ALBANY – Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino on Wednesday began his difficult climb to try to dethrone Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a campaign made more challenging by the incumbent governor’s seemingly insurmountable campaign bank account.
But Democrats say privately and Republicans boast publicly that Astorino has some things going for him that perhaps some past GOP gubernatorial candidates could not claim: He is a proven vote-getter among Democrats, is media savvy, comes from the crucial New York City suburbs, understands how government works and, to this point, has been far from shrill when it comes to getting his message out.
While coordinated attacks by moderate to left-leaning organizations were already quick to attack his conservative credentials, Astorino is hoping those same credentials – whether laying off public employees or opposing Cuomo’s gun-control law or being personally opposed to abortion – will provide enough of an appeal to upstate and suburban voters to make Cuomo’s first re-election bid anything but a cakewalk.
That Astorino is spending his first two days on the campaign trail in upstate regions is no accident for a Republican who has been able to cross party lines to get elected twice by a heavily Democratic-dominated electorate.
Cuomo, who did not comment on Astorino’s announcement, had another way to respond. He announced a new upstate tourism advertising campaign, just one of hundreds of such announcements he has made in three years with the side benefit of trying to help him in areas of upstate, such as Western New York, where he did not win or win handily in 2010.
Wednesday, Astorino took to the Internet where, in a 6-minute video on his campaign website, he announced his GOP gubernatorial campaign and sharply criticized Cuomo on everything from what he said has been 400,000 New Yorkers leaving the state in the last four years to the state’s high tax levels and energy costs.
“I’m announcing my candidacy for governor of New York state because I’m tired of listening to the fairy tale that everything is just great when everything is just the opposite,” Astorino said in the video in which he was jacketless and wearing a white shirt and blue tie with images of everything from moving vans to a photo of his family depicted in the background.
Taking a rhetorical cue from Ronald Reagan, Astorino said he will ask New Yorkers to consider a question in choosing between him and Cuomo.
“I have a simple question for New Yorkers: Are we winning or are we losing today?’’
Astorino criticized Cuomo for overseeing what he said is the highest-taxed state with the worst business climate and for raising taxes and imposing more mandates while not making a decision on hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” for natural gas and “demonizing gun owners.” He sought to portray the governor as out of touch by proposing a plan to give free college education to prison inmates at a time when families cannot afford to send their children to college.
And he lashed out at what he termed “Cuomo’s Common Core,’’ the Board of Regents program involving standardized testing and teacher evaluations.
“After four years, it’s clear he’s not leading at all,” Astorino said. He accused Cuomo of spending millions of dollars in taxpayer money “on false advertising to make it sound like he’s doing something.”
A former radio industry executive, Astorino appears comfortable speaking before both live audiences and in broadcast interviews, including television, a medium Cuomo rarely goes to give live interviews. Astorino speaks fluent Spanish, which Republicans say will help with their outreach in certain Latino communities across the state.
The father of three young children all in public schools, Astorino, 46, supports fracking rights to drill for natural gas, opposes Cuomo’s SAFE Act gun-control law and personally opposes abortion except in the case of rape, incest and when the life of the mother is in danger. He was a station manager and program director of a weekly radio broadcast from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan with the cardinal of the Archdiocese of New York on the Catholic Channel on the SiriusXM Satellite Radio network.
Astorino’s suburban roots are expected to be an asset, Republicans believe, especially in the suburbs north of New York City and on Long Island. His positions on a number of social issues, meanwhile, are expected to appeal to many conservative upstate voters.
Unlike Cuomo, who did not win his first elective office until 2006 when he became state attorney general, Astorino got started at the bottom of the local government ladder, getting elected as a member of a local School Board at age 21. He has served on a Town Board, the Westchester County Legislature and is in his second term as county executive.
Polls have shown Astorino trailing far behind Cuomo, though the campaign has not yet begun and his name recognition, he acknowledges, needs to be built up.
Astorino has won the Westchester county executive’s seat twice, despite being a Republican in a county where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 2-1 ratio. Among his constituents? Cuomo, who lives in a mansion owned by his girlfriend, celebrity chef Sandra Lee.
Democrats have been putting on stoic faces, dismissing Astorino’s chances and saying Cuomo has built up a following across the state to defeat any opponent, not to mention a campaign bank account of at least $33 million, a level expected to dwarf what Astorino can expect donors to give him.
But some say Astorino will be able to appeal to more moderate Republicans than did fiery Buffalo businessman Carl P. Paladino during his campaign against Cuomo four years ago.
“He’s a little more low key than Paladino,’’ acknowledged Reginald A. LaFayette, the Westchester County Democratic chairman.
“Goliath, meet David,”’ State Republican Chairman Edward F. Cox, who has been promoting Astorino for months, said in a statement after Astorino’s video was streamed Wednesday morning.
“Rob Astorino has proven that a Republican can win in a 2-to-1 Democratic New York. Rob has what it takes to reverse he decline of New York, not just try to manage it like our last three Democratic governors,” Cox said.
The Astorino campaign said that it will begin its statewide swing today, with a morning stop in the Bronx before heading to a Buffalo event at 3 p.m. in which Astorino will appear with Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence.
Friday, he will be in Rochester, Syracuse and Albany, according to the campaign.
Still floating around in the background is billionaire Donald J. Trump, who has been considering a GOP run for governor, but only if, he has said, Republican leaders unify behind him and provide him a clear path, without a primary, to the nomination.
In an interview Wednesday afternoon, Paladino said he wants a Republican Party without the current leadership, including Senate co-leader Dean G. Skelos of Long Island, whom he accuses of being too cozy with Cuomo.
“As long as Astorino doesn’t denounce them and Trump doesn’t run, well then Astorino doesn’t have my support, and I’m going to think seriously about what my options are then,” Paladino said of a possible Conservative Party bid.
Paladino said Trump shares his concerns that the GOP is being run by RINOs – Republicans in name only – and that its leaders will abandon the GOP nominee to help keep Cuomo in office.