Suozzi, English, Cuomo, Grassroots Organizers & Staying Grounded.

Steve Villano
8 min readFeb 16, 2024
(Grassroots and Labor organizers surround Tom Suozzi (center, wearing tie) as their relentless, coast-to-coast ground game propelled him to victory.)

Tom Suozzi’s special election victory, taking back New York’s 3rd Congressional District seat stolen by serial liar, fraud and MAGA poseur-boy George Santos in 2022, was like an atmospheric aerosol of fresh, clean air, blasting away the scuzzy Congressional stench emanating from the GOP’s dying clutch on the House of Representatives.

News organizations, political pundits and pollsters, who, on the day before the election were calling the contest a “toss-up,” scrambled to quickly kill their lazy leads, and come up with some new rationale for the Democrat’s convincing victory.

They failed to take into account two important factors:

  • what was going on across the country among alarmed, activated and educated citizens far away from social media and the polls;
  • and, Tom Suozzi’s solid family and political history, and his strength as a tough, smart, prepared candidate whom history finally had its’ eyes on.

I’ll let others speculate about the weather and whether the GOP opponent was simply Santos in drag, or just a drag as a candidate, outclassed by Suozzi at every turn. Instead, focus on how fate — and a political environment hungry for some sanity — found the Democrat’s new “rising star”, at age 61.

First, the political setting. Many concerned citizens across the nation know that the country is on fire, and our institutions which deliver us daily services like Social Security, healthcare and national defense, are in danger of being burned to the ground by a gnarly group of nihilists. Few things shout “5-Alarm Fire” as loudly as folding table after table of organizers across Sonoma County, California, pushing for volunteers to make phone calls and write postcards for Tom Suozzi, a Congressional candidate on Long Island, nearly 2,750 miles away.

If you get away from social media long enough, turn off screaming Cable channels, and have the good sense to disregard most polls, the nationalization of the most important, high-stakes political races in the country hits you in the face. It’s impossible to go to any event or public gathering in California, without witnessing a wondrous sight: the passionate, smiling faces of organizers from Indivisible or Sister Districts working hard to educate people about what’s at stake in swing districts, from coast to coast, and the urgency of turning out the targeted vote. It’s a shining example of national community, at the very time some media fixates on deep social fissures.

Then, there’s the matter of the actual Suozzi story. Learning it might be helpful, especially since some, like David Leonhardt of the New York Times (2/15/24) are already comparing Tom Suozzi to the original Bobby Kennedy. Spare us, please.

Suozzi needs to nip this aggrandizing now, before it goes to his head and makes him do something stupid to ruin this moment. He simply has to ask Andrew Cuomo, Eliot Spitzer or Fani Willis about believing the hagiographies hawked by others about you, and paying a steep price for such arrogance.

To many New Yorkers, the Suozzi name was synonymous with the City of Glen Cove on Long Island, and with pragmatic, common sense, slightly center-left politics. The Suozzis were never radicals.

Joseph Suozzi, Tom’s father, born in Ruvo del Monte, Italy, was an US Air Force Bomber Pilot and war hero in WWII, who, at 28 years old became one of the nation’s youngest mayors, elected to lead Glen Cove, in 1956. Subsequently, several other Suozzis would serve as Glen Cove’s mayor during the next four decades, including Joseph’s brother Vincent, and the youngest of his five children, Thomas. They laid out a blueprint for how a family of immigrants, through hard work, education, and following the law, could make it in this country.

A Harvard trained lawyer, Joseph Suozzi was first elected to a 14-year term as a New York State justice of the Supreme Court, in 1961, the year after John F. Kennedy was elected President.

Leading the Nassau County Democratic Party in the 1960’s and JFK’s campaign on Long Island, was John F. “Jack” English, a young lawyer, who would go on to a put together a powerhouse law firm which would later include Joseph Suozzi once he stepped down from the court (Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein). English also built one of the most effective Democratic party organizations in any major American suburb, showing Democrats nationwide how to compete in traditionally Republican areas.

In 1962, the year after Joseph Suozzi was elected to the State Supreme Court, English helped elect Eugene Nickerson as the first Democratic County Executive in Nassau County history — and the last Democratic one until the election of Tom Suozzi, Joe’s son, some 40 years later — born that same year Nickerson was elected to his first of two terms.

Jack English went on to become an advisor to JFK and his brothers Robert and Ted Kennedy, and was instrumental in getting Bobby Kennedy to run for a U.S. Senate seat from NY in 1964 — a seat which Kennedy won — and then to run for President in 1968.

A powerful voice in Democratic National Politics for decades, English served as Deputy Campaign Director of Jimmy Carter’s 1980 Presidential campaign, at the same time when Mario M. Cuomo — then, New York State’s Lt. Governor under Governor Hugh Carey — headed Carter’s campaign across New York State. Four years earlier, Carey had appointed Joseph Suozzi to an Associate Justice position in the NYS Appellate Division.

I met Jack English in 1986, before I met any of the Suozzis. Mario Cuomo was Governor of New York, and English was scheduled to meet with Cuomo on the 57th floor at his Two World Trade Center Office, overlooking the Statue of Liberty. Marty Steadman, Cuomo’s Press Secretary who hired me into the Cuomo Administration’s Press Office, asked that I sit in on the meeting and record the conversation.

