There is something about The North Shore Leader (circulation: give or take 20,000) that gets right under George Santos’s skin. While he has refused recent requests for comment about his many alleged misdeeds from Politico and The New York Times and hasn’t even given an interview to Fox News since the middle of February, he responded to my e-mail inquiry about the tiny local paper in little over an hour. Perhaps this should come as no surprise: The North Shore Leader was the first newspaper to call out his lies and begin what ultimately became a devastating, and hugely entertaining, media pile-on.

“This newspaper would like to endorse a Republican for US Congress,” wrote the editors of The North Shore Leader about New York’s Third Congressional District election back in October 2022. “But the GOP nominee – George Santos – is so bizarre, unprincipled and sketchy that we cannot.” Upping the ante, they called Santos “an insecure child,” “a fabulist,” and “a fake.”

I confess I’ve been a loyal reader of The North Shore Leader for more than a decade. It’s ubiquitous in the hamlet on the North Shore of Long Island where I spend a good part of my summers aboard a small sailboat. The paper’s virtues are quaint, it goes well with a cocktail, and you can read it from front to back in less than 15 minutes as you settle in for the weekend.

That’s plenty of time to review the tide tables, read about the 5K Turkey Trot, and catch up on the latest skirmish between the two feuding factions of local oystermen. (Go Baymen!) Most importantly, its thick, no-nonsense recycled-paper stock makes a terrific drop cloth for messy paint and epoxy boat jobs. In short, it’s not the sort of venue that would seem primed to raise anyone’s hackles.

But The North Shore Leader is also devoutly Republican, so when the paper’s editorial page revealed George Santos’s association with Harbor City Capital, a “classic Bernie Madoff ‘Ponzi scheme’ fraud,” and even dished that “fed-up” local G.O.P. members had taken to calling their candidate “George Scam-tos,” and were concerned he was “trying to sabotage other Republicans,” it can only have seemed to Santos like a stab in the back.

The paper concluded that in the upcoming election for the Third Congressional District—an area carved out of the top half of Long Island from Queens to Oyster Bay—there was no other choice but to endorse Santos’s Democratic opponent, Robert Zimmerman, “a gentleman” who had graciously served as a pallbearer at longtime Nassau County G.O.P. chairman Joe Mondello’s funeral three months before. Zimmerman would surely follow in his predecessor’s “bi-partisan suburban footsteps.” If even The North Shore Leader was endorsing Zimmerman, I thought, there was no way Santos could possibly win.

“A Potemkin campaign”: Santos and his lawn signs.

But the paper’s investigation failed to gain any traction. And it wasn’t until two months later that The New York Times detonated its own self-described “explosive” investigation into Santos’s résumé and finances. By then it was too late. The election had taken place, the Democratic base had failed to rally round the bipartisan Zimmerman, and George Santos had managed to turn New York’s richest congressional district red for the first time in a decade.

Local G.O.P. members had taken to calling their candidate “George Scam-tos.”

The North Shore Leader has been around since 1946. It’s owned and published by Mineola attorney Grant Lally, who inherited it from his father after he died, in 2015. (His father had owned another Long Island paper, The South Shore Press, and bought The North Shore Leader in 1998.) A fixture in local Republican politics, Lally himself ran for Santos’s seat in 2014 but lost to the incumbent Democrat by a nearly 10-point margin.

Lally distinctly remembers his first meeting with Santos, at a diner near his law office in early 2020. Santos had just announced his inaugural run for the House. “I’d never heard of him before,” Lally recalls. “But because my family owned the Leader, and I’d run for the seat before, he was looking for political and newspaper support.”

As Santos boasted about being a “self-made” Brazilian multi-millionaire, Lally grew increasingly skeptical. “His demeanor was very odd. He sort of sprawled back in his chair, fiddling with his fingers, giggling. He didn’t hold himself out like anybody who was a wealthy finance executive. To me, the person I was looking at didn’t fit the bio.”

