The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He lost to George Santos. Now he’s trying to make up for it.

Robert Zimmerman says he just wants Santos out of office. Will that mean a second chance at a lifelong dream?

Democrat Robert Zimmerman lost to Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) in an election held before Santos's lies and deceptions — some alleged, some admitted — became huge national news. (Jeenah Moon/For The Washington Post)
10 min

PORT WASHINGTON, N.Y. — The man who lost to George Santos looks like a winner. Chin up. Good humor. Clean-shaven, sparkly-eyed. Navy suit, flag pin, walnut-hued wingtips. Robert P. Zimmerman has dreamed for 40 years of being a congressman, and so Robert P. Zimmerman is still acting like a candidate, even as his would-be constituents greet him with a sympathetic tilt of the head, as if to say: I’m sorry for our loss.

“How are you?” two members of the local school board asked him, with near-simultaneous bereavement.

“Holding my head high!” Zimmerman replied, undefeated by defeat, as they walked into a luncheon Friday hosted by the League of Women Voters of Port Washington-Manhasset.

“As you should!” the women said.

In a banquet hall of fake flowers and real Rolexes, Zimmerman worked the luncheon as if his congressional race never ended, as if he didn’t lose by more than seven percentage points to a man who appears to be a bamboozling cipher and who has become — even by the putrid standards of Trump-era politics — a national embarrassment. Zimmerman, lifelong dream shunted to a near-term crusade, hustled around the clubhouse of the Harbor Links Golf Course.

“We’re going to get him out of office,” he told retired women wearing chunky necklaces, taking their crinkled hands in solemn fortitude.

He greeted library officials and town supervisors with the same pledge: “We’ll get him out of office.”

Isma Chaudhry, co-chair of the Islamic Center of Long Island’s board of trustees, breezed toward Zimmerman with words of affection and thanks.

“But I’m losing hope,” she said. “I’m getting exhausted.”

“We’re gonna get him out,” Zimmerman said, repeating his oath of officelessness.

One campaign is over, and another has begun: an urgent mutiny against a sitting congressman, led partly by his vanquished opponent. The residents of New York’s 3rd Congressional District, a 30-minute train ride from Manhattan, are pissed. They’re affluent and educated, by and large, and they got took. They feel empowered by a unifying rage; they feel powerless from the lack of speedy redress. Santos has refused to surrender, despite a cascade of alleged lies and deceptions and legal and ethics investigations.

“Trust me: No one’s more frustrated than me,” Zimmerman says. “There are a few times I shouted into my pillow: ‘Why didn’t this come out earlier?’”

On Jan. 25, Democrat Robert Zimmerman expressed regret for not being able to fully expose George Santos’s (R-N.Y.) web of lies during his campaign against him. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

A day after meeting with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Santos said Tuesday he would temporarily step down from serving on committees. But Republican leadership in Washington has so far declined to push Santos out of Congress, despite withering sentiment across party lines: 78 percent of his constituents, including clear majorities of Republicans and independents, said Santos should resign, according to a Newsday/Siena College poll released Tuesday. District residents have formed groups such as Concerned Citizens of NY-03 and Students Against Santos to circulate petitions and launch letter-writing campaigns.

“Santos is all I talk about in therapy,” said Great Neck resident Nina Gordon at the luncheon in Port Washington, after hugging Zimmerman. “My therapist said: ‘He’s not worth the co-pay.’”

Zimmerman, 68, was greeted here with a combination of pathos and encouragement, like he’s both a loser and a congressman-in-waiting.

“Robert, we really can’t wait for you to run again,” said North Hempstead Councilman Peter J. Zuckerman.

“We wouldn’t have this struggle if you were in Congress,” said Councilwoman Veronica Lurvey, who sees a “void” of constituent services in place of a functioning, responsive congressional office. (A representative for Santos said that his offices in the district and in D.C. are “under full operation” and handling constituent requests. His campaign Twitter account had this to say last Thursday: “From interviewing clowns, to creating fake ‘posts’ the media continues to down spiral as their attempt to smear me fails. I am getting the job I signed up for done, while you all spiral out of control.”)

“I carry the pain and frustration of the loss with me,” Zimmerman said earlier Friday, standing at Grace Avenue and Bond Street in Great Neck. He wore a belted overcoat in herringboned earth tones. In the winter sun, he looked very much like a congressman. “But you can’t let it get you down. You let it motivate you.”

George Santos had an awkward first day at the office

While George Santos seems to be nowhere, Robert Zimmerman seems to be everywhere. Santos is running from the media on Capitol Hill; Zimmerman is running toward them in Long Island. He received an ovation last month at an interfaith service at Temple Beth El, where New York Attorney General Letitia James introduced him as the inverse of the man who beat him: “someone who I adore,” “someone who stands up and speaks truth. And facts. Right? And honesty. A man of great integrity.”

If Santos leaves Congress, either by choice or force, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) would call a special election. Party bosses in Queens and Nassau County would handpick their candidates. The Democrats would probably seek input from the governor and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), and would have to decide: Do we go with the guy who lost?

Zimmerman is certainly available for the job, though he deflects when asked. “I have to tell you,” he said over eggs and iced tea at the Great Neck Diner, “and it’s very much an honest answer: What we’re facing right now is so much bigger than me.”