English, six years Cuomo’s elder, minced no words — perhaps a sign that he knew he had little time left to wait for Mario Cuomo to make up his mind. He would die of liver cancer the following year, at only 61 years old, the same age Tom Suozzi is now.

“Governor, I think you ought to consider running for President, “ Jack English said looking straight at Cuomo. “I think you are exactly what the Democratic Party needs at the head of the ticket to take back the White House in 1988.”

Cuomo shook his head “no.”

“I’m very grateful for your confidence, Jack,” Cuomo said, and proceeded to tell this political legend that he was too busy running New York State, and loved being Governor. He explained to English the challenges of fighting for the people of New York against a national administration intent on pitting region against region, race against race, and rich against poor.

Cuomo, up for re-election that year, was one of the few Democrats in the country willing to take on the Reagan Administration on issues like Nuclear Power, and the fight to retain the State and Local Tax Deductions (SALT), which mattered a great deal to homeowners in New York’s suburbs, where property taxes were already high. It’s the same bread & butter issue which — 30 years later — Tom Suozzi championed in his first three terms in Congress, after the Trump Administration capped the SALT deductions at $10,000 in 2017, a fraction of the astronomical property-taxes many middle-class Long Island homeowners struggle to pay.

“You need someone like a Bobby Kennedy, “ Cuomo said, artfully steering the conversation away from himself and toward a topic Jack English knew better than anyone. Then, almost was if he were setting himself up to be the logical answer, Cuomo continued:

“We need someone like Bobby today; someone who can unite black and white, rich and poor; who can speak to the needs of working people, and get people in the suburbs and the cities to see that we are all part of the same family.”

I took a deep breath, held my pen perfectly still and looked carefully at Jack English, sitting only a few feet away from me. His Irish eyes twinkled, and he leaned forward in his chair.

“Well, I think you’re that person, Governor.”

Cuomo, again, wrinkled up his generous nose, and shook his head “no.” He would not allow himself to be held to a standard that he could not control, nor felt he could meet — not even from as towering a political figure as Jack English. He was comfortable being Mario Cuomo, thank you.

Tom Suozzi needs a strong dose of Mario Cuomo’s humility right now. Suozzi tried, and failed, to force himself into the national spotlight twice before, in 2006 and 2022, when he was humiliated in two Statewide Gubernatorial Democratic primaries — one against Eliot Spitzer, and more recently against incumbent Governor Kathy Hochul.

The siren song of superiority seized Suozzi in 2021, when he announced his primary challenge to Hochul, New York State’s first female Governor, who came to power after Andrew Cuomo’s resignation over sexual harassment charges that year.

In declaring his candidacy, and giving up the Congressional seat into which Santos slithered, Suozzi told the Washington Post on November 29, 2021 that:

“I’m hoping that we’re going to win the majority again — and we may not. Doesn’t matter; I’m running for governor because I believe that this is the job that I’m made for.”

Ouch, Tom. Winning the majority “doesn’t matter?” “This is the job that I’m made for?” Yikes. That was almost as bad as the last reputed RFK reincarnation, Beto O’Rourke, and his now infamous interview in Vanity Fair five years ago next monthcomplete with Annie Leibovitz’ artistic photos — where Beto bragged that he was “just born to be in it,” referring to his short-lived run for President. Beto’s political career has never recovered from that insufferable boast and too-glitzy photospread.

Suozzi’s admirable family story, as a child of an immigrant who was a war hero and a first-rate judge who inspired his youngest son to dedicate his life to public service, doesn’t need embellishment, nor do the Suozzi’s need to take a back seat to the Kennedys or the Cuomos. They’ve achieved amazing things in their own right.

Intuitively, Tom Suozzi knows this, and that strong family history gives him the security of being capable of great personal growth and staying grounded — when he allows it. I know this because I’ve witnessed it.

Toward the end of his tenure as Glen Cove Mayor in the late 1990’s, and before his first run for Nassau County Executive, I did Labor/Management training for the City of Glen Cove with Cornell University’s ILR School’s Labor Studies Program. I taught in the Cornell program for some 20 years, and, because of my work in government, Tom Germano, the program’s director, asked me to join him in a special assignment he just received: from the Mayor of Glen Cove, Tom Suozzi.

Having done similar work for the Postal Workers Union with Germano, I was surprised the training was being pushed hard by Suozzi himself. Usually, our requests for such hands-on work came from frustrated municipal union leaders, trying to move unresponsive bosses. Suozzi’s personal involvement was a breath of fresh air, and something elected officials rarely did.

Even more refreshing was observing Suozzi participating in the training sessions, while no one from the public or the press was watching. He was engaged; he was grounded; he listened to his workers; he asked good, fearless questions about his own managerial style; and he genuinely wanted to improve the lives of everyone around him. No press releases were issued; the work itself, was the goal.

Now, with history’s eyes squarely on him after his crucial Congressional victory, Suozzi needs to remember to act as he did during those productive Glen Cove Labor/Management work sessions — that the only judgment of his actions that matters, is whether or not he’s doing what’s right. He needs to forget about fawning sycophants, and false praise.

That’s an approach that would make Jack English, Mario Cuomo and many of his labor and grassroots organizers smile.