Their second encounter came a month later, at the New York Athletic Club, and was even more bizarre than the first. Lally says Santos came “running up” to talk to him in an extremely inappropriate manner. “He was just spitting scorn about different Republican leaders,” Lally remembers. “He even called the Queens Republican chairwoman at the time ‘a bitch.’”

When I asked Santos about this anecdote he was quick to reply, “This is a fabricated story by a man I saw a hand full of times in my life. At the time I had a strong relationship with the former chairwoman now [New York City] councilwoman. I also am known for not referring to people in negative derogatory forms.” Santos went on, “I don’t recall much about Mr. Lally other than being told he was very homophobic by several people in Nassau and Suffolk GOP circles.”

One can trace the antipathy Santos feels toward The North Shore Leader back to what happened after his awkward diner meeting with Lally in 2020, when the paper’s editors decided they wouldn’t cover his congressional campaign. “We didn’t figure he was serious, and we didn’t yet have a sense of how deeply pathological he was,” Lally recalls. He also figured that Santos’s odds of winning were next to zero. Not only did the paper decide it wouldn’t cover Santos, the paper endorsed Santos’s opponent, Democratic incumbent Tom Suozzi. “But the weird stuff happened after that,” Lally says.

While the Third District’s mail-in votes were still being counted in November 2020, Santos traveled to Washington, D.C., declared himself the winner, and spent five days attending orientation events for newly, actually elected House members. He wouldn’t concede to Suozzi until two weeks after Election Day, claiming he had been “ambushed by the mail in ballots” that had, predictably, given Suozzi a double-digit margin of victory.

Best buddies: Santos talks to Marjorie Taylor Greene in the House chamber.

A week later, licking his wounds back home in Queens, Santos posted a photo on Instagram of himself with six real freshmen representatives, including Marjorie Taylor Greene. “I miss this crew!” he wrote. “Can’t wait to get ready to join them again in 2022, and STAY with them!” Santos evidently made an impression on Greene, who sent him a care package that included a cutout cookie of herself in her signature red dress. When he thanked her on Twitter, she replied, “Miss you George!”

Not surprisingly, Santos was back in Washington on January 5, 2021, to speak at a Stop the Steal coalition pre-rally. “Hey, Washington, my name’s George Santos, I’m from New York City,” he began his speech. “If you’re from New York, you know what they did to me. They did to me what they did to Donald J. Trump. They stole my election!”

In January of this year the local-news Web site Patch reported that Santos had been wearing a stolen Burberry scarf at the pre-rally, according to two former roommates. “The two men previously told Patch several items went missing while they lived with Santos, including phones, expensive dress shirts and checks,” wrote Patch’s Nassau County editor, Jacqueline Sweet.

(“I have a extensive amount of Burberry scarves from that same collection in various colors,” Santos wrote in response to my question about Burberrygate, attaching a photo of three of the aforementioned scarves. “The person making the claim I have not seen since 2016 and was a person I met and took in my house when he found himself homeless.”)

Marjorie Taylor Greene sent him a care package that included a cutout cookie of herself in her signature red dress.

Lally says when he ran into Santos at social events from then on, Santos “would pointedly turn his face and walk away.… He must have decided our endorsement of Suozzi was an unpardonable sin.” In June 2021, Santos announced he would again be running for the Third District seat.

He marked the occasion by releasing a cringe-worthy video to Fox News, in which he kicked off by announcing, “Don’t N.Y.C. my Long Island”—awkwardly overemphasizing the “lawn guyland” g—then rolled out such dusty clichés as “I’m not another fat-cat politician” and “Let’s send these commies packin’.”

Lally was as skeptical as he had been two years earlier. A brutal Democratic gerrymander was predicted, and it wasn’t expected that there’d be any competitive seats for Republicans. But after a state judge declared the Democrats’ map unconstitutional, and a court-appointed “special master” was tasked with re-drawing its boundaries, “out of the blue, and very unexpectedly, the new district was pretty Republican,” says Lally. Santos told the Queens Daily Eagle in May 2022 that “based on these maps, I am even more confident in a fair fight that will [end] in [my] victory this November.”