This is true, but —

“Look, you’re paid for a living to be cynical. I understand that. But the challenge before us right now is as important to me as the election. I wanted to win, very deeply. It was the dream of my life and I’m proud of our campaign.”

But Zimmerman says he’s focused squarely on what he calls “a mission for justice”: helping his fellow citizens pressure Santos out of office.

“There’s been a crime committed here,” Zimmerman says, “and it’s a crime which has robbed people of their confidence in our democracy and our political system.”

He was raised in Great Neck with reverence for the system. “Growing up as a closeted gay kid — it was isolating, at times, and frightening,” Zimmerman says. “Political activism gave me a voice. It gave me a sense of mission in life and made me feel that I could be relevant.”

In the 1970s, as a Capitol Hill intern, Zimmerman was enthralled by debates on the floor of the House of Representatives. After working for his longtime congressman, Lester L. Wolff, Zimmerman first ran for the House in 1982, when he was 28, and lost a heavily Republican district by double-digit percentage points. Twice he ran for state assembly. Twice he lost. So he amassed power and respect outside the bounds of elected office. He helped build a leading public-relations firm in Great Neck and did business with everybody: school districts, nonprofit groups, utilities, municipalities under both Democratic and Republican control. He was a fundraiser for many campaigns and politicians. He knocked doors with other activists. He befriended the Clintons. He became a talking head on local and cable news, a celebrated activist for gay rights, a national committeeman for the Democratic Party. Zimmerman was a state chair for the presidential campaigns of Al Gore and John Kerry.

Many people really like the guy, even if they disagree with his positions, even if they think he wasn’t the right Democrat to challenge Santos in the first place.

“I really don’t know anyone who dislikes him,” says Republican Peter T. King, a former Long Island congressman who says he’s “disgusted” by Santos. Zimmerman is “a very straight-arrow guy, a very decent guy.” For decades, “I’ve see his name in the paper all the time, in society columns. But he does all that with a smile. There’s no arrogance to it.”

Last summer, Zimmerman, buoyed by a wave of endorsements from longtime friends and associates, won a costly, bruising, five-way primary that was delayed by a redistricting shakeup that changed the pool of voters mid-campaign. The district lost Democratic-friendly slices of Westchester and Huntington and gained bits of Massapequa and Levittown, where many voters would never support a Democrat of any kind.

There are many reasons Zimmerman lost. He relied on voluminous but ultimately incomplete opposition research from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. And the swell of downstate enthusiasm for Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin lifted down-ticket candidates such as Santos. Many fingers have been pointed this way and that, including at Zimmerman, to account for this absurd outcome.

“It’s his fault, but it’s not his fault,” says Suffolk’s deputy county executive, Jon Kaiman, who came in second to Zimmerman in the primary. “It’s all of our faults. We’re collectively responsible. And that’s where the humiliation is. We’re trying to figure out who’s responsible, when we know it’s kind of all of us, because that’s how elections work. A community elects somebody. I blame Georgia for Marjorie Taylor Greene, so why shouldn’t they blame us for George Santos?”

Zimmerman isn’t the only former candidate jockeying for attention as Long Islanders wait for Santos to go down. Last week, Josh Lafazan, a Nassau County legislator who placed third in the Democratic primary, held a news conference to demand that Santos release four years of his tax returns; Lafazan also proposed a law called “Get Egregious Officials Removed from Government Elections” (GEORGE), which would require background checks for candidates and criminalize lying about biographical information. Other names in the mix for Democrats: former congressman Tom Suozzi, who gave up the seat to primary Hochul last year; former state senator Anna Kaplan; and Melanie D’Arrigo, who placed behind Lafazan in the 2022 primary. Republicans are talking about state Sen. Jack M. Martins, whose district includes much of the 3rd, and Mazi Melesa Pilip, a Nassau County legislator.

After the luncheon Friday, Zimmerman and Tara Herman, a former campaign aide, drove toward the Queens part of the district, past the parks, storefronts and other civic monuments of Zimmerman’s life. “People say they can’t believe it happened here,” he said from the front passenger seat. “But this is a wake-up call, a national reminder.” Democracy is easily exploited, you might say. Or, perhaps: Dreams are easily deferred.

At the Stop & Shop in Bay Terrace, Zimmerman joined citizens in collecting signatures for a letter asking McCarthy to expel Santos for his “lies, deceit, and likely fraud.” Wearing only a suit jacket in the 40-degree air, Zimmerman intercepted shoppers as they exited the store. Bayside resident Dan Cruz said he voted for Santos, called it a “big mistake,” and signed Zimmerman’s sheet.

“We’re gonna turn it around,” Zimmerman told him.

“We’re gonna pull through,” Zimmerman told the next person who walked out.

“We’re gonna make it happen,” Zimmerman told the next person.

More on George Santos

Rep. George Santos, the freshman Republican congressman whose myriad falsehoods became both a scandal and a national punchline, was charged with a host of financial crimes including fraud, money laundering, theft of public funds, and false statements. Here’s a look at the 13 counts against him.

What has Santos lied about? Santos fabricated much of his biography. The list of untruths is long, here are few: