Peter Tu is thrilled about meeting with Rob Astorino, the Republican candidate for governor of New York. Tu is the executive director of the Flushing Chinese Business Association and a leader in the large Chinese-American community in Queens. He’s also a self-professed Democrat. But he’s nonetheless starstruck by Astorino.
“He is a movie star!” Tu says, several times, as he introduces the Republican. With his perfectly parted hair and sonorous tenor, the 47-year-old Astorino may look and sound the part, but the Westchester County executive spent his career not in movies but in sports radio, founding and heading up New York’s ESPN radio station. And despite Tu’s excitement over meeting a big-timer, Astorino is still relatively unknown just two-and-a-half months before the election. In one recent poll, more than half of respondents said they didn’t know enough about Astorino to have an opinion of him.
But things may be changing. “These are the kind of meetings that weren’t being granted six months ago, but now people are starting to think that we’ve got a chance to win,” the candidate tells me as we leave the Chinese business group meeting in Flushing. Later in the day, Astorino does a walking tour of a strip of South Asian-owned jewelry and clothing shops in Jackson Heights, and an honest-to-God entourage of Indian men are following close behind, eagerly craning their necks and snapping photos on their phones. At a lunch stop in Corona, a working-class neighborhood where Astorino’s mother grew up, restaurant staff and customers approach to get their pictures taken with the candidate. “For our Facebook page,” gushes the hostess. One college-bound teen from Long Island is there with his family and asks politely for a photo. Astorino obliges, wishes the kid good luck as he heads off to school, and adds, “Don’t forget to vote absentee!”
Of course, he’ll need more than attention in his bid to unseat Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo. Since Astorino announced he was running in March, Cuomo has led by at least 30 points in nearly every poll. The latest survey, from Quinnipiac, shows Cuomo with 56 percent support and Astorino with 24. The best polling news for the Republican in months came in July, when the New York Times and CBS News found him trailing by “only” 24 points.
But better, possibly game-changing news for Astorino also came that month, when the Times revealed that federal prosecutors were investigating Cuomo and his aides over the abrupt closure of a powerful anticorruption commission. Cuomo himself established the 25-member Moreland Commission in July 2013 as an answer to the state’s culture of corruption, a way of, in the words of the governor and a big banner behind him at the press conference, “restoring public trust.” The commission made it into Cuomo’s campaign ads, with the governor pitching an “independent commission” led by “top law enforcement officials” to “clean up the legislative corruption in Albany.”
But as the Times reported, the commission’s investigations into campaign-finance law violations were “hobbled” once it began looking into officials connected with Cuomo. In one instance, the commission subpoenaed an ad-buying firm while investigating the activities of the state Democratic party. The firm, however, had also done work for Cuomo’s 2010 campaign for governor. According to the Times, a senior Cuomo aide called one of the commission’s co-chairs and told him to “pull back” the subpoena. The subpoena, the paper reports, was “swiftly withdrawn.” It would be one of several questionable interventions into the anticorruption panel’s activities by the governor’s office. In March 2014, Cuomo shut down the Moreland Commission entirely, nine months before its proposed closure, prompting the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office to investigate.
If the federal investigation into Cuomo and the Moreland Commission becomes a full-fledged scandal, it could be the boon Astorino’s been looking for. New Yorkers are already fed up with their corrupt state government—Quinnipiac finds more than 80 percent say corruption is a “very” or “somewhat serious” problem. Since 2010, nine current or recent members of the state assembly have been convicted on corruption charges ranging from tax evasion to bribery to mail fraud. The former Democratic state senate majority leader was found guilty of embezzling millions of dollars from public health clinics. But for Astorino, the Moreland Commission investigation tops them all.
“He puts together an anticorruption commission and corrupts it,” Astorino says. “That tells you everything you need to know about New York.”