Tom Suozzi portrait
From the Soup Kitchen at St. Paul’s to the Halls of Congress
A commitment to serving others has been a constant for Rep. Tom Suozzi ’89—both as a student at Fordham Law and throughout his career as a public servant.
By Eugene K. Chow
In a long, unbroken tradition, at the end of every semester, the Fordham Law library swells with students feverishly preparing for their final exams.

But some three decades ago, amid the usual flurry of outlines, case briefs, and practice tests came an unusual request that would help set in motion a profound shift at Fordham Law.

Church of St. Paul the Apostle
Top, Tom Suozzi’s photo from the 1989 Fordham Law Yearbook. Middle, Church of St. Paul the Apostle, as seen from Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus.
“Please help me make sandwiches at the soup kitchen across the street,” asked a young law student.

With finals looming, the request was met with shock and hesitation. Yet that student persisted and managed to convince a group of volunteers to leave the library, head over to the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, and prepare food at the soup kitchen.

Unbeknownst to him, with that bid for volunteers, Tom Suozzi ’89 helped unleash a wave of student interest in public service at Fordham Law, laying the groundwork for student-run social justice initiatives that would become a model for law schools around the nation.

When Robert J. Reilly ’75, Fordham Law’s then assistant dean of student affairs, heard what had transpired in the library in the middle of finals, he was stunned.

“It takes a lot of courage to stand up there and say that,” says Dean Reilly.

As Suozzi recalled, he was studying in the library when it came time to report for his volunteer shift at the soup kitchen at St. Paul’s Church, where he had been regularly helping out on his own time making sandwiches for the meal service.

“I was overwhelmed like everyone else was studying for finals,” Suozzi recalls. “So I decided to go around and ask people if they would come help me make sandwiches.”

While he was initially rebuffed, Suozzi eventually succeeded in winning over his classmates by reasoning that if enough of them joined him they could finish the job in just 15 or 20 minutes.

Ever since then, that ability to inspire—and persuade—others and bring them together in common cause has been a hallmark of Suozzi’s career.

In fact, just four years after graduating from Fordham Law, Suozzi would become the youngest mayor of his hometown of Glen Cove, New York. After serving four terms as mayor, he was twice elected Nassau County Executive, becoming the first Democrat to win that traditionally Republican seat in three decades.

“Without [Tom] and a few other key student leaders, the seed for what became PIRC would not have been there.”
—Tom Schoenherr
Now, Suozzi is serving his third term in Congress, representing a key swing district on Long Island.

His classmate Jay Sullivan ’89, an author, columnist, and adjunct professor at Fordham Law, is not surprised Suozzi has dedicated his life to service as an elected official.

“It’s what his talent is: solving problems, building relationships, and getting people to work together,” Sullivan says.

Tom Suozzi on the phone
Turning Ideals Into Action
Suozzi was born into a family steeped in service. Both his parents were fixtures in their community, dispensing legal advice, providing loans, and doing whatever they could to help their neighbors in need.

Suozzi’s father, an Italian immigrant, served in the U.S. Air Force in World War II before attending Harvard Law on the G.I. bill. He went on to sit as a justice on the New York State Supreme Court. Meanwhile, his mother was a nurse and community activist who helped launch a beloved local summer concert series. Both have since passed, but their mark on the community can still be felt.

While Suozzi credits his family with instilling a belief in service and a strong set of moral values, it was his time at Fordham Law that helped turn those ideals into action.

“I always had an idealistic bent, between my mom and dad and their public service—and from church—but I didn’t really do anything about it,” Suozzi says.

After a brief stint as an accountant, Suozzi enrolled at Fordham Law.

“I loved being in school again. I loved my professors, loved reading, loved the environment—and I really started to do things that I always thought about in an idealistic, romanticized way,” Suozzi says.

In part, Suozzi was inspired to act by what he saw happening around him. When he began attending Fordham Law in the mid-1980s, New York City was grappling with a troubling surge in homelessness.

“Homelessness was just exploding in New York City at the time, and I wanted to do something about it,” Suozzi says.

So he began volunteering at the soup kitchen and the homeless shelter at the Church of St. Paul.

Sullivan still remembers the day Suozzi walked into class looking particularly tired.

“For a man with boundless energy to look tired, there had to be a really good reason,” Sullivan remembers. “When I asked him, he said he hadn’t slept all night because he was working in the basement of St. Paul’s at the homeless shelter.”

“I really came into my own because I had been given that responsibility. I was now taking action and doing things as opposed to just thinking about them or talking about them.”
—Tom Suozzi
“I think you weren’t supposed to go to sleep at all. I remember being delirious in the middle of the night because I was so tired,” Suozzi says.

