Goldstone is the author of the forthcoming "Not White Enough: The Long Shameful Road to Japanese American Internment."
On November 8, 2022, in a major Republican upset, a relative political newcomer with an almost Hollywoodesque life story won election to Congress in New York’s Third Congressional district. To the surprise and elation of his party’s leadership, he flipped a key seat that Democrats had held for two decades.
The winner, George Devolder Santos, only thirty-four, was, according to his campaign bio, “a proud American Jew,” the son of Brazilian immigrants and descended from Ukrainian grandparents who had fled the Holocaust. Santos was openly gay and a self-made millionaire who, after graduating from Baruch University in 2010, worked for Citigroup and Goldman Sachs before striking out on his own and making big money in real estate. If he could be a fictional character, he wrote, he would choose Captain America.
One month later, as first reported in The New York Times and then in just about every news outlet in the United States, it turned out that virtually none of this was true. In addition, Santos had lied about his parents’ careers and wealth, that his mother had been in the South Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, but survived, that he founded an animal rescue charity, and a raft of other tidbits of his background, while omitting that he had been indicted for embezzlement in Brazil. Although as of this writing, Santos has not been accused of criminal behavior in the United States—although he is under investigation by the Nassau County district attorney as well as federal prosecutors—his finances are so smoky that few would be surprised if that were to occur. His entire resumé, it seems, was a series of whoppers so transparently false that even Inspector Clouseau would have, in the immortal words of Patrick Henry, “smelt a rat.”
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The voters in his district, however, did not. Nor did his opponent, Robert Zimmerman, a member of the Democratic National Committee and a (genuine) successful businessman with a long history in politics. Zimmerman, 67, was also openly gay but, unlike Santos, had an impressive record of working for equal rights in the LGBTQ community. Santos, on the other hand, had been married to a woman until 2019.
This was Santos’s second try for office. He had also run in 2020 against then-incumbent Tom Suozzi, losing by ten points, and no one had discovered that his resumé was a work of fiction then either. But Suozzi had been a shoo-in for re-election, so the lack of investigation into Santos’s background, while negligent, was to a degree understandable.
This election was different. Suozzi had given up his seat for a failed run at the gubernatorial nomination, and this race promised to be a good deal closer. Given that 2022 was a midterm year in which Democrats were bucking the headwinds of Joe Biden’s dismal approval ratings, they needed to bring every possible weapon to the fore in a desperate effort to hold the House.
Nothing could be taken for granted. So much did the party want to dot its i’s that Jill Biden traveled to New York to personally campaign for Zimmerman, which indicated, according to News 12, Long Island, “there could be a feeling of nervousness on the part of Democrats.”
A visit by the First Lady is no minor event—it demands planning, coordination, and attention to logistics, all of which would have involved Zimmerman’s campaign workers, the Democratic National Campaign Committee, and the White House. Attention to detail is therefore a must and nothing can be taken for granted.
The question becomes, why did the Democrats, who invested so much time and effort to coordinate the First Lady’s visit, not pay equal attention to determining if George Santos’s much-larger-than-life life story was all it seemed to be? It would not have taken much. There was no record of Santos working at the institutions he claimed, graduating from college, or even attending the prep school he claimed to attend. His mother was not the financial executive he claimed her to be but rather a domestic worker. His lies were so huge, so ludicrously transparent, that a reporter on a high school newspaper might have uncovered them with ease. Only after Santos’s election and The New York Times report did those questions begin to be asked by Democratic party leaders.
Steve Israel, who had held the seat for sixteen years and was once chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, wrote in The Atlantic that “perhaps that criticism [of Democrats] is justified, but we shouldn’t let the Republican Party off the hook. Republicans accepted Santos’s narrative without due diligence because they prioritized extreme ideology over actual qualifications.”
Sorry, Mr. Israel, this buck can’t be passed. If the losers do not do their job, they cannot blame the winners for being slipshod.
In fact, although opposition research is often given a bad name, our democratic system, which is necessarily adversarial, demands it. To expect either party to police itself is naïve. There are already reports that Republican campaign officials were aware of Santos’s lies and sat on the information. With an election looming and a blue seat vulnerable, that is not surprising.
No, this was the Democrats’ responsibility and they blew it. Calling on Santos to resign now, after they allowed him to win the seat is ludicrous. The only way he will forfeit his seat at this point is if he is indicted, and perhaps not even then.
If, however, the Democrats get a break they don’t deserve and Santos is forced to give up his seat, there will be a special election to fill it. Or there is the regular election in two years. In either case, whoever the Republicans put up will be subject to far more scrutiny than was Santos, the classic after-the-damage-is-done effect.
When the Democrats choose their candidate, it should certainly not be Robert Zimmerman. His failure to do even the most basic vetting of his opponent cost Democrats the seat once. He should not be allowed to do it twice.
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