New York is one of the least desirable states to live in, and Rob Astorino wants to change that.
According to the Tax Foundation, the Empire State ranks 50th in the United States for building a business. New York also has the highest taxes in the country. Astorino thinks that can’t go on, and he is running against Governor Andrew Cuomo in November. “Andrew Cuomo has done nothing to take this state out of dead last,” Astorino tells National Review Online in his Westchester campaign office.
Astorino, who trails Cuomo by 37 points in a Monday Siena College poll, is no stranger to being the dark horse. When he ran for Westchester County executive in 2009, Astorino notes, mid-July polls had him down by 30 points “against an incumbent who was considered popular and he outspent us 5 to 1 and yet we won the race by 13 points” in an area that is 49 percent Democratic and 24 percent Republican. In 2013 Astorino won reelection by an 11-point margin, with a substantially higher vote total than he got in 2009.
After asking his staff not to give away the ending of 24:Live Another Day, Astorino gives National Review Online a grimly determined take on the race. “It’s uphill, but it’s winnable,” he says.
Astorino’s team understands uphill battles. His organization includes William F. B. O’Reilly, a nephew of William F. Buckley Jr. who was instrumental in former representative Bob Turner’s successful campaign for Anthony Weiner’s seat. The seat had not been held by a Republican since the 1920s.
The Republican hopeful says he is not afraid to go into areas political consultants advise him to stay away from. He won his county-executive seat, he says, by going into African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods, often conversing in fluent Spanish. “We invested time in areas that we need to, and as a party as well,” Astorino says.
When asked about New Yorkers’ overall attitude towards the gubernatorial race, Astorino says, “The things I’m hearing the most from people throughout the state, and it doesn’t matter if it’s New York City or the suburbs or upstate, is a lot of people just feel like Cuomo hasn’t done anything. He’s not done anything to make it better and there’s no passion for Andrew Cuomo.”
Passion is something Astorino doesn’t lack. He becomes visibly excited when he talks about the New Yorkers he’s met on the campaign trail, especially when he talks about Westchester, where he grew up.
Astorino started his career in television and radio. One of his first jobs out of college at Fordham University was as a traffic reporter, getting a helicopter’s eye view of New York. “It was a lot prettier back then,” he jokes. In 2005, he helped launch the Catholic Channel nationwide on Sirius XM radio, a venture that allowed him to meet Pope Benedict XVI.
National Review Online previously reported on Astorino’s creation of a “Stop Common Core” ballot line. It is a personal issue for the father of three children in public elementary schools. “I’ve done my homework on Common Core, and in talking to literally hundreds of people around the state, many have some serious concerns about this. . . . It is the biggest, most untested experiment in education policy in our country’s history.”
Westchester County seems to be thriving under Astorino. He cut the county’s infamously high property taxes by 2 percent, more than any county in New York. He was willing to fight the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) over zoning demands on an affordable housing project his predecessor had initiated. Although Astorino honored the existing agreement to provide $51 million to build 750 units of affordable housing, and even had the project done ahead of schedule, he balked when Washington tried to impose wholesale changes in local zoning that HUD claimed were meant to solve alleged housing discrimination.
“They’ve gone so far as to break down quarter-acre, single-family, residential zones and calling them potentially discriminatory,” Astorino says of HUD. “Zoning permits or prohibits what can be built in locations, not who lives there.” The federal government took away $17 million from Westchester, but Astorino says, “it’s not worth $10 billion from the federal government to have them control our neighborhoods and our zoning. . . . I’m their biggest irritant.” Cuomo, whose family has a long pedigree of vicious political attacks, has runs ads accusing Astorino of being a racist.
Astorino has challenged Cuomo to eight different debates in eight different regions of New York State. As a challenger in 2010, Cuomo insisted on having all seven gubernatorial candidates on stage at Hofstra University for the first major debate, but the governor has not answered any of Astorino’s debate challenges.
When asked whether he would run again if he loses to Cuomo, Astorino says, “I’m not even thinking about that, because we’re going to win.”
That’s a standard campaign answer, but Astorino has more than the standard level of determination. His blue eyes wide with conviction, he declares that the campaign will have an impact larger than the third-most-populated state “Nothing would send a bigger message nationally than a conservative Republican with a good fiscal record becoming governor of New York,“ he says.
— Christine Sisto is an editorial associate at National Review Online.