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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Inventing a ‘Pelosi Republican’ in N.Y.

There may be nothing more damning in a Republican primary than labeling your opponent a “Pelosi Republican.” That’s what Lee Zeldin does in a TV ad attacking his opponent, George Demos, in New York’s 1st Congressional District. But this is a case of mislabeling.

The ad says Demos is funded by “Pelosi’s team” and “has been called a ‘Pelosi Republican.’ ” It features a clip of Nancy Pelosi discussing a single-payer health care system as the ad’s narrator interrupts to say, “If you like Nancy Pelosi, you’ll love George Demos.”

But Demos doesn’t share Pelosi’s political philosophy; in fact, he has vowed to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The one thing the two share is a donor — Angelo Tsakopoulos, who also happens to be Demos’ father-in-law. The ad doesn’t reveal the familial tie and employs deceptive editing to avoid any mention of it. The ad also doesn’t disclose that the person who called Demos a “Pelosi Republican” is a spokesman for one of Zeldin’s more prominent supporters.

‘Nancy Pelosi’s Team’

Zeldin and Demos are the only Republicans running for the party’s nomination in the June 24 primary. The winner will face Democratic Rep. Tim Bishop. Zeldin’s ad, called “Night and Day,” began airing on April 21. It’s a compare-and-contrast ad, with the first half touting Zeldin’s record as a state senator and the second half defining Demos as a “Pelosi Republican.”

Narrator: Lee Zeldin is a dedicated family man. Serves as an Army Reserve major. As state senator he successfully ended the MTA payroll tax. And led the fight against Obamacare. George Demos? His campaign is funded by Nancy Pelosi’s team. Yeah that Pelosi. It’s why Demos has been called a Pelosi Republican. If you like Nancy Pelosi …

Nancy Pelosi: I wanted single payer. I wanted public option.

Narrator: … You’ll love George Demos.

We asked the Zeldin campaign if there are any policy positions that Demos has taken that would warrant the comparison to Pelosi. The campaign provided no examples and instead pointed to news accounts of Demos’ campaign contributions, referring us specifically to an article in the Washington Free Beacon that is cited in the ad.

The Free Beacon article — which carried the headline, “Republican Candidate for NY Seat Tied to Major Democratic Donors” — notes that Demos’ wife, Chrysa, “has contributed thousands to liberal Democrats,” and his sister-in-law, Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis, is a “close friend to Mrs. Pelosi.” The article correctly notes that Pelosi and her husband, Paul, attended Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis’ confirmation hearing in 2010 as President Obama’s choice to be U.S. ambassador to Hungary, and that Paul Pelosi has been a business partner with Angelo Tsakopoulos.

All the “Democratic donors” cited in the Free Beacon article are members of the Tsakopoulos family. The article lists past donations made by family members to Demos when he last ran for office in 2012. Our review of the federal campaign finance records for this campaign cycle shows that at least six members of the Tsakopoulos family each have given the maximum amount of $5,200 — $2,600 for the primary and another $2,600 for the general election — for a total of $31,200. That includes $5,200 in contributions from Angelo Tsakopoulos and Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis.

The ad also cites a report in Newsday on Long Island about how Demos has seen his personal assets substantially rise since marrying Chrysa Tsakopoulos in 2012, allowing him to make a personal loan of $2 million to his 2014 campaign. That story also said that “the Tsakopoulos family and employees have given $45,500 of his $201,000 in contributions” as of Jan. 1. But this story, too, mentioned no contributions to Demos from Democratic donors other than his wife and her family.

There is no question that Demos’ campaign coffers have benefited as a result of his marriage. There is also no question that the Tsakopoulos family includes some high-profile Democrats, some of whom have given heavily to Democratic causes. Since 1990, Angelo Tsakopoulos — one of Clinton’s guests in the Lincoln bedroom at the White House — has made nearly $950,000 in political contributions, mostly to Democrats — including Pelosi’s campaign committee and her leadership committee, PAC to the Future. It also includes large sums to Democratic Party committees, such as a $100,00 check to the Democratic National Committee in 1997 when Clinton was president. The New York Post referred to Tsakopoulos as “a heavyweight donor to Clinton political campaigns” in a story about Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign aspirations.

