Political Notes: Long Island House race pits gay Dem vs. gay Trumper

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday September 26, 2022
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Robert Zimmerman, a gay Democrat, is running against a gay Republican for a Long Island congressional seat November 8. Photo: Courtesy the candidate
Robert Zimmerman, a gay Democrat, is running against a gay Republican for a Long Island congressional seat November 8. Photo: Courtesy the candidate

In what LGBTQ political watchers say is a first for a general election ballot, a race for a U.S. House seat on Long Island is pitting a gay Democratic former congressional aide and TV commentator against a gay Republican who supports former President Donald Trump's false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him.

GOPer George Santos had run for New York's 3rd Congressional District seat in 2020 but lost against the incumbent, Congressmember Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), who ran unsuccessfully for New York governor this year rather than seek reelection to Congress. With the House seat open, Democrat Robert Zimmerman entered the race to succeed Suozzi and aims to defeat Santos come November 8.

Either will become the first LGBTQ congressmember from Long Island. At 68, the single Zimmerman would be the oldest out LGBTQ non-incumbent elected to Congress.

"I can't think of a more difficult time to be in Congress nor a more important time to be in Congress," Zimmerman told the Bay Area Reporter in a recent phone interview. "Issues I've worked for my entire life are all on the line."

He pointed to voting rights, protecting democracy, women's rights, access to abortion, and LGBTQ rights as examples of the issues he would champion if sent to serve on Capitol Hill.

"We are now facing unprecedented attacks on our freedoms," said Zimmerman, who lost a bid for Congress when he was 27 years old and was only out to his close friends at the time.

Santos' campaign did not respond to the B.A.R.'s interview request.

According to his campaign bio Santos, 34, is a first-generation American born to immigrant parents from Brazil and grew up in Queens. The Wall Street financier and investor now lives on Long Island with his husband and their four dogs.

On the campaign trail he has focused on immigration, calling for more security on the border, and has railed against the impact inflation is having on small businesses in the district. Santos has also slammed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), tweeting that "it's time to fire" her.

"This country has gone in the wrong direction, the direction that Americans just do not deserve to go in," Santos told Fox News earlier this month.

The House race marks the first time in U.S. history that two LGBTQ congressional candidates are facing off in a general election, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund. The organization, which helps to elect LGBTQ candidates across the country, early on endorsed Zimmerman.

"I'd rather have this problem than not. We need more LGBTQ candidates running for office," said Sean Meloy, the Victory Fund's vice president of political programs, about seeing two LGBTQ candidates competing for the same elective office. "We are under-represented to a wide degree. To get basic equity in government, we need 35,000 more LGBTQ people in office. We have just over a thousand right now."

New York's 3rd House District became a bit bluer due to redistricting this year but is still considered somewhat of a swing district. The Cook Political Report has rated the race as leaning Democratic, while Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, has it listed as a toss-up in his Sabato's Crystal Ball ratings.

"There is a slight tilt, I would say to the Democrats. But in a midterm election it is a purple seat," Meloy told the B.A.R.

The Victory Fund was an early backer of Zimmerman, helping him with fundraising and campaign volunteers so that he survived his party primary in August. He is one of the organization's "Game Changer" candidates this election cycle.

"From growing up closeted in the 1970s to now being the Democratic nominee, he has proven time and time again his unwavering belief — and determination — that progress is not just possible, but necessary," Victory Fund President & CEO Annise Parker said of Zimmerman following his August 23 primary win. "As legislation moves through Congress to codify same-sex marriage, reproductive health care access and other critical rights for our community, we are confident Robert will be a fearless voice for his community and LGBTQ people across the country."

As a graduate student at Fordham University, Zimmerman had worked for several congressmembers from Queens and Long Island. Later in his life, he was elected to the Democratic National Committee.

President Bill Clinton appointed Zimmerman to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Presidential Commission on the Arts, while President Barack Obama named him to the National Council on the Humanities.

Over 30 years ago, after he lost his race for a New York State Assembly seat, Zimmerman founded ZE Creative Communications in his hometown of Great Neck, New York. He spent 20 years serving on the board of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Starting in the early 2000s, he spent 15 years as a commentator on various news networks, including CNN and MSNBC.

"I always stayed engaged," said Zimmerman, who told the B.A.R. that he never thought he would have another chance to run for elected office.

But then came Suozzi's decision to leave Congress. Friends began urging Zimmerman to enter the race.

"People called me up and said, 'You have been standing up for other people and speaking up for them. It is time you spoke up for yourself.' So I took my shot. I wanted to take a stand for myself," said Zimmerman. "It is very exciting and meaningful to me. When I was growing up, I never dreamed we would have an LGBTQ-plus person representing Long Island and Queens in Congress. I couldn't possibly imagine it would be me."

Zimmerman told the B.A.R. that the only thing he has in common with his opponent is that they are both gay men.

"That is where it starts and ends," he said. "He supports the Trump agenda is all you need to know."

The day after the primary the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee quickly went on the attack against Santos. In a memo it circulated the campaign arm for House Democrats called him "an anti-choice extremist, defender of insurrectionists, January 6th participant, QAnon promoter, conspiracy theorist, and flat-out liar."

"Since losing in 2020, Santos has somehow become even worse for Long Island. From joining insurrectionists at the Stop the Steal rally, to praising the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe, Santos wasted no time proving voters right for rejecting him," stated gay Congressmember Sean Patrick Maloney (D-New York), who chairs the DCCC. "With Santos' radical record and a strong Democratic candidate that far better represents their values, Long Island voters will once again make sure George Santos fails in his efforts to get to Congress."

Zimmerman told the B.A.R. he has agreed to take part in several upcoming debates with Santos, whom he describes as "dangerously radical" and too "extreme" to represent the district.

"I promise not to disappoint," he said.

He hopes LGBTQ people on the West Coast will consider donating to his campaign or volunteering to phone bank on his behalf. Helping to elect him would also likely upset the last occupant of the White House, he noted.

"I have the distinction of being the only candidate running for Congress in New York who has been personally denounced by Donald Trump. I took him on and mocked him. He referred to me as 'disgusting' and as a 'Hillary flunky,'" said Zimmerman, referring to the former first lady and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

(Trump made the comment on the Fox News morning program "Fox & Friends" on May 6, 2016.)

To learn more about Zimmerman's campaign, visit his website.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBTQ political news by following the Political Notebook on Twitter @ http://twitter.com/politicalnotes

Got a tip on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail m.bajko@ebar.com

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