‘There is no inevitability with Andrew Cuomo,” Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino says of his Democratic opponent for governor of New York. “He is under federal investigation for corruption. Our state is dead last in almost everything. That people are voting with their feet in record numbers and moving out of here should tell you that things are bad. And they are going to stay bad unless we change governors and change these policies.”
The Republican speaks with the brashness and confidence of a man who is nipping at an incumbent’s heels. In fact, an October 20 Siena College survey had the 47-year-old challenger at 33 percent to Cuomo’s 54 percent among 748 likely voters (margin of error +/– 3.6 percent). However, the latest Rasmussen poll, which arguably samples respondents more accurately during midterm years, found Astorino at 32 percent and Cuomo at 49 percent among 825 likely voters, although those “certain to vote” gave Astorino 37 to Cuomo’s 47 in the September 25 matchup (margin of error +/– 4 percent).
During a recent interview in the slant-roofed Citicorp Building, 43 floors above the sidewalks of New York, Astorino insisted that those bird’s-eye-view polling figures overlook evidence that Cuomo’s support is an avenue wide and a gum wrapper deep.
For starters, in the September 9 Democratic primary, Cuomo lost 24 of the Empire State’s 62 counties to the spectacularly named Zephyr Teachout. The Fordham Law School professor even defeated Cuomo in Albany County, his seat of power. It is startling for an incumbent governor to win only 62.9 percent of the primary vote while yielding 33.5 percent to an unknown, far-left academic with one-tenth of his war chest. (Randy Credico got 3.6 percent of the vote. Thus, 37.1 percent of primary voters rejected Cuomo.)
“Cuomo lost everything tonight except the nomination,” former New York City public advocate Mark Green, a Teachout supporter, told the New York Post.
Now, while fighting Astorino, Cuomo also must keep his eyes on UPS truck loader Howie Hawkins. The Green Party nominee scored 9 percent in the Siena poll. Even more impressive, Hawkins has secured the endorsement of Buffalo’s teachers’ union. His supporters also include Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights Democrats for Reform plus Manhattan’s Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club and Village Independent Democrats. Such fissures in Cuomo’s base may augur sudden seismic jolts.
Beyond this, Democratic turnout is likely to be low on November 4. Among 5.42 million active registered Democrats in New York State, only 574,350 bothered to vote in a contested gubernatorial primary. Such apathy approaches paralysis.
A September 24 Wall Street Journal/NBC 4 New York/Marist poll of 958 registered New York State voters showed that 39 percent approve of President Obama’s job performance, while 61 percent rate him fair to poor (margin of error: +/– 3.2 percent). With Obama underwater in the Hudson, battalions of Democrats will stay home and nurse their disappointment.
Further dampening likely turnout is the fact that New York City has no major local offices in play. Even Gotham’s congressional races have prompted little discussion. There is some interest in whether Republican Michael Grimm will keep his Staten Island seat despite his federal trial next February for alleged tax evasion and perjury during his previous career in the restaurant industry.
Also, Nick Di Iorio has generated headlines with his underdog bid to unseat eleven-term representative Carolyn Maloney (D., Manhattan/Queens). Local media have denounced Maloney for chickening out of debating Di Iorio, save for an anticipated 15-minute, one-on-one exchange at the 17th precinct’s Candidate Night. Maloney is following Cuomo’s lead: He shamefully has done exactly one televised debate with Astorino.
The Big Apple’s House contests otherwise are off the radar. This will keep many ho-hum Democrats home.
Meanwhile, Astorino predicts, “We can and should do very well upstate. There are some very big motivating issues to drive the vote upstate.” He adds: “The economy is disastrous.” Beyond Manhattan’s glittering towers and the elegant mansions of Gotham’s suburbs, much of the rest of New York State features industrial towns like Rochester that have been fading to black for a generation. Many rural areas resemble the hollows of West Virginia. Decades of Democratic Big Government — and the Brooks Brothers socialism of Republican former governor George Elmer Pataki — have done nothing to resuscitate these downtrodden locales.
Astorino decries SAFE — the Secure Ammunition and Firearms Act — which Cuomo slammed through the legislature after the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., in which 26 people were massacred in December 2012. Among other things, SAFE prohibits gun clips with more than seven bullets.
The problem there,” Astorino says, “is that the standard issue for all of law enforcement in New York, including state troopers, is either ten or 15 bullets. Every single law-enforcement officer in New York State was in violation of that act when they passed it.” After tremendous embarrassment, Cuomo and state legislators amended the law even before its paint had dried.
Upstate, “everyone is a hunter,” Astorino continues. “I mean hunting, trap shooting. That includes Democrats, union guys, and women. . . . It literally made legal gun owners into criminals overnight. The question I have been asked the most, by far, is ‘Where are you on the SAFE Act?’”
Answer: “We have vowed that we are going to repeal this Act,” Astorino says. “My message to gun owners is, ‘If Cuomo took away your rights, take away his job.’”
