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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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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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