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A Rare Specimen

Rob Astorino, successful New York Republican

Dec 2, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 12 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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On November 5, Republican Rob Astorino was reelected executive of upscale Westchester County, which lies directly north of New York City, between the Hudson River and Long Island Sound. Back from a week of postelection beachifying in Puerto Rico, Astorino is already thinking about running for office again—next year, for governor, against the incumbent Democrat, Andrew Cuomo, who intends to seek a second term.

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Rob Astorino

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Astorino will decide whether to run, he told me, by the middle of March. And he will run, it appears, if he thinks he can raise the $28 million he believes is needed to mount a campaign with “a real shot of winning.” 

Astorino is relatively unknown in a state in which Democrats have twice as many registered voters as Republicans. Yet Astorino, who is 46, would bring some important assets to a race for governor.

For one, he has evident media skills, having worked in radio and television since graduating from Fordham University, where he majored in communications. In 2001, he helped found ESPN Radio, and later he directed the conversion of WEVD-AM in New York City from a Disney to an all-sports format. He concedes, by the way, that he is a “big sports fan.” 

Also, Astorino is “likable,” as Ari Fleischer puts it. “He’s a good-natured, friendly guy,” says Fleischer, who served as White House press secretary for President George W. Bush and now lives in Westchester County. “In a business where there’s a lot of small-mindedness .  .  . [Astorino] is naturally nice.”

Another asset is that Astorino is a Republican who has succeeded in a county (population one million) whose political make-up is the same as the state’s, 2-to-1 Democratic. Astorino is a conservative focused on basic economic issues, on taxes and spending. But in his heavily Democratic county, he has reached out to Democrats and independ-ents. The point, he says, is to build the coalitions necessary to win elections. And that is precisely how he has won. 

Interestingly, for Astorino there is a moral argument for reaching beyond the party base to what he calls “non-traditional Republican areas.” As he explains, “people need a choice.” And “people have to know,” he says with emphasis, “that there is a choice.” The candidate must reach out and make this clear to them. 

“Rob draws people in,” observes Fleischer, meaning people who are unlikely Republican voters. In the recent election, Astorino won the support of the presidents of two local chapters of the NAACP. According to his campaign’s internal polls, he received significant levels of support in the county’s black and Hispanic communities, which typically vote for Democrats by large margins. Indeed, the campaign’s last internal poll showed that 61 percent of the voters in Hispanic areas favored Astorino. It helps that he speaks fluent Spanish. In New York state, according to Pew Research, Hispanics make up one-fifth of the population (in Westchester, 22 percent). 

Suffice it to say, Astorino is a proven vote getter. Born and raised in the county, he won his first race for local office (a seat on the Mount Pleasant Board of Education) when he was 21 and his second (a seat on the Mount Pleasant Town Board) when he was 24. He was twice reelected and subsequently won a seat on the Westchester Board of Legislators. He has lost only once, in 2005, when, in a bid for county executive, he challenged the two-term Democratic incumbent, Andy Spano, who raised four times as much money for the race as he did. In 2009 Astorino again challenged Spano, but this time he pulled off the upset, winning by 58 to 42 percent. Last month, in fending off Democratic challenger Noam Bramson, mayor of New Rochelle, Astorino won 56 percent of the vote.

“The message didn’t change,” says Astorino. “We were defending what we had done, [and] it turned out that people agreed.” A Marist poll taken four weeks before the election found that 64 percent of county voters thought Westchester was going in the “right direction.” Meanwhile, a Siena College poll released in late October found that 44 percent of New York voters thought the Empire State was going in the right direction, and the same percentage thought it was going in the wrong direction. 

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