“This leaves the suburbs as the chief battleground between Astorino and Cuomo. Having led Westchester for five years now and, Astorino says, kept 15 of his 15 chief promises, he expects to win or come close there. That primarily leaves Nassau and Suffolk Counties on Long Island, which are highly competitive. Credible House bids by Grant Lally and Lee Zeldin should bring Republicans to the polls, although the reelection efforts of Steve Israel and Tim Bishop, respectively, should attract Democrats, too.
Overall, Astorino is running to reverse the relentless slide he sees across the Empire State. “New York should be the most powerful state in America, and we once were,” Astorino laments. “We have been in a slow and steady decline and nothing has been done, certainly by this governor, to turn it around. We are dying as a state, and you still have got corrupt politicians and some very entrenched special interests that are just munching on the carcass.”
“We are dead last in America in all the categories that matter,” Astorino’s diagnosis continues. “We have the worst economic outlook. We have the worst business climate. And we’re the worst state in which to retire, according to AARP. . . . The definitive proof of this is that we have had 400,000 New Yorkers leave in four years. Four hundred thousand! It’s insane.”
So what does Astorino prescribe to treat New York’s chronic malaise?
First, the former broadcaster and radio executive would take a machete to the state’s tax structure — widely considered America’s worst, except for California’s. He would chop the state’s eight tax brackets to two. The top rate would fall from 8.882 percent to 6 percent, for incomes above $200,000 for individuals and $300,000 for couples. Below that, taxpayers would send 4 percent to Albany. Astorino would slice the corporate tax from 6.5 percent to 5.9 percent and unplug a pesky utility tax, thus lowering New York’s sky-high energy costs.
Astorino also would phase out the state death tax. It now reaches 16 percent, causing billions of dollars of capital to flee from Park Avenue straight to Palm Beach and other inviting places that let prosperous people bequeath their wealth to loved ones and cherished charities without financing their state’s politicians.
“Three cheers for GOP candidate for governor Rob Astorino, who is promoting a tax reform to lift New York from the doldrums,” the Wall Street Journal applauded. “The state deserves the jump-start to growth that his tax plan would provide.”
Second, the Fordham University alumnus is eager to harness New York’s abundant untapped energy potential. “I promise the people of New York City that we will not frack for natural gas in New York City,” Astorino smiles. “And to the people of upstate who desperately need jobs, we will frack, because it is safe. The EPA and President Obama’s Energy Department have stated that it is safe.”
Astorino likes to contrast regions that do and do not frack. “I talk about the Tale of Two Tiogas. You’ve got Tioga County, New York, and Tioga County, Pennsylvania,” he explains. “One is doing great: more employment, rising income levels, restaurants that are full, cars that are moving off the lots. You have a nice economy going. The other? Tumbleweeds economically. Which one do you think is doing fracking?”
Exasperated, Astorino adds, “We’ve got a blessing under our own soil, and we’re saying, No, because Yoko Ono says no. That’s not leadership. That’s political paralysis by this governor.”
Indeed, Cuomo has neither the sense to approve natural-gas fracking nor the guts to kill it outright. Instead, as Obama does with the Keystone pipeline, Cuomo cowers behind one pending research finding after another.
Astorino pledges action. “In the first 90 days, I will order my Health Department and Department of Environmental Conservation to come up with the right rules and regulations. We would have buffer zones, to safeguard the drinking water and the public health, and move forward.”
Third, the father of three kids — in grades six, four, and kindergarten — says, “I have been dealing with Common Core as a parent now for two years.” Like so many concerned moms and dads, Astorino considers this yet another Beltway-epicentered red-tape tsunami. “I did a lot of homework on Common Core,” he says. “Philosophically, I am vehemently opposed to the federal government and bureaucrats in D.C. guiding education decisions and forcing them on the states.”
Astorino’s alternative? “I would go back to letting the Board of Regents finish what they were doing,” he states. “They were raising standards on a more rigorous curriculum, and leaving more choices and decision-making in the hands of schools and school districts and parents, and deemphasizing some of the standardized tests.” He also would highlight science, technology, engineering, and math to lift students’ potential, both for college and “so they can have great careers in the trades or start their own businesses. Call a plumber,” he laughs. “See how much it costs.”
Fourth, to fight corruption, Astorino recently embraced term limits for New York’s governors, attorneys general, comptrollers, and state legislators. “Eight is enough,” he said at New York University, backing a maximum of that many years in any of these positions.
Astorino also would cancel the public pensions of elected politicians convicted of crimes while in office.
Astorino’s War on Graft comes as Cuomo faces a federal probe by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. Cuomo had swiftly sacked his very own anti-corruption Moreland Commission when it started investigating Cuomo’s cronies. Conspiracy, witness tampering, and obstruction of justice are among the potential charges circling above Cuomo like vultures.
To his credit, Astorino is taking his message to minority communities. He launched his campaign on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx — not quite Reagan country.
