Later we stop at a bakery where Tom and his brothers would buy bread after Mass. It still has a guy behind the counter who speaks broken English, but now he’s Latino rather than Italian. By the sheer force of his hand gestures and backslapping, Suozzi persuades the baker to let him open the oven so I can see the hundreds of loaves of bread being baked. After a time, the baker’s eyes light up. “Tom Suozzi?” he asks tentatively.
“Yes!” Suozzi gives the man a half-hug. As we pile back in the car, Suozzi can’t resist: “Finally, someone who has seen my commercials!”
For a town of 27,000, Glen Cove has all the Borgia politics of medieval Italy. Which stands to reason, since many of the town’s twentieth-century immigrants and most of its mayors came from the Old Country. Michele Suozzi, Tom’s grandfather, immigrated to New York in 1925. After a few years in Queens, Michele moved the family to Glen Cove, then a playground of estates for the rich and idle. Michele worked as a groundskeeper for nearly four decades, raising four children in a house without a phone. His eldest son, Joseph, Thomas’s father, had been born in Ruvo del Monte in southern Italy, joined the Air Corps during the Second World War, became a decorated bombardier, and later attended Harvard Law School, graduating in 1948.
Discrimination against Italians was still rampant, and Joseph Suozzi couldn’t find a job with a law firm. So he returned to Glen Cove, where he opened a small practice and went into politics. Before Thomas was born, in 1962, his father had already served as the state’s youngest judge, at 28, and as a two-term mayor of Glen Cove. He had also run for Nassau County executive in 1958, waging a losing but closer-than-expected race. But four years later, party bosses denied Joseph Suozzi a second chance in a move that smacked of bias.
It was into this household of politics and disappointment that Thomas Suozzi was born, the youngest of Joseph and Marguerite Suozzi’s five children. The Suozzi home could get loud, but Tom’s father always settled disputes peacefully. “You had to make a persuasive argument,” remembers Rosemary Suozzi, Tom’s older sister. “And Tom was probably the best arguer.”
The Suozzi home was devoutly Catholic, in a progressive way. By the time Tom was a teen, his brothers and sisters were in college, and he spent much of his high-school years helping his mother care for three of his grandparents, who were seriously ill and lived with the family. There was little grumbling; it wasn’t the Suozzi way.
“We were taught the social Gospel,” says Rosemary, a recent graduate of the Harvard Divinity School. “Our parents made us put Jesus’s teaching into practice: Feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, but it also had a social contract attached to it. If we helped you, you needed to try and make your life better, go to school, obey the law.”
Although Tom’s father had abandoned politics, Tom’s uncle, Vincent “Jimmy” Suozzi, was the mayor of Glen Cove for much of Tom’s adolescence. It was a fractious time, as the small town grappled with issues of growth and development. When a Glen Cove Republican newspaper ran an article suggesting that Jimmy Suozzi had favored his brother in the sale of a downtown theater, the brothers sued the publishers, who were prominent Glen Cove Republicans including Donald DeRiggi, then a city councilman. The suit lingered for thirteen years before it was dismissed. In the end, Jimmy Suozzi’s political career ended as ignominiously as his brother’s; he lost a 1987 reelection bid.
When Jimmy Suozzi died last month, on June 23, thousands came to his wake. “My uncle was backstabbed by some of his closest friends in politics,” recalls Tom Suozzi. “Some of them even came to the wake. I just wish they would have paid him the same respect when he was alive.”
Considering his family’s political history, it wasn’t a surprise when Joseph Suozzi urged his youngest son not to get involved in local politics. Still, in 1990, a 28-year-old Tom Suozzi became Democratic chairman for Glen Cove. The following year, Suozzi’s mayoral candidate backed out at the last minute and Suozzi filled the slot himself, squaring off against the incumbent mayor—Donald DeRiggi. Suozzi’s first campaign was unsuccessful, but he put up a pugnacious fight. His main strategy was to attack DeRiggi’s plan for a new courthouse and police station in downtown Glen Cove. Architects had been commissioned, contractors hired, but for a variety of reasons, construction was never started. Suozzi placed signs reading YOU’RE APPROACHING DERIGGI’S $2.5 MILLION HOLE IN THE GROUND where motorists could see them at the proposed construction site. Suozzi lost by 400 votes, but he kept on DeRiggi about the courthouse during the next two years.