NEW YORK – Surrounded by a boisterous crowd of dozens of Latinos on a street corner in the South Bronx, a pale-skinned middle-aged man with sparkling blue eyes and a winning smile said something that has not exactly proved to be a campaign slogan among his fellow New York Republicans.
“El Bronx es importante!” said Rob Astorino, the GOP candidate for governor, who urges a low-tax, free-market revival for all of New York State.
Hearing Astorino speak, State Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr. of the Bronx – a Democrat – beamed.
“I am so pleased I met this gentleman, and to be able to support this gentleman, to ask the Hispanic community to vote for him,” Diaz said.
Soon, though, a lone heckler kept shouting at Astorino about his fight with the federal government over a housing discrimination case in Westchester County, where Astorino is county executive.
Before long, Diaz got fed up.
“Go vote for abortion!” he shouted at the heckler.
Playing out eight days before election day, that scene seemed to sum up all the promise and all the peril of Astorino’s bid to deny Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo a second term.
Here is an experienced Republican leader who’s charismatic in two languages, who preaches the small-government gospel while going boldly where few Republicans have gone before – yet who is also an unbending conservative against abortion and gay marriage. Political pros said that means he’s mostly likely to draw crossover votes from Democratic social conservatives like Diaz, who are a very rare breed in the zoo that’s called New York politics.
Add it all up, and Michael R. Edelman, a Republican political commentator in Westchester and golfing buddy of Astorino’s, thinks his friend is doomed as he runs for governor in a state where the Democrats have a huge enrollment advantage.
“His profile, his demeanor, his knowledge of the issues make him the kind of Republican candidate who could win in New York State – but unfortunately, he has social positions that are unacceptable to people in the state,” Edelman said.
On the campaign trail, though, you don’t hear much from Astorino about abortion or gay rights.
Instead what you hear is a stinging indictment of the Cuomo administration as all bluster and no luster, especially on the central issue of the economy.
“People out of work, or working seconds jobs just to make ends meet,” Astorino said in an interview. “And the governor is going around on a victory lap, saying everything is great. He has no clue what the average New Yorker is dealing with right now, the stress in their lives.”
While Cuomo touts the 500,000 jobs that have been created on his watch, Astorino noted that Texas creates that many jobs in a year. So he suggests making New York more like Texas by lowering income taxes, cutting the number of tax brackets from eight to two while trimming the corporate franchise tax and eliminating the estate tax.
He insists it’s a much better recipe for economic success than Cuomo’s regional economic development councils and, locally, the “Buffalo Billion.”
Astorino is especially critical of the Buffalo Billion’s focus on the SolarCity development, calling it “a $750 billion tax giveaway to a California bazillionaire to build his private business, which is a risky proposition that has not ever turned a profit and which is under investigation by the feds, all for the pre-election day promise of a couple thousand jobs.”
Saying “the entire economy needs to be jump-started,” Astorino promised an approach not unlike what he implemented in Westchester County.
A former Catholic radio station manager and host as well as county legislator, Astorino was first elected to lead the county government in 2009. In that role, he cut the county property tax rate four years in a row while producing a smaller budget this year than the one he inherited.
Perhaps just as notable, though, has been Astorino’s approach to the job, which might best be described as genially rigid.
Bishop Collie N. Edwers, pastor of Free Will Baptist Church in Mount Vernon and president of the United Black Clergy of Westchester, has come to witness Astorino’s geniality first-hand, and often, at regular meetings in the county executive’s office on the ninth floor of county hall.
“The first time I was ever on the ninth floor was with Rob Astorino, and I’ve been in Westchester for 26 years,” said Edwers, a Democrat, who added that Astorino will be the only Republican he votes for this fall. “He may not do what we want him to do, but at least he listens.”
What’s more, “you can’t lump Rob Astorino in with the national Republicans and their reckless rhetoric,” Edwers added. “He’s absolutely sensitive to the needs of the poor, but he also senses the needs of the people who pay the taxes, and he tries to find the balance between the two.”
That sensitivity has played itself out in Astorino’s two double-digit wins in his races for county executive, in which he took his small-government message into minority communities in a county where Democrats outnumber Republicans by two to one.
Astorino attributes his wins to that kind of outreach, and on the campaign trail, it’s easy to see why it’s so effective. After his news conference with Diaz and salsa legend Willie Colon, for example, Astorino bounded down a street