He continued to volunteer in his spare time, but everything changed after he gathered those students at the library to make sandwiches during finals. Norris Professor of Law John Feerick ’61, dean of the Law School at the time, had gotten word of Suozzi’s audacious ask and called him in for a meeting.

As Suozzi recalls, Feerick was interested in encouraging public service at Fordham Law, and short of making it mandatory, urged him to start an organization at the school.

“I had never really run anything like that, and I was excited to get something started,” he says.

And so the Fordham Law School Public Service Project was born. Modeled after the nonprofit New York Cares, it connected students with local nonprofits in need of volunteers based on their time and interests.

“The idea was to make it easy for people so they could take an hour, two hours, or however long they had, and it would be very convenient for them to go and volunteer,” Suozzi says.

Volunteer opportunities included the soup kitchen and homeless shelter at St. Paul’s Church, caring for babies at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital who had been exposed to crack cocaine in the womb, delivering meals to homebound seniors, and tutoring elementary school students.

That initial meeting with Feerick proved to be a pivotal moment in Suozzi’s life.

“Dean Feerick was very influential in my life because he was very encouraging, and he gave me this responsibility. I really came into my own because I had been given that responsibility,” Suozzi says. “I was now taking action and doing things as opposed to just thinking about them or talking about them.”

Ripe for Encouragement
When Suozzi began attending Fordham Law in the mid-1980s, there was a growing interest in social justice and public service within the legal profession, but according to Reilly, that interest had yet to fully manifest itself in law schools in a widespread or formal way.

“Dean Feerick, who was looking out around the country, could see that this was something that was right and ripe for encouragement. So when people came to him with ideas that they wanted to move in that direction, he let his light shine upon them, as they say,” says Reilly.

While Suozzi was starting the Public Service Project to encourage community service beyond the legal profession, his classmate Jay Sullivan was launching the Student Sponsored Fellowship, which offered a stipend to law students eager to spend their summer working full-time at nonprofits, government agencies, or other public service–oriented positions.

The fellowship was initially entirely organized and funded by students. In its earliest incarnation, funding came from a bold premise: Students who secured high-paying summer jobs at prestigious law firms were asked to donate one day’s salary to support the living expenses of a student who chose to work at a nonprofit or public service–oriented organization for the summer.

In later years, fundraising efforts grew to include an annual charity auction with alumni, where bids on an ordinary loaf of homemade soda bread would reach as high as $10,000. In the spirit of what he saw, Feerick agreed to match the amount raised by students.

Tom Schoenherr bidding
Tom Schoenherr bidding at the Fordham Student Sponsored Fellowship Auction in 2009. The Fellowship began as an initiative of classmates Jay Sullivan and Tom Suozzi.
“It shows the enthusiasm that Jay and Tom were able to generate through their own example and pushing to get this done,” says Sharon McCarthy ’89, who attended Fordham Law with both Suozzi and Sullivan and formerly served as president of the Fordham Law Alumni Association.

The interest in service they helped inspire took on a life of its own, and the Student Sponsored Fellowship and the Public Service Project continued to grow and evolve, eventually becoming a part of Fordham’s Public Interest Resource Center (PIRC).

Under the leadership of Thomas Schoenherr, the founder and assistant dean of PIRC, Fordham Law became a pioneer among law schools in fostering pro bono and community service projects among students. In particular, Fordham Law’s public interest fellowships served as a model, inspiring similar programs at law schools across the country, and are now commonplace.

With Schoenherr’s help, what began with Suozzi and Sullivan’s two initiatives has grown to nearly two dozen student groups that focus on everything from reproductive rights to immigration, housing, criminal justice reform, and more.

Today, nearly 500 students participate in PIRC initiatives and projects each year, and the class of 2021 completed more than 130,000 hours of public service work.

“[Tom] is constantly looking for ways to teach and to give back to Fordham. I think he feels very indebted to Fordham for all that it did for him. So when he has the time, he’s very happy to jump in and do whatever it is the school needs.”
—Sharon McCarthy ’89
Schoenherr credits Suozzi, Sullivan, and a handful of others with helping to lay the groundwork for the center.

“Without [Tom] and a few other key student leaders, the seed for what became PIRC would not have been there,” Schoenherr says. “Tom Suozzi was one of our primary student leaders and drivers during those crucial early years. He deserves much credit for the role he played in making the initial contacts to start these projects, and in bringing these opportunities to the attention of all of our students.”

Before this student-led interest in public service, Feerick recalled “a different school” in the late 1950s and early 1960s when he was a student at Fordham Law.