“There is no difference between the Bronx and Binghamton and Buffalo and anywhere in between on what they want for their families, their neighborhoods, and their opportunities,” Astorino says. “The Bronx has an unacceptably high 13 percent unemployment rate. If you think I am going to stand around and think that’s acceptable, you are wrong.”
Astorino campaigns among Hispanics and addresses such audiences in Spanish. This rightly may rankle those who believe that America’s public business should be conducted in English. Nonetheless, such overtures are highly appreciated in the Hispanic community.
Beyond discussing his agenda, Astorino tells his black and Hispanic audiences: “Vote your values, not your party. Your values and your party don’t always match up, and you can see that your values are under attack by your own party.”
In his 2013 race for reelection as county executive, Astorino stumped in Westchester’s minority precincts. He was endorsed by, among others, Ronald H. Williams, president of the New Rochelle NAACP, and the Reverend Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson, chairman of the National Action Network — and Al Sharpton’s boss. He won the votes of 25 percent of blacks, a majority of Hispanics, 30 percent of Democrats overall, and — consequently — another term in office.
While on the hustings now, Astorino recaps his achievements as manager of Westchester County and its $1.74 billion budget.
• Early in his tenure, Astorino told TheIslandNow.com, he brought his aides into his office. He said: “I’d rather jump out this window than have to raise taxes.” Fortunately, Astorino has avoided tax hikes and auto-defenestration.
• Beyond no new taxes, Astorino has frozen or cut existing levies in each of his five budgets. According to his State of the County speech on May 1, he has trimmed total tax levies by 2.3 percent.
• Overall, Astorino has cut outlays in real terms. His budget is now 4.4 percent lower than the spending plan he inherited.
• Astorino eliminated the $166 million deficit that he found when he took office, again without raising taxes.
• On Astorino’s watch, Westchester’s private sector has created 30,000 new jobs.
Perhaps because he is a well-spoken believer in and implementer of conservative and free-market reforms, Astorino has suffered at the hands of feckless, value-free, diet-Democrats such as Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano and retired GOP senator Alfonse “Pothole” D’Amato. They have a limited interest in limited government, lest they lose their access to patronage and rent-seeking. So these “Republicans” have endorsed Cuomo.
Astorino also owes nothing to Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey. Christie enraged New York Republicans last July when he slammed Astorino’s campaign: “We don’t pay for landslides, and we don’t invest in lost causes.”
“For the chairman of the Republican Governors Association to make that kind of statement is wrong,” Astorino responds. “If he is incapable of helping Republican candidates, especially one who is literally across the George Washington Bridge, then he should step down as head of the RGA. I said that then, and I’ll continue to say that.”
Republican governors Rick Perry of Texas and Scott Walker of Wisconsin, conversely, have flown in to campaign with Astorino. While doing the same, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana said: “Mr. Astorino has the executive experience and proven track record to make the Empire State great again.”
Former Garden State governor Christie Whitman signed a fundraising appeal. Also, Carly Fiorina, the California GOP’s 2010 senatorial nominee, headlined a Manhattan breakfast last Wednesday.
“I am grateful for their help,” Astorino says. “None of them have written off this state. They realize we can win. If the governor of New Jersey thinks it’s more important to go around the country and raise money in between stops in New York City — but not help the gubernatorial candidate for New York — then that’s his choice. I don’t agree with it, and I think most people don’t agree with it, either.”
Christie most likely has no interest in having a more appealing and principled Republican who would outshine him right across the Hudson. So, Christie offers Astorino the back of his hand. This echoes Christie’s refusal to appear at Mitt Romney’s spectacular rally in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, on the Sunday before Election Day 2012. Although some 25,000 Romney fans had gathered about 15 minutes away from Trenton, Christie couldn’t be bothered to show up and boost his party’s presidential nominee in his closing plea to boot Obama. Republican primary voters should remember this come 2016.
Astorino seems perfectly comfortable running behind a well-funded, powerful incumbent Democrat. He finds this position familiar. Just a week before Election Day in 2009, a Siena poll showed Astorino trailing among likely voters with 41 percent versus 48 percent for County Executive Andy Spano. Astorino largely was dismissed as a conservative Republican in Gotham’s Democrat-rich northern suburbs. Many chuckled at his quixotic quest.
And then Astorino beat Spano by 15 points: 57.5 percent to 42.5.
Was this a fluke — never to be repeated?
Nope. Astorino won reelection by nearly the same margin in 2013, with 57 percent to 43 for Democrat Noam Bramson.
In a county where only 24 percent of voters are registered as Republicans, Astorino already has defied the odds twice. But can he do so again?
Duplicating this feat statewide will be tough. Six days from now we will learn whether Astorino’s secret weapons turn out to be divided and demoralized Democrats, low liberal turnout, and widespread hunger for dynamic growth rather than chronic decay.
Far from a lost cause, Robert P. Astorino’s is a tough fight worth fighting.
— Deroy Murdock is a Manhattan-based Fox News contributor and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University.