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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. 

That Astorino holds the job he does could also prove an asset in a race for the executive office at the next level of government. The jurisdictions and the issues before a county executive and a governor are different in many respects. But certain things are expected of executives (including presidents) regardless of where they sit. They craft budgets and seek to enact them (as Astorino has every year, working with Democratic legislative majorities). And they may use the veto power against bad bills (as Astorino did so often early in his first term that he named his pen “Veto”). If Astorino runs for governor, Cuomo won’t be the only experienced executive in the race. 

As county executive, Astorino has shown, as one campaign consultant says, “a spine of titanium”—the sort of spine a leader is expected to have. Most arresting is his refusal to yield to the federal housing department’s now four-year-old demand for changes in local zoning laws to accommodate construction of more affordable housing units for low-income people. Sticking to his position has cost the county $7.4 million in housing grants that would otherwise have come to Westchester.

“This is a federalism issue,” says Astorino. If the Department of Housing and Urban Development “is permitted to wander into Westchester County and basically blow away local zoning and seize control over [housing] issues,” he tells me, “then it can and will [do that] everywhere.”

It  is on the strength of his core message that Astorino has succeeded in politics in Westchester. In 2009 he ran for county executive promising to “stop the tax madness” that had made Westchester’s property taxes among the highest in the country. Since 2004, Astorino told voters, the county’s property tax levy had gone up 17 percent. Upon taking office, he cut the levy 2 percent, and it has remained flat ever since.  

As for his promise to get spending under control, Astorino describes a process by which his new administration reviewed every department and chose priorities. He started cutting spending in his own office. In the first year, he reduced his own staff by 19 percent. He then looked at the entire county work force, and by the end of the term he had cut it by 15 percent. 

The biggest savings have come in health care. When Astorino was elected, the county paid the full cost of it, for all employees. Astorino started contributing to his own health care, and members of his staff started doing so as well. So did others in management positions. The remaining 90 percent of the county workforce are members of eight unions.

Through negotiations with seven of the unions, Astorino secured an employee contribution to health care. The eighth union—the Civil Service Employees Association—will meet soon with Astorino. In 2014, Westchester will save $4 million on health care. That sum may increase substantially if the CSEA follows the other unions’ lead. “It was not acceptable to me that taxpayers were paying 100 percent of government employees’ health care,” says Astorino. “That wasn’t sustainable, and it wasn’t fair.”

None of the reductions in staff affected programs for the least well-off, says an aide to Astorino. Structural changes, he says, were introduced, designed to make the programs more efficient and include more people in them. “We have to make sure that as Republicans we do care for people,” says Astorino. “There’s not an endless supply of money. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a different way to do things.”

Astorino describes his approach to fiscal policy as an effort to find “a healthy balance” between what taxpayers can afford and what people justifiably need in terms of services and programs. “We took our medicine,” he says, “made choices, and we are a much better, financially healthier county today than we were four years ago.” The county budget was $1.8 billion when Astorino took office in 2009 and is now $1.7 billion. Only four counties in the state have lower budgets in real dollars today than they did four years ago, he notes, adding, “We cut $172 million” during that time, and “the other three counties combined didn’t get near that.”

On his first day as county executive, Astorino wrote down three P’s that would guide him: Protect the taxpayers, preserve essential services, and promote economic growth. The first two would bear on the third, he thought. The county has added 27,000 private-sector jobs in the past four years. And while he knows better than to take full credit for that development, he thinks protecting the taxpayers and preserving essential services has communicated that “we are serious about changing the business climate.” 

And that climate does seem to be changing. PepsiCo was preparing to leave Westchester four years ago but has stayed and is now building new headquarters and making new hires. And Regeneron, the biotech company located in Tarrytown, is planning to hire hundreds of new workers.

Noam Bramson, Astorino’s recent challenger, went to Harvard, where he earned a B.A. and then an M.A. in public policy. He is a smart liberal Democrat, and, like Astorino, he has won multiple elections in Westchester County. Endorsed by local resident Bill Clinton, he ran a spirited race, spending more than $2 million. But he proved unable effectively to counter Astorino’s message on taxes and spending, expressed in those three P’s and put into practice over four years. 

Neither did Bramson succeed in persuading voters that Astorino does not share “our” values, meaning liberal ones. In 2012 Astorino, who is pro-life, vetoed a bill limiting protesters’ access to abortion clinics that was legally problematic; the veto was sustained, supported by two pro-abortion-rights legislators who agreed that the bill was bad law. Despite Bramson’s best efforts to paint Astorino as hostile to abortion rights, that didn’t become an issue for many voters. As for “marriage equality,” Astorino supports marriage as traditionally defined. But Albany settled the matter for New York two years ago when it defined marriage as the union of two people regardless of sex. “It’s a done issue,” Astorino told me, and Bramson was unable to activate it against him. 

Bramson also criticized Astorino for allowing gun shows to return to the county convention center. After the Columbine shootings in 1999, then county executive Spano decided to bar gun shows from the center. In 2010, after an 11-year absence, Astorino decided to reverse Spano’s decision. He let the shows return, with the necessary protocols, among them that for every sale there would be a background check and that no sales would occur outside the county center. Bramson, says an Astorino aide, “thought he had a good issue,” but it may have backfired on him. “Every time Bramson talked about the gun show decision, Astorino said it was time to stop demonizing gun owners.” 

Equally unsuccessful were Bramson’s efforts to tie Astorino to the Tea Party, whose presence is less substantial in Westchester, and the Northeast generally, than in other parts of the country. Voters weren’t moved. Astorino aides recall waking up one morning about a week before the election and seeing lawn signs identifying “Rob Astorino” as a “Tea Party Republican.” Those five words were the only ones on the signs. Nor was there any small print indicating who had sponsored the signs. “They were littered everywhere,” says one aide, and it seemed to have happened “literally overnight.” It was a desperate effort. 

Astorino’s campaign aides say that Bramson drew from the Democrats’ “national playbook,” using “divisive issues in an effort to play to the Democratic base.” If Astorino decides to run, that playbook may be opened once again. If it is, it may prove as ineffectual as it did in the race for Westchester executive. 

Yet could Astorino actually win? It might come down to whether New York voters see their statewide economic condition the same way Westchester voters came to see theirs—as bad enough to demand fresh leadership, the kind that will get them more value for their tax dollars. 

“The state is going in the wrong direction,” Astorino told me. “There needs to be fundamental change in Albany. . . . There is another way.”

A message, perhaps, to be continued. 

Terry Eastland is an executive editor at The Weekly Standard

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