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.”
Astorino hopes “Cuomogate” will prompt voters to stop simply “rolling their eyes” and realize how widespread and expensive the problem has become. “The corruption is, in many ways, paid for by the average New Yorker in a stealth corruption tax,” he says. “The slimy deals they cut for themselves in Albany have to be paid for. Who pays for that? We all do in higher taxes, a poorer business climate.”
Astorino needs the anticorruption message to resonate not just in the conservative upstate region but also the New York City suburbs, where residents are paying their “corruption” tax through, among other things, high property taxes. Between 2008 and 2012, property tax rates increased by more than 28 percent statewide but by 35 to 40 percent in the suburban New York counties. Democrats have recently had success in these counties—Westchester, Rockland, and Orange, and Nassau and Suffolk on Long Island—but only marginally. Cuomo in 2010 and Eliot Spitzer in 2006 won the New York suburbs handily, but in 2012 Barack Obama won most of these areas by only a couple percentage points.
While Democrats have had a loose hold on the suburbs, the GOP can’t win statewide elections without them. The only Republican governor of New York since the 1970s, George Pataki, won all five major suburban counties, and with them, he was elected three times. Pataki didn’t have to win New York City, and neither does Astorino. “The battle is in the upstate and in the suburbs,” he says. His model is similar to the one Pataki used in his successful 1994 challenge to Andrew Cuomo’s father Mario; Astorino says it was encouragement from his mentor Pataki that finally pushed him to run.
“We had breakfast in December,” Astorino tells me. “He said, ‘I don’t know where your head’s at, but I’m here to convince you that you should run and you can win.’ ”
Astorino has a built-in advantage, too, as the twice-elected executive of Westchester County. After losing to the longtime Democratic incumbent in 2005 by 16 points, he ran again in 2009 and pulled off a stunning upset by a margin of more than 12 points. Astorino was reelected last year, again by 12 points. That’s not a bad base of support from which to begin a suburbs-centric campaign.
“Westchester County is a very influential county, it’s a very large county, it’s a very mixed county. If we can win in a diverse county, with two-to-one Democratic enrollment, then I think we should be learning from that example,” he says.
The goal for Astorino is to improve his name recognition and make the impossible—beating Andrew Cuomo—seem possible. He points out that in 1994 the polls had Mario Cuomo ahead of Pataki to the very end. But Pataki was never 30 points down, either, which shows one of the sharpest differences between the two races. It’s one reason why in July Chris Christie, the governor next door in New Jersey and chairman of the Republican Governors Association, called the race a “lost cause” for the GOP and said he likely wouldn’t be campaigning for or donating to Astorino if the numbers didn’t tighten.
Astorino responded on a local radio show, saying the New Jersey governor should resign his RGA post; he even suggested there could be a “side deal or a quid pro quo or a handshake” between Christie and Cuomo over Christie’s own “Bridgegate” scandal.
When I ask him a few weeks later about Christie’s “lost cause” remarks, Astorino laughs. “It was a stupid comment to make, and I think he had every opportunity to change his opinion of this race, because two days after, the New York Times broke the story on Governor Cuomo’s federal investigation,” he says.
The Christie flap has transformed Astorino’s campaign into something of a proxy for likely GOP presidential candidates. Almost immediately after Christie made the comment, the New York Post splashily reported that Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal—Christie’s predecessor at the RGA and a potential 2016 rival—had promised to headline a high-dollar fundraiser for Astorino in New York. So have other possible presidential candidates: Rick Perry of Texas, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, and Mike Pence of Indiana. Perhaps they really do see an opportunity for Astorino to capitalize on a growing scandal for Cuomo and disenchantment with Democratic policies in the suburbs to pull off an upset win in a big state. But it’s also smart presidential politics for would-be contenders to appear early and often in front of New York-based GOP donors.
Even Astorino himself pitches his long-shot candidacy in terms of the next presidential election. “If the Republican party is going to compete nationally, they’ve got to do much better in the suburbs and in the Northeast,” he says. “If we win New York, it changes the entire landscape in 2016.”
Michael Warren is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.