“The idea was to serve, but not necessarily in public service,” he explained.

However, by the late ’80s and the arrival of students like Suozzi and his classmates who had a deep interest in serving the community, Feerick says, “there was a drumbeat at Fordham Law School with these organizations.”

“Between the students gathering at the cafeteria, the bulletin boards, and the student group offices, you couldn’t turn around without being reminded of the idea of serving others,” he says.

For his many efforts to promote public service, Suozzi was awarded the New York State Bar Association’s Student Legal Ethics Award upon graduation.

In reflecting on the impact of Suozzi’s efforts, Reilly says, “Those seeds landed in warm soil, were watered and grew, and Fordham now has one of the best reputations for student-engaged social justice programs in the country.”

Echoing Reilly, Feerick says, “Tom made a very significant contribution to the life of the school.”

Bridging Divides
“You could not not know Tom. He was always extremely enthusiastic about whatever it was he was doing and working on. He always had a project—something he was passionate about,” recalled McCarthy, who is now a partner at Kostelanetz and Fink where she also serves as the pro bono coordinator.

In addition to his volunteer work and the Public Service Project, Suozzi helped restart the Fordham Democrats, hosting dinners with political luminaries like Ted Sorenson, President Kennedy’s senior advisor and principal speechwriter, as well as mayoral candidate forums with Ed Koch and David Dinkins.

Suozzi even found time to sing, portraying Feerick in one of the early productions of the “Fordham Follies.” To this day, Suozzi remembers his lines to “Don’t Cry for Me Fordham Law School,” a satirical take on the popular musical Evita, which Sullivan had penned.

Notably, in a precursor to his future endeavors, Suozzi convened a diverse group of students to read and discuss The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom, a popular but controversial book at the time that argued institutes of higher education were failing students and, in turn, American democracy.

With Feerick’s support, the group would meet in his conference room to have frank discussions, promote debate, and ultimately come to a better understanding of one another and opposing viewpoints.

Suozzi recieves a Fordham Law tie
Suozzi recieves a Fordham Law tie from Fordham Law’s Democracy and the Constitution Clinic students and Dean Emeritus John Feerick during a meeting at Suozzi’s Capitol building office.
Making Time for Fordham Law
No matter how busy he is on Capitol Hill, Suozzi has made a concerted effort to stay engaged with Fordham Law.

“[Tom] is constantly looking for ways to teach and to give back to Fordham. I think he feels very indebted to Fordham for all that it did for him. So when he has the time, he’s very happy to jump in and do whatever it is the school needs,” McCarthy says.

As an example, McCarthy pointed to the recent untimely passing of their Fordham Law classmate, Joe Vitale ’89, who went on to become a labor lawyer. Suozzi has helped lead the effort to raise money and create a scholarship in Vitale’s honor, a goal they are well on their way to achieving with his help.

Suozzi has also regularly met with Fordham Law’s Democracy and the Constitution Clinic, offering feedback to students on their proposals for reforming our nation’s institutions. These meetings were facilitated by Conor Walsh ’15, Suozzi’s legislative director, who also credits Feerick as having a significant impact on his career.

After graduating from Fordham Law, Walsh, who was always keen on working in politics, turned his eye toward the Democratic Congressional primary on Long Island and saw that Suozzi, a fellow Fordham Law alumnus, was running.

Upon hearing Feerick “raving” about Suozzi, Walsh joined his campaign as a volunteer, working his way up to press secretary and eventually policy director.

Finding Common Ground
Just as Suozzi sought to foster debate and understand opposing viewpoints at Fordham Law, he has taken that same approach to his work on Capitol Hill. He currently serves as vice-chair of the House Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of Congressional members committed to working together to find commonsense solutions to our country’s biggest challenges.

“We’re 28 Democrats and 28 Republicans that meet on a regular basis to try and find common ground,” Suozzi explains. “I’m very much about balance. It’s never my way or the highway.”

Suozzi speaking in front of the capitol
Suozzi speaking about the pivotal role the House Problem Solvers Caucus played in building bipartisan support to help pass the landmark COVID-19 relief bill in December 2020.

Photo courtesy of Rep. Tom Suozzi

The caucus played a pivotal role in building bipartisan support to help pass the landmark COVID-19 relief bills and is using that same approach to make headway on infrastructure, broadband expansion, health care, immigration reform, and more.

Between social media, the 24-hour news cycle, and foreign countries actively seeking to inflame existing tensions, Suozzi says, “things are moving so quickly and we’re so intense.”

