Ask Robert Zimmerman
By Jacob Kornbluh
This story was originally published in The Forward Jan. 8, 2023.
Hours after George Santos was sworn in to serve in the 118th Congress, some 100 protesters gathered Saturday morning outside Santos’ district office in Queens, New York, demanding his resignation. Santos, a Republican freshman from New York, is under investigation for fabricating critical details of his biography and has come under scrutiny for lying about his Jewish background.
The protest was led by Robert Zimmerman, the Democrat who lost to Santos by almost 8 points in November.
Since Santos has shown no sign that he is willing to resign, there are few paths to him vacating his post. Congress could, in theory, launch an ethics probe into his actions. Such a move would require House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who relied on Santos’ vote in his narrow win for the speakership, to isolate him or have him expelled by two-thirds of his colleagues. Both scenarios are highly unlikely.
Federal prosecutors are investigating Santos’ finances, and the Nassau County District Attorney’s office is looking into his fabrications about his past. Brazilian authorities said they intend to revive fraud charges against Santos, related to a 2008 incident regarding a stolen checkbook.
Santos has already indicated he won’t run for reelection in 2024, although he is not bound by that decision.
In an interview, Zimmerman said he views himself as playing a meaningful role in keeping up the pressure against Santos — by rallying activists and constituents and pressuring local Republican leaders to speak out. Zimmerman is quick to point out that he is not making the case that he should be the candidate to replace Santos in the case of a special election. He is aided by some 150 local Democratic activists who call themselves “Zimmerterns” out of pride for volunteering for the Zimmerman campaign.
“This is not about me,” he stressed. “This is a fraud perpetrated on the people of my congressional district. He has mocked them in the most hateful, cynical way.”
The race between Santos and Zimmerman was viewed through a historical and personal lens. It was the first such contest between two openly gay candidates who were Jewish. Both candidates ran for Congress before — Zimmerman in 1982 and Santos in 2020 when he challenged then-incumbent Rep. Tom Suozzi — and each raised $3 million during the election cycle.
The 3rd Congressional District leans Democratic. President Biden won it by 10 points in 2020, although the Cook Political Report ranked it a toss-up.
Zimmerman expressed no regrets about how he handled his opponent during the campaign. “I am holding my head high,” he said, “and proud about the race we ran.”
He called the recent investigative reports into Santos’ lies about his education, upbringing and his finances “validating,” but criticized the media for overlooking many of the issues that he raised during the campaign. He pointed to an 87-page opposition research document the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee released that could have led to the exposure of Santos as a person unworthy of the office before voters went to the ballot booth.
“I think it would have [had] a very dramatic difference on the race,” Zimmerman suggested. He acknowledged that Santos “was never a long shot” and the revelations would “have been a game changer” should he have faced the media’s scrutiny.
Zimmerman said that in the two debates with his Republican opponent, Santos “would literally lie with almost joy.”
But there’s no indication that Zimmerman would have won the race had Santos been exposed early enough or would have been replaced by another Republican candidate. Santos underperformed Lee Zeldin, the Republican nominee for governor, by 5 points, and received 16,000 fewer votes than in 2020. Yet, he still managed to win the race.
Crime — an issue that made the gubernatorial race competitive — was the driving factor in the Republican House victories on Long Island and upstate New York. First Lady Jill Biden stumped for Zimmerman in the final weeks of the campaign, which underscored Democratic concerns about the party’s prospects.
A very Jewish candidate
Jews make up 11% of the population in the district, according to David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.
Zimmerman was one of three Jewish candidates who competed in the Democratic primaries for the open seat. He has lived in the district since he was 9 years old and worked for multiple congressmen who previously held that seat. He co-founded a marketing communications company and is a member of the Democratic National Committee.
Unlike Santos, Zimmerman’s Jewish background is not an issue of debate. “There is nothing about my public life or my biography that I’ve ever lied about,” Zimmerman said.
He is the past president of Great Neck B’nai Brith and served as head of the American Jewish Congress Long Island Division. In the 1980s, Zimmerman teamed up with Steve Israel, who later became a member of Congress in 2001, and together they visited the Soviet Union to help families of Jewish refuseniks emigrate to the U.S. He had his bar mitzvah at Temple Emanuel of Great Neck, where his father served as president and his mother served as president of the Sisterhood in the mid-1980s.
Zimmerman, 68, said that he had a poster of Moshe Dayan, the late Israeli defense minister, hanging in his bedroom. Zimmerman recalled that during the Six-Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973, he walked around with a transistor radio listening to debates at the United Nations and for other news updates.
Santos falsely claimed to have Jewish grandparents who fled anti-Jewish persecution during World War II and called himself a “proud American Jew” in a position paper he shared with Jewish and pro-Israel groups. But the Republican Jewish Coalition did not believe Santos was viable enough to earn their endorsement, according to people familiar with the internal deliberations. (The group did invite Santos to speak at its November conference weeks after he won the election and after he told them he was Jewish.)
In an October interview with The Forward, Zimmerman highlighted Santos’ close relationship with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican who was removed from her committee assignments last year due to her embrace of QAnon conspiracy theories and antisemitic tropes. “We in the Jewish community cannot rely upon individuals who run for Congress to affiliate themselves with hate mongers who at the end of the day hate us as a Jewish community,” Zimmerman said.
Jacob Kornbluh is The Forward’s senior political reporter. Follow him on Twitter @jacobkornbluh or email firstname.lastname@example.org. To get The Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox, visit https://forward.com/newsletter-signup/.