(WASHINGTON) — For the roughly 750,000 people who live in New York’s 3rd Congressional District, embattled Rep. George Santos is more than the near-daily headlines he makes.
The freshman congressman, a Republican, sits at the center of controversy over his past falsehoods and embellishments and multiple ongoing investigations. (He’s denied wrongdoing.)
But he is also his district’s direct link to the federal government and its chief representative in national policymaking. As state Assemblymember Charles Lavine put it to ABC News, the scandals have severely curtailed Santos’ ability to advocate for his constituents, leaving him as “a congressional representative in name only” — who many residents would prefer to see out of office.
A Newsday/Siena College survey released last week of 653 voters in Santos’ district, conducted in late January, found that 78% said they want him to resign.
Santos has rebuffed calls to step down, saying it’s up to the voters to reelect him, or not, in 2024.
“They deserve somebody who’s going to come here and fight and not get involved with the media nonsense that we’re seeing take place,” Santos said in an interview on Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast in January.
Last week, he temporarily recused himself from his two committee assignments — on the small business and science, space and technology panels — and told ABC News Senior Congressional Correspondent Rachel Scott it was “in interest of the voters.”
“This [controversy] will not deter me … I will be effective. I will be good,” he told The New York Post in December.
But according to the new Newsday/Siena poll, 75% of polled constituents said they believe Santos will not in fact be able to be an effective representative, compared to 16% who said they believe he can. A group of constituents headed to Washington on Tuesday with a petition they said was signed by more than 1,000 people in the district who want Santos out of office.
ABC News spoke with more than a dozen residents or workers in Santos’ district to better understand their views on the congressman.
Santos’ office did not comment for this story.
‘Why are you there?’
Santos recently opened a constituent office in the Douglaston neighborhood of New York City. When ABC News visited the location over two days in late January, it lacked any Santos signage except for a taped piece of paper on the door and instead appeared to still be held by Santos’ predecessor, Tom Suozzi.
No constituents visited, though the office was up and running.
James Schnacker, an Army veteran who said he had been medically discharged, who now works as employee at an Oyster Bay, New York, hardware store, said he would not be confident approaching Santos’ office for services.
“You obviously can’t take his word,” Schnacker said.
State Assemblymember Lavine, a Democrat, said he has pledged to work with Santos to assist their shared constituents but still has serious concerns. Lavine gave an example of a hypothetical resident who may need help with their immigration status after overstaying a visa.
“I have no way of knowing whether Mr. Santos is going to report this person to immigration, who then may look for him to arrest that person,” Lavine said, describing Santos’ problem as a “crisis of trust.”
State Sen. Kevin Thomas, a Democrat who like Lavine shares constituents with Santos, said he intends to forward constituent issues to New York’s senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, though their offices typically take more time to respond.
“[Congressional district] three, the constituents there, will not have representation,” Thomas said.
Thomas shared similar worries as Lavine, given some of the fraud accusations Santos faces. Brazilian prosecutors said in January they were seeking to revive charges against him for allegedly paying for goods with a stolen checkbook when he was 19, and sources previously told ABC News that prosecutors in New York were looking at Santos’ financial filings, which show he became wealthy between 2020 and 2022.
Santos told The New York Post in December, “I am not a criminal here — not here or in Brazil or any jurisdiction in the world.”
But Thomas said he was concerned: “How can I possibly send a kid who wants to go to the military academy … to a congressperson who has the reputation that he has?”
And if a local resident were to need help with a passport, a common issue for constituent offices, Thomas said he would hesitate to send them to Santos.
“Given his history … I would be afraid to send over a constituent giving their passport information over to that office,” he said.
Santos stepping down from his committees — which his office said last week would be temporary “until he has been properly cleared of both campaign and personal financial investigations” — also “handicaps” his ability to help his district because of how committees shape legislation and policy, Thomas said.
“You’re going to Congress, you’re not resigning and you’re not going to do the work that they’ve assigned you. Why are you there?” Thomas said.
Nancy Rosenblum, a former chair of Harvard University’s government department, agreed that Santos has low odds of achieving legislative success for his district: “He can’t participate. He doesn’t have the equipment to do it. He can’t negotiate. He knows nothing.”
On Monday, Santos made what appears to be his first major policy push as a lawmaker, speaking from the House floor to advocate for expanding the government’s World Trade Center Health Program to cover more conditions for people affected by 9/11 and its aftermath.
“I ask my colleagues that we work together and find a solution,” he said in a speech, which will now be one of his few major tools to spotlight issues.
Sept. 11 has become a personal point of controversy for Santos, who maintains that his mother survived the terror attacks and later died from the “toxic dust” that blanketed parts of New York City.
However, U.S. immigration records reviewed by ABC News indicate she wasn’t in the country at the time.
Locals see ‘broken’ system
A question in the Newsday/Siena polling indicates 77% of voters in Santos’ district see him as an example of a “broken” political system rather than an outlier.
Multiple residents who spoke with ABC News echoed that.
“I trust better racketeers than a politician,” said Angelo DiLorenzo, who works at a jewelry store in Manhasset, New York.
While none of the residents who spoke with ABC News on the record had positive impressions of Santos, the Newsday/Siena poll found that he has not been universally rejected: 18% of Republicans and 17% of independents said he shouldn’t step down; 25% of Republicans and 17% of independents said he can be effective in Congress; and 31% of those who voted for Santos said they still would have done so if they knew about the controversies over his life story.
Yascha Mounk, a Johns Hopkins University international affairs professor and writer on the successes and failures of democracies, told ABC News that Americans generally expect politicians to tell white lies.
“People have some tolerance for embellishment,” Mounk said, and Santos insists some of his past falsehoods were in the vein of padding his resume.
However, Mounk said that more significant lies — about substantive policy misrepresentations or biographical falsehoods — can have a more damaging effect, especially when other government officials let it slide.
“It’s less about the fact that there’s one guy who is a compulsive liar, who has managed to get away with it, when in fact this whole system lets him get away with it,” Mounk said.
Some locals also placed blame on the news media for not ferreting out problems with Santos’ background sooner.
“Where was any one of the media outlets, you know, doing an investigation into somebody new running for elected office?” said Scott Feigeles, a pharmacist at a Manhasset drug store.
Harvard professor Danielle Allen said Feigeles’ concerns were valid given the loss of vital local news outlets in many parts of the county.
“The fact that he was able to be elected with so many fraudulent claims is a real indicator of how weakened our news ecosystem is,” Allen said.
Democrat Robert Zimmerman, who lost to Santos in the fall, has said he has his own regrets. “Trust me: No one’s more frustrated than me,” he told The Washington Post. “There are a few times I shouted into my pillow: ‘Why didn’t this come out earlier?"”
Amid the cavalcade of revelations after Santos won, his constituents said they are left with a congressman far different from the one they knew in November.
Guy Finocchialo cast a ballot for Santos three months ago but now says, “If I could go back and change my vote, I probably would.”
Another constituent, Tom Andresakes, said he still thinks Santos should resign, however unrealistic that might be.
“I’m holding my breath for two years,” he said.
ABC News’ Luke Barr, Aicha El Hammar Castano, Lalee Ibssa, Aaron Katersky and Will McDuffie contributed to this report.
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