Tom Suozzi holds a meet-and-greet at the Mid Island Y JCC on...

Tom Suozzi holds a meet-and-greet at the Mid Island Y JCC on Wednesday in Plainview. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Democrat Tom Suozzi on Wednesday condemned Republican Mazi Melesa Pilip's campaign for referring to him as the “godfather of the border crisis,” saying her spokesman's criticism evoked Italian American stereotypes.

Suozzi, a former congressman and Nassau County executive, and Pilip, a Nassau County legislator, are in a Feb. 13 special election to fill the seat left vacant by expelled Rep. George Santos in New York’s 3rd Congressional District. 

Suozzi, who held the seat from 2017 to 2022, objected to a quote from Pilip spokesman Brian Devine about the migrant crisis. It appeared Tuesday in an online story in The New York Post, and Pilip posted it on her campaign account on X, formerly known as Twitter.

“No amount of political spin can change the fact that Tom Suozzi is the godfather of the border crisis,” Devine said in the statement on behalf of Pilip's campaign. 

Suozzi, who is Italian American, questioned why the campaign had used the term.

“You can call me a lot of things that are inaccurate, you can call me all kinds of names which they have throughout this campaign. But why would you call me 'the godfather?' ” Suozzi asked in an unrelated Zoom conference call with reporters. “Why would you use that particular expression?"

Suozzi speaks of his Italian heritage frequently. His father, Joseph, was born in Ruvo del Monte, a village in southern Italy. He and his mother immigrated to New York in 1925, when they joined Joseph Suozzi's father.

Earlier Wednesday, during a candidate forum at the Mid-Island Y Jewish Community Center in Plainview, Suozzi talked about the prejudice his father experienced as an immigrant.

"They used to say about the Italians during World War II — the Italians teamed up with the Germans — that you're more loyal to your country than you are to America," Suozzi recalled. "They used to say to my father, ‘go back to where you came from.’ ”

Devine declined to comment.

In a statement, Pilip campaign manager Aidan Strongreen did not address the "godfather" descriptor and said Suozzi was trying to "deflect attention away from his dismal record" on immigration.

Fred Gardaphe, professor of Italian American Studies at Queens College, said before the novel and film "The Godfather" came out more than 50 years ago, the word referred to a venerated person in Italian American culture, someone responsible for raising a child if something happened to the parents.

"The real meaning of 'the godfather' is an honorable person," Gardaphe said. "That meaning got changed to refer to the word 'gangsters' in the non-Italian mind."

Bob Ferrito, national president of the Order of Sons of Italy Commission on Social Justice, said the Pilip campaign had used “a poor choice of words."

“They could have chosen a number of other words to describe whatever they weren’t pleased with Mr. Suozzi," Ferrito said.

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