NEW YORK – The New York congressional seat of George Santos is up for grabs this year amid the controversial politician’s recent indictment for numerous felonies, including fraud.
Santos, a freshman Republican who ran for office on an embellished biography, has refused to leave office despite a series of allegations of lying and fraud that first came to light in December, shortly after he won a swing seat in New York’s 3rd Congressional District.
In late December, Santos confessed to a multitude of lies he made on the campaign trail, including about his education and work experience. Santos was also accused of lying about his family history, saying on his campaign website that his mother was Jewish and his grandparents escaped the Nazis during World War II.
By February, Santos insisted he is “clearly Catholic,” but continues to claim that his grandmother told him stories about being Jewish and later converting to Catholicism.
Earlier this month, Santos pleaded not guilty to 13 federal charges, including misusing campaign funds, lying about his personal finances on House reports, and claims of fraud related to COVID-19 unemployment benefits.
He was released on a $500,000 bond, according to the US Attorney’s Office in New York. The 34-year-old congressman was ordered to surrender his passport and will require authorization to travel outside Washington, DC, New York City and Long Island.
Last month, Santos announced a re-election bid for 2024. But if he accepts a plea deal, it would likely involve his resignation or he could be forced out of the seat.
JOINING THE crowded contest last week to determine the Democratic nominee in the race to unseat Santos is Zak Melamed, a 29-year-old Jewish activist running for the Democratic nomination in Santos’s 3rd Congressional District, which covers parts of Queens and Long Island.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Melamed said that he decided to run for office now because he “spent the last four years defeating MAGA Republicans and I never expected that the most extreme of them all would be representing my home district.”
In the first 24 hours after launching his campaign, Malamed raised a whopping $225,000.
“[Santos] is not just a local embarrassment. He’s a statewide, national and international embarrassment,” Malamed said of the congressman who was charged last week with illicitly collecting unemployment assistance while earning a six-figure salary. During the midterm election last year, Santos ran on false claims of being Jewish.
“The other piece,” Malamed continued, “is that when I graduated high school, I had the same school board that my mother did when she graduated high school. That kind of continuity permeated up and down New York for some time and it worked, until 2021, when a red wave hit Nassau County and it became clear that the existing leadership is no longer what we need. It’s time for a fresh face and fresh leadership.”
Malamed recalled that his great-grandparents helped found the state of Israel. His maternal grandmother, after serving in the IDF, immigrated from Israel to Great Neck. Malamed was born and raised in the Long Island town, which is part of the 3rd district. “It’s where I still am and hope to raise my future family,” he said. “My values are with the district, they’re the values that raised me. I want to bring those values to Washington.”
Malamed cofounded a Democratic fundraising organization called “The Next 50″ that focuses on “building a leadership pipeline of justice and equity-minded leaders that will counter conservatives massive 50-year investment in young leaders,” according to its website.
Two other Jewish Democratic candidates have declared candidacy for the seat held by Santos. Malamed follows former Democratic state senator Anna Kaplan, an Iranian-American who has long championed Holocaust education, and Josh Lafazan, a Jewish Nassau County legislator. Democratic attorney Will Murphy is also running, as is one Republican, former J.P. Morgan executive Kellen Curry.
Malamed said being a fresh face distinguishes himself from the other candidates. “Our Jewish values carry all of us forward and unite us,” he told the Post. “Everybody else in this field has either been rejected by the primary base or the general electorate. I bring an ability to connect with the district that no one else brings.”
Malamed focused on bringing down cost of living
The top priority of Malamed’s campaign, he told the Post, is to bring down the cost of living in Nassau County and northeast Queens.
“It’s nearly [impossible] right now for people to move here and raise a family, in part due to the Trump administration and MAGA Republicans eliminating the SALT deduction,” he said, vowing to bring back state and local tax (SALT) deduction if a member of Congress.
Pushing for continued bipartisan support for Israel
If nominated and elected to Congress, Malamed said he would be committed to strengthening Israel.
According to recent polling trends reported by Gallup, Democrats' sympathies in the Israel-Palestinian conflict have shifted significantly. From 2002 through 2014, Democrats were significantly more likely to side with the Israelis than the Palestinians. Since 2014 however, that preference has gradually faded, and now Democrats are about equally as likely to sympathize with the Palestinians as with the Israelis. These changes are especially pronounced among younger Democrats. As a young Democratic activist, Malamed takes pride in having been to Israel ten times, most recently last month for the country’s 75th Independence Day celebrations.
“There’s nobody who is going to be a stronger supporter of the state of Israel and going to maintain the alliance the [US] has had for 75 plus years,” the Democrat said. “To me, the relationship is unconditional, and Israel’s security is non negotiable and we need leaders, both Jewish and Democrats in general, who will work toward a two-state solution.”
He said the key to improving the sentiment young Americans have toward Israel is having “a new generation of leaders to speak up about the value of the US-Israel alliance in a way that resonates.” Malamed added that as he progresses through the campaign he is in conversation with “a wide range” of Israel advocacy groups including J Street and AIPAC about receiving their support.
Much of the 3rd Congressional district’s electorate on Long Island works in New York City. Malamed said he is prepared to address issues on the minds of Big Apple residents and workers, including increased antisemitism, crime and illegal immigrant flooding.
“I’ve been actively involved for the past decade in ensuring this next generation of Jews don’t take our safety and comfort here for granted,” he said of skyrocketing rates of antisemitism across New York and nationwide. “Any time Jews take their conditions for granted things take a turn for the worse. It’s important that there is a next generation of Jewish leadership in Congress that supports the Jewish community.”
Melamed would push for an assault weapons ban
Malamed called New York city’s crime issue “serious” and reflected on a personal tragedy.
“Safety, gun safety in particular, is paramount,” he said. “Since 2009 I have been involved in New Yorkers against Gun Violence. Eleven years later, I lost a friend to gun violence.”
“Following the lead of New York Senator [Kirsten] Gillibrand, I would take measures to reduce gun trafficking into the state and re-introduce assault weapons ban. We should never, ever choose guns over children, no matter political background.”
On the migrant crisis, Malamed said he disagrees with New York city’s decision to end the right-to-shelter. Earlier this month, Mayor Eric Adams signed an emergency executive order suspending the city's right-to-shelter rules that immediately find private rooms for asylum seekers.
“I don’t want New York City to become the Bay Area [in terms of homelessness]. We need to make sure people have access to housing. We need to support the migrants, while also making sure that we address the legal immigration system, shore up the border. We need the federal government to step up and provide resources necessary.”
“I’m proud of New York city for sheltering many migrants, just as we did for my own family who came to Ellis Island,” he added.
Malamed takes pride in his family’s 60-year involvement in Temple Israel of Great Neck.
“I called my rabbi [Howard Stecker] before I announced my decision to run,” he told the Post. “We’re in communication regularly. No matter the stage or time of my life I always make sure to show up for Rabbi Stecker’s sermons, especially on the high holidays.”
JTA contributed to this report.