and demonstrations since the Times article have called for Santos to resign.

“We don't want to be represented by any clown in local government, in state government, but especially not in our nation's capital,” said Lavine, who chairs a state judiciary committee.

Some of the allegations against Santos include no record of him working at top Wall Street investment firms, nor attending college. He supposedly lied about his grandparents being Holocaust victims, that his mother died during the September 11th terror attacks, and that some of his employees were killed at the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016.

Democrats are also calling on the Federal Election Commission to also investigate the source of a $700,000 loan that he gave his own campaign.

Republicans, including incoming Reps. Nick LaLota and Anthony D’Esposito (R-NY) and Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman, have called for the House Ethics Committee to investigate Santos. Federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York are looking into financial disclosures and fraud — as well as alleged criminal financial charges in Brazil.

New York State Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat, and the Nassau County District Attorney Anne Donnelly, a Republican, are separately looking into claims about his academic, employment and financial history that he made on the campaign trail — whether his alleged lies defrauded Long Island voters.

“My former constituents will tolerate disagreement, but they do not tolerate dishonor,” said Israel, who now serves as the director of a nonpartisan Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University.

The narrow GOP lead

When Santos takes office, one of his first orders of business will be to vote on the Speaker of the House. Santos has said he would vote for Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), but the GOP has signaled distress in getting the 218 votes necessary from far-right leaning members to seal the deal.

Then, it will be largely up to the Speaker of the House to leverage investigations into Santos. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries has said he would urge McCarthy to unseat the GOP freshman, but precedent for this is to the contrary.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1969 that the Speaker of the House could not exclude a duly-elected candidate. In Powell v. McCormack, the nation’s highest court ruled that the constitutional rights of the voters outweighs the Speaker’s authority — limited to penalizing certain elections violence and fraud — but that they may take steps to expel a member of Congress after they have been sworn-in.

Israel, the former congressman, said “it's all but certain” that there will be a Congressional Ethics Committee referral, and an investigation by the independent Office of Congressional Ethics.

“Most Americans expect their members of Congress to begin their term thinking about them, thinking about constituents,” he said. “This gentleman will begin his term thinking about himself, his legal problems, the ethics challenges. And that's a fundamental disservice to not only the people of a third congressional district of New York, but to the entire country.”

McCarthy can also keep Santos off of House committee assignments pending investigations.

“But national House Republicans are clearly going to be going after people like [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and Hunter Biden and Joe Biden himself, as well as a whole slew of Democrats,” Levy said. “They even may consider that throwing Santos under the bus will make it seem that they're not only being partisan.”

McCarthy has yet to comment on his plan for Santos.

Locally, while Santos “has broken the public trust by making serious misstatements regarding his background,” Nassau County Republican Party chairman Joseph Cairo said in a statement that Santos should still serve his term in Congress.

“Republicans were nominating a candidate based solely on his ideological extremism and were not even vetting fundamental questions as to whether he was fit to serve,” Israel said.

If Santos decides to resign, or if he is forced out of his seat through congressional mechanisms, Republicans would have to go to bat in a special election.

“RIght after they achieved their new majority, they have to defend it,” Israel said. “And it's going to be very costly. And my guess is in a democratic district, they're going to lose. And that creates a very unfavorable narrative for them. And so my guess is they're going to try and play at the clock.”

The blame game

“While you don't want to get into victim shaming, because all of them were to some degree victimized. George Santos is the guy who's victimizing,” Levy said. “Everybody did have a role in letting him get away with it.”

Progressives on Long Island blasted Nassau County Democratic Party chairman Jay Jacobs, who also leads the statewide party committee, for lacking investigation into their political opponent. Despite backing Santos to serve his term in Congress, the Nassau County Republican Party has pulled its support already for Santos in 2024.

After losing by a 54-to-45 margin in November, Zimmerman also blamed the media for shifting their focus from Santos to the high-profile race between outgoing Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin and Democrat Kathy Hochul for governor.

“Local candidates are saying that they tried to interest the media in some aspects of what's come out. But very little of that, you know, penetrated,” said Levy, who was also a former political columnist at Newsday. “And primarily because when you have to play triage as a journalist, you have to pick and choose the races that are the most competitive. And again, this one just didn't seem that way.”

In addition, the spontaneity of the suburban voting block could be part of the problem, Levy said.

Suburban voters, who tend to be better educated and tend to identify less with a political party, makes them a decisive swing area.

Nationwide, suburban voters have become a decisive block that rejected MAGA election deniers and Trump-backed candidates in 2022, while Long Island was an “extraordinary anomaly.”

“Santos will be around for months and months and months,” Levy said. “This process is not a quick one.”

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.