Left: Robert Zimmerman, Democratic candidate for the 3rd Congressional District, on...

Left: Robert Zimmerman, Democratic candidate for the 3rd Congressional District, on March 14. Right: George Santos, Republican candidate for the 3rd Congressional District on June 12, 2020. Credit: James Escher

It’s not the sum of either candidate or his campaign. Neither has put it at the forefront of issues.

But for likely the first time, the two major-party candidates for a Long Island congressional seat are openly gay.

The rivals, Democrat Robert Zimmerman and Republican George Santos, are set to square off in November in the Island’s 3rd Congressional District to replace Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) after Zimmerman won a five-way primary Tuesday. The district covers Nassau County’s North Shore, though it dips south to Massapequa, and has a sliver of northeast Queens County.

Zimmerman said the campaign will be about “mainstream values versus extreme values,” citing gun safety, voting laws and abortion rights as key issues. Protecting gay rights will be a part of that too, he said.

Santos said he’ll focus on crime, inflation and energy efficiency. He said it’s about “protecting the American dream.”

But while they disagree on abortion, Donald Trump and Joe Biden, in separate interviews Wednesday they agreed that in 2022, their personal sexual orientation won’t be the issue — unlike campaigns in America’s not too distant past.

“I’m gay. I’m Latino. I’m a Jew. But I don’t really run on those issues,” Santos, 34, said. “If this really a record or history in the making … hey, cool, but it’s not an issue for me.”

“The fact that we’re both gay is not the issue,” said Zimmerman, 67. But while personal orientation isn’t an issue, he said advocacy will be because recent court decisions have raised the possibility of a rollback of gay rights.

“This issue does highlight a very important distinction between George Santos and myself,” Zimmerman said. “I’m the only one advocating for the rights of the LGBTQ+ agenda and George Santos is advocating for the Trump agenda.”

It was just 18 years ago that gay rights and gay marriage was a wedge issue Republican George W. Bush used against Democrat John Kerry in the presidential election, said Bruce Gyory, a former adviser to two New York governors. Even some high-profile Democrats side-stepped or balked on the issue then.

Now, Gyory said, “In suburban communities, the notion of there being a problem because you were openly gay has not only melted, it’s all but disappeared.”

Speaking directly about the Zimmerman-Santos contest, he added: “It’s not like the conservative wing of the Republican Party is fleeing Santos on this or that it came up in the Zimmerman primary at all. And it’s obvious it’s not going to come up in the general election and we can take pride in that.”

Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University’s Center for Suburban Studies, said that two openly gay candidates are competing for an Island seat reflects changes in demographics and attitudes.

“The way the candidates are approaching it — which is not to run away from who they are but not to make the forefront of their campaign — reflects the moderate sensibilities of the voters they are appealing to,” Levy said.

Zimmerman has long been active in Island and state politics. He’s run a high-profile public relations firm and serves on the Democratic National Committee. He said he grew up (mostly in Great Neck) as a “closeted gay man in the ‘70s.”

“Growing up, as I did, the idea that we’d have a representative from Long Island and Queens that would be a member of the LGBTQ+ community was unimaginable,” Zimmerman said. “And now, that I’m in a position where I might very well play that unique and historic role is very meaningful to me. And very moving to me, especially knowing how I had to grow up.”

The Victory Fund, a political-action committee that tries to help elect LGBTQ+ candidates, had endorsed Zimmerman and cheered his win in the primary. It said there are currently 11 openly gay Congress members.

Santos was born in Jackson Heights and now lives in Whitestone, Queens. He ran for Congress against Suozzi in 2020 but lost 56% to 44%. His campaign biography notes he’s worked as a Wall Street investor and financier. It also notes he lives with his husband. But he says voters don’t care about that in this election cycle.

“My personal life doesn’t play a role in my campaign. Nobody cares who my partner is,” Santos said. “It doesn’t change the bottom line for Americans. It doesn’t mitigate inflation. It doesn’t lower taxes. Frankly, that’s what this race should be about. Anything we talk about outside those issues is a distraction.”


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