In first gay v. gay Congressional race, the candidates are “just very different”

Robert Zimmerman on primary night.
Congressional candidate Robert Zimmerman, a Democrat, at his primary victory party.
Zimmerman for Congress

In a crowded ballroom in Great Neck, New York, on a late night this past August, Robert Zimmerman stood on a pile of confetti and delivered a victory speech to his most ardent supporters. The openly gay businessman had just clinched the Democratic nomination for New York’s Third Congressional District, besting a crowded field of Democrats all vying for outgoing Representative Tom Suozzi’s (D-N.Y.) seat in the US House of Representatives. 

“It’s not just our commitment to the Democratic majority and the importance of that,” Zimmerman said at the event, which News 12 Long Island reporter Kevin Vesey described as an “absolute party atmosphere.” “It’s about a commitment to Democratic values. And for that we’re going to be working with all of them as we ensure that this seat stays Democratic in the coming election.” 

With his victory, the race for the seat became one of the most unique 2022 midterm matchups. The primary will see Zimmerman face George Santos, the Republican nominee who also identifies as gay, making it the first time in history, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund, that both major parties’ Congressional candidates are openly gay. 

“As more and more LGBTQ people step up and run, more and more frequently, there are races where we’re seeing more than one LGBTQ person in the race, which is exciting and sort of a sign of how far we’ve come,” said Albert Fujii, press secretary at the Victory Fund, which is endorsing Zimmerman in the race. 

However, according to both candidates, that is where their similarities end. “I would say the only similarity between Robert Zimmerman and I is that we’re both gay men,” Santos told the Los Angeles Blade. “But everything else, we’re just very different.”

New York’s Third Congressional district encompasses northwestern Suffolk County and northern Nassau County on Long Island and northeast neighborhoods in Queens. It is considered a purple district, though it has been represented by Suozzi since 2017. 

Late last year, Suozzi announced he would leave the seat to make a run for governor in 2022. At the time, he was the 18th Democrat in the House planning to retire or run for higher office, compared to 11 Republicans. His decision further fueled Democrats’ fear of losing its House majority — which is all but a foregone conclusion for many political experts

In 2020, Santos made a run for the seat against the incumbent, but Suozzi easily defeated him by more than 10 points. “I learned a lot from the first race,” Santos said, adding he’s “damn proud of the race I ran.”

Redistricting has also changed the makeup of the district since the last election. Michael Dawidziak, a political strategist and pollster in New York, estimated around 80% of the district remains the same after being redrawn. 

“It was redrawn by a special master who drew these districts to be pretty even and pretty competitive,” Dawidziak said. 

Zimmerman, the co-founder of a marketing communications company, ZE Creative Communications, grew up as a “closeted gay kid in the suburbs in the 70s,” he said, calling it a “difficult experience.”

“It’s hard for people to relate or understand who haven’t experienced that part of the history,” he said. “And unfortunately, in too many parts of the country, it still is the case.” 

Former President Bill Clinton nominated Zimmerman for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Presidential Commission on the Arts. Later, he would serve on the National Council on the Humanities under former President Barack Obama. 

Zimmerman — who, in addition to the Victory fund, is endorsed by the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ+ organization in the country, and 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton — told the Blade he has also ran twice for Congress, the first time when he was 27 years old, but lost both races. However, he “found [his] voice in other ways” through his business, TV commentary and Democratic National Committee (DNC) involvement. 

Now, “everything I believe in is on the line, everything that’s defined, my life is on the line,” Zimmerman said. 

“I’m a proud gay man who stands up for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. I stand up for reproductive rights, stand up for voting rights, stand up against gun violence, stand for addressing the climate crisis,” he said. 

Santos, on the other hand, is a first-generation American. His grandparents fled Jewish persecution in Ukraine during World War II, settling in Belgium. They were later forced to move to Brazil, where Santos’ father was born. Both of his parents immigrated to the U.S., and Santos was born in Queens. 

“It’s kind of humbling once you realize how many people know your name,” he said of the campaign trail. “From being a regular kid from Queens to immigrant parents to everybody saying my name, it’s just crazy.”

The Wall Street financier and investor said he is running for the seat to keep his version of the American Dream alive, the same one he attributes to his parents’ success. 

“If there was ever a time where the American dream was at stake, I think it’s this time,” Santos, who is endorsed by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik, said. 

His main campaign points are inflation, rising energy costs and crime — issues he intends to fix with “common sense” solutions.

“I feel like the current leadership isn’t doing anything about it, or at least not efficient enough,” Santos said. “So I want to propose a better angle and a better delivery of how to cure these extenuating circumstances that we’re living in.”

However, both Zimmerman and the Victory Fund called into question Santos’ past history in far right-wing politics, specifically his support of former President Donald Trump. “My race is not a Democrat versus Republican debate,” Zimmerman said. “It’s a debate between mainstream values and extremists.”

The Victory Fund, a nonpartisan political action committee dedicated to increasing the number of openly LGBTQ public officials in the U.S., described Santos as an “anti-choice extremist, defender of insurrectionists, January 6th participant, QAnon promoter, conspiracy theorist, and flat-out liar” in an email. Santos said the U.S. Supreme Court acted “correctly” when it repealed Roe v. Wade over the summer, overturning the Constitutional right to an abortion. 

Santos was in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6, 2021, when supporters of Trump, believing false claims about the outcome of the presidential election, stormed the Capitol building in a deadly riot. While appearing on “The Right View with Lara Trump,” he said it “was the most amazing crowd and the president was at his full awesomeness that day.”

In response, Santos said that “we should really be focused” on the future. “Trump’s not the president, he’s not on the ballot,” Santos said. “Quite frankly, Joe Biden is the president. He’s not on the ballot either, but this is his America. This election should be a referendum on Joe Biden.”

Anything aside from that, he said, is “just a distraction because they just don’t seem to have real arguments to defend Joe Biden’s America, so they have to keep pivoting back to the past.”

As for LGBTQ rights, which Zimmerman said he unequivocally supports, Santos said he thinks “every person should be offered the same equality and protective rights.”

Asked if he would be an advocate for LGBTQ rights, specifically those of transgender people, in Congress, Santos said: “I see myself standing up for common sense. I see myself standing up for the rights of all people equally. At the same stroke, I will stand up for gay rights and transgender rights. I will step up for other people’s rights, too. I think that we need to stop just creating siloed rights for different parts of society.” 

On the topic of gay marriage — Santos is married — he said he “obviously” believes in the right but does “not believe we should bully religious institutions into performing same-sex marriage.”

The race has become a microcosm for midterm campaigning. Zimmerman, the Democrat, is focusing particularly on abortion rights in the aftermath of the Dobbs v. Jackson decision, while Santos, the Republican, is zeroing in on inflation and crime. According to Dawidziak, who has been a political strategist for over three decades, this follows the national campaigning blueprint for both parties. 

“As of right now, it’s been more of a national theme,” he said. “It’s been either you need to vote Democrat and save the House, or you need to vote Republican to take the House.”

Dawidziak also said both candidates are using the “usual game plan” of not hitting their more partisan views, trying to appeal to more voters in the primary.

In Dawidziak’s view, the race is still up in the air. 

“The swing voters, they live in the suburbs,” he said.

Zachary Jarrell is the managing editor of the student-run newspaper the NewsRecord at the University of Cincinnati. He is a freelance political journalist contributing to The Los Angeles Blade, the Business Courier, and other publications.