But the claim that Demos is being “funded by Nancy Pelosi’s team” is entirely without context. It’s more like Demos is being funded by his family’s team. But the Zeldin campaign ignores any mention of Demos’ family and, in fact, employs some creative editing techniques to do so.

On the screen, the ad contains this phrase surrounded by quotation marks and attributed to Newsday: “Demos taking money from a major fundraiser for Nancy Pelosi.” That would suggest one of two things: a Newsday headline or a direct quote from the story. But it’s neither. The headline was, “Demos’ House bid boosted by wife’s family fortune.” It is also not a direct quote from the article. It is an edited version without any ellipses to indicate that it has been shortened and its context changed. The full quote is this (with the parts used in the ad in bold): “Yet Demos’ new fortune has strings attached by campaign finance law. And it’s a target for Zeldin, who criticizes Demos for taking money from a major fundraiser for Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).”

So, the Zeldin campaign — not Newsday — is the source of the claim that Demos is “taking money from a major fundraiser for Nancy Pelosi.” The newspaper article was about Demos tapping his newfound family fortune to finance his campaign. The article also notes that it isn’t unusual for Greek Americans to support Greek-American candidates regardless of party.

Newsday, March 8: What Tsakopoulos is doing isn’t unusual in the Greek-American community, where ethnicity often trumps ideology and foreign policy on Greece often trumps domestic issues, said Nick Larigakis of the American Hellenic Institute, a public policy group.

“It’s no secret he’s a major Democratic supporter. But he has certainly supported Greek-American candidates on both sides of the aisle,” he said.

That’s accurate. The campaign finance database at the Center for Responsive Politics shows that since 1990 Tsakopoulos has donated to the campaign committees of several Republicans of Greek heritage, including a combined $11,900 to Rep. Gus Bilirakis and his father, former Rep. Michael Bilirakis, both of Florida; $7,000 to former Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine; and $2,000 to former Rep. Mike Pappas of New Jersey.

‘Pelosi Republican’

The ad also says Demos “has been called a ‘Pelosi Republican.’ ” But by whom? The ad attributes it to the Free Beacon. Actually, it is David Laska, a spokesman for New York Republican Party chairman Ed Cox, who has endorsed Zeldin. In the Free Beacon article, Laska is quoted as saying, “Everybody’s heard of the Reagan Democrat. George Demos is the world’s first Pelosi Republican.”

The ad then goes beyond that clever retort by suggesting — without evidence — that Demos is politically aligned with Pelosi on policy issues. As we said, the ad shows Pelosi talking about a single-payer health care system, and then the narrator interrupts to say, “If you like Nancy Pelosi, you’ll love George Demos.” But Demos opposes the Affordable Care Act — Obama’s signature health care plan that Pelosi shepherded through the House. In his first TV ad, Demos vowed to repeal “Obamacare,” as he calls it.

The Zeldin campaign acknowledged to us that Demos wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but insisted that the clip of Pelosi talking about health care wasn’t meant to suggest that Demos agrees with Pelosi on health care. It was used, we’re told, only to highlight the connection between Demos and Pelosi. The Zeldin campaign also noted that Demos — who has never held office before — has no record, so it “begs the question” of whether the campaign contributions would influence his decision-making if elected to Congress.

But Zeldin’s campaign fails to produce any evidence of a political or public policy connection between Demos and Pelosi, a popular Republican boogeyman, other than a possible acquaintance through his in-laws. The ad omits the fact that “Pelosi’s team” is really Demos’ in-laws, and not-so-subtly introduces a straw man argument by showing a clip of Pelosi talking about health care.

It’s Zeldin’s right to make an issue of Demos being a self-funded candidate. It is common for candidates to criticize such opponents for trying to “buy an election,” as was the case in a 2000 Senate election when Jon Corzine spent $34 million to win a seat in New Jersey. In this case, Demos has already pumped $2 million of his own money into the race, and Newsday says he may invest more. But the ad doesn’t do that. Instead, it creates a narrative that isn’t supported by the facts.

— Eugene Kiely