Lally began to wonder if Santos’s second time might be the charm. Lee Zeldin, the Trump-backing election denier who represented the Suffolk County end of the island, until he left Congress to run for governor, described Santos as “personable” and “charming” and gave him “my complete endorsement.” Former New York governor George Pataki followed suit, calling Santos “a hard worker that will take his work ethic to Washington.” Even House minority leader Kevin McCarthy rubber-stamped Santos: “George is the embodiment of the American dream and I am confident that he will fight tooth and nail to protect and defend it.”

As Santos’s campaign rolled on, The North Shore Leader’s editors began jotting down what they were hearing through the local G.O.P. grapevine. “People would tell us his stories in a sort of breathless ‘You’ll never believe what he said today,’” Lally recalls. “So we started compiling the stories and soon realized this guy’s completely pathological and there’s something profoundly wrong with him.”

Santos wears an allegedly stolen Burberry scarf at a Stop the Steal pre-rally on January 5, 2021.

When I asked Santos to respond to Lally’s claim that he is a pathological liar, he wrote, “I don’t entertain the negativity and most of the slander said about me. I don’t have time to waste or distract me from my work serving the people of NY03 to entertain tabloids.”

The North Shore Leader began digging into publicly available legal documents. “He was claiming to everyone he was living in mansions in Oyster Bay Cove, in the Hamptons,” says Lally, “but … he was listing a basement apartment in a row house in Queens as his home. If you’re a multi-millionaire, you’re probably not living in the basement of a row house in Queens.”

They also discovered that many of the Santos campaign’s financial filings were “grotesquely exaggerated and contained lots of ghost entries, meaning money from people who don’t exist, money that was probably never actually contributed,” Lally says. (“I can’t speak for all the donations received by my campaign as I had finance consultants who managed and oversaw the process,” Santos admits, but says, “I did not falsify donations to any campaign of mine.”) Given the apparently significant sums the Santos campaign had raised, another red flag was the relative absence of television and radio advertising. “He ran a Potemkin campaign,” says Lally, “in that he put a lot of lawn signs up, maybe more than I’ve ever seen.”

The North Shore Leader’s editors resolved that it was their journalistic duty to warn people about Santos, even though they risked alienating their core readership. But when major news outlets such as NBC and The New York Times did mention the election, it wasn’t due to the irregularities the local paper had uncovered but because it was the first congressional race to have been contested between two openly gay candidates.

“This guy’s completely pathological and there’s something profoundly wrong with him.”

Three weeks after The North Shore Leader published its damning editorial, Santos beat Zimmerman by eight percentage points. Since then, hardly a day has gone by in the national news cycle that hasn’t included another Santos revelation, each stranger than the last, from his drag-queen past to his alleged bilking of dog charities, and now to his strange role as a luxury-yacht broker.

There are reportedly more than half a dozen state and federal investigations of Santos underway, finally putting him in league with his idol, Donald J. Trump. For his part, Trump did not endorse Santos, and in January told a reporter, “He’s told some whoppers.” High praise from the master.

Two weeks ago, for the first time, Santos publicly acknowledged his Mineola nemesis. “It’s rich to see the scam called Grant Lally coming after me,” he wrote on Twitter, accusing Lally of being “openly homophobic” and “fabricating and creating false narratives to continue the pile on, on me.” A bemused Lally responded, “Considering that The Leader endorsed an openly gay man—against Santos—it’s ridiculous that he would accuse us of being ‘homophobic.’ He is getting desperate and unbalanced.”

More than 350 local weekly newspapers have shut down across the country since the end of 2019, at an average rate of two per week. The coronavirus only accelerated the trend. But, says Lally, the “uptick in attention” The North Shore Leader has gotten for being the first to expose Santos has led to “a whole slew of subscription renewals and new subscriptions, and it’s helped with advertising.”

Whether you agree with its politics or not, we’re all better off when small papers such as The North Shore Leader continue to punch above their weight by breaking big, important stories, and being persistent thorns in our political representatives’ sides.

And, don’t forget, they also make terrific drop cloths.

Matt Kapp is the Research & Legal Editor for AIR MAIL