“You can’t solve complicated problems in an environment of fear and anger. You can only solve complicated problems when you have people of goodwill who are willing to sit down with one another and work together to try and find common ground,” he observes.

To that end, Suozzi has sought to build relationships with his Republican counterparts, joining the bipartisan workout group and serving as co-chair of the National Prayer Breakfast, so that he can have those deeper conversations.

“I make a point of having dinner with people to try and get to know them,” Suozzi says. “There are a lot of wonderful people [in Congress] on both sides of the aisle, and we’re all just very different from each other. The country is very different from place to place.”

For someone who makes a concerted effort to have honest conversations and find common ground—even with those he disagrees with—Suozzi found the events that unfolded at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, particularly painful to witness.

Before rioters had stormed the police barricades outside the Capitol, Suozzi was in the gallery of the House chamber as members debated on the floor below.

“I was thinking about the juxtaposition of debate taking place in the chamber and the rumors of the violence starting to escalate outside and the difference of what our country is really about,” he recalled. “While I disagreed strongly with my colleagues on the other side who were objecting to the Electoral College votes, at least we were debating.”

That debate was interrupted when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer were rushed out of the chamber by security. Shortly thereafter, Capitol Police entered, secured the doors, and eventually began evacuating the area.

Inside the Insurrection
Rep. Tom Suozzi recounts the harrowing day an angry mob stormed the Capitol building.
As the insurrectionists laid siege to the House chamber, banging on the doors below, the evacuation was halted after a gunshot rang out. Suozzi found himself trapped in the gallery with a handful of remaining House members, staffers, and Capitol Police.

“We weren’t sure it was safe to go outside into the hallway because we were hearing banging and commotion outside,” says Suozzi. “We had to wait an interminable amount of time and we were really not sure whether people were going to break through the doors or not.”

The shot Suozzi heard was a Capitol Police officer fatally shooting 35-year-old Ashli Babbitt as she tried to enter the Speaker’s Lobby.

As the day’s events unfolded, Suozzi thought, “I can’t believe this is happening in the United States of America.”

“I’m very hopeful. I have great faith in people and in our system. As dark as it seems sometimes, I know spring is coming.”
—Tom Suozzi
“The big thing on my mind when we were out of the chamber and in the secure location was we have to get back. We cannot let 24 hours or 48 hours go by without us certifying the election of Biden as president,” Suozzi says. “It would send the worst message in the world that we were intimidated by that violent mob, that we were not going to fulfill our constitutional duty.”

Upon returning to the Capitol, Suozzi found it “incredibly depressing to see all the debris, remnants of tear gas, puddles, and broken furniture” and characteristically offered to help coordinate the cleanup to expedite a return to the legislative chamber.

But, he says, “I realized I was just in the way, so I went back to my office,” which had been evacuated earlier that day after a pipe bomb was found nearby.

Looking Ahead
After two decades in public office, and in spite of being witness to one of our country’s darkest days, Suozzi remains unshaken about America’s future.

“I’m very hopeful. I have great faith in people and in our system. As dark as it seems sometimes, I know spring is coming,” he says.

As evidence, Suozzi points to the most recent COVID-19 stimulus bill, the American Rescue Plan Act.

“We’re going to help people who are really suffering right now,” he says. “[This] 1.9 trillion dollar stimulus package is going to dramatically change a lot of people’s lives—it’s going to cut the number of children in poverty by half; it’s going to increase the incomes of the people in the lowest quintile by 20 percent.”

Looking ahead, Suozzi is eager to work with the Biden administration, particularly on repealing the 2017 cap placed on federal deductions for state and local taxes (SALT), which resulted in a tax increase for many middle-class families and disproportionately affects New Yorkers.

Earlier this year, Suozzi was one of the lead sponsors of the SALT Deductibility Act, a bipartisan bill that would allow taxpayers to fully deduct their state and local taxes on their federal income returns.

In addition, Suozzi has long been committed to immigration reform that balances a path to citizenship with steps to secure the border. The issue has taken greater urgency in recent months as record numbers of unaccompanied children have attempted to cross into the United States from South American countries.

In April, Suozzi traveled to the southern border with members of the Problem Solvers Caucus to meet with local leaders, nonprofits, businesses, and law enforcement as part of an effort to find bipartisan solutions to address this crisis.

Though our country faces this and many other daunting challenges, Suozzi remains confident that we can overcome them.

“We’re going to get through this because there are a lot of good people that want to do the right thing. It just requires a lot of hard work,” he says.

That hard work is incumbent upon all of us, Suozzi says. “Everybody has to do their piece” to live up to the “ideals that we’ve all been told are important.”