It’s no secret veteran Democratic national committeeman Robert Zimmerman is weighing a primary challenge to Rep. Tom Suozzi next year for not being tough enough on President Donald Trump.
But Zimmerman’s explorations escalated last week when he showed up to personally confront Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) at one of his town hall meetings in Huntington. Zimmerman harshly criticized Suozzi for failing to back House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s efforts to get guarantees in the Senate bill to protect immigrant kids.
“That was a defining vote, and that’s why I went down to make a statement,” said Zimmerman, who claimed his appearance was “not political” despite his interest in the race. Unanswered is whether the salvo is the start of a yearlong Democratic primary battle, or a lone potshot of a campaign that will never be. Zimmerman said he will make a decision this summer.
In that confrontation, Zimmerman criticized Suozzi for being part of the “problem-solvers caucus,” which he labeled “Tea Party Democrats.” He criticized them for backing the recent $4.6 billion Senate funding bill when Pelosi was angling for guarantees that money would go to immigrant children’s health care and not be transferred to other uses, like building more detention centers.
“Are you opposed to Senator [Chuck] Schumer’s vote on the bill, also?” Suozzi asked in response. After an awkward exchange of the microphone, Zimmerman said, “Senator Schumer did the best he could in a Senate that is controlled by a Republican majority. You’re in a body controlled by Democrats and you ought to help Nancy Pelosi. That’s not acceptable.”
Backers said Suozzi, whose father emigrated from Italy, has been an immigrant activist, dating to when he was Glen Cove mayor and started centers in the city to help day laborers get fair treatment. They also said he opposed separation of children from parents and has a bill he co-sponsored with Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) to protect 5 million of the undocumented, including Dreamers, and provide border security and aid to Central America. On Friday, he flew to Brownsville, Texas, to inspect border sites.
Critics also questioned Zimmerman’s credential as a progressive. “Bob Zimmerman has been using his political connections, even giving and raising money for Republicans, to enhance his own pocketbook for decades,” said Kim Devlin, Suozzi’s political adviser.
Zimmerman, a Great Neck public relations executive, said he has won contracts through public bidding, including Nassau Off-Track Betting when Suozzi was county executive. “Suozzi not only votes with Trump too often, but now campaigns like him,” Zimmerman said.
A national Democratic committeeman for two decades, Zimmerman spent five years as a congressional aide to Rep. Lester Wolff from Nassau and the late Rep. James Scheuer of Queens. He also ran losing races for Congress against GOP Rep. Norman Lent in 1982 and later twice against Assemb. Dan Frisa in 1986 and 1988.
Since April, Zimmerman said he has been out three or four nights a week on an “education tour” talking with Democrats and progressives about prospects of challenging Suozzi. “I never really envisioned running again,” Zimmerman said, “but the issues we’re facing today are the greatest threat to the Constitution since the Civil War.”
Jay Jacobs, Nassau and state Democratic chairman, said Suozzi’s approach “is to find common ground to get things done,” which sometimes means making “hard choices and not everyone is happy.” However, he believes Suozzi has “the pulse of the district,” and Zimmerman, while a longtime friend, “would have tremendous difficulty defeating a very popular incumbent in a primary.”
More importantly, he added, “Anything that divides Democrats at this time is not advantageous to the larger issue of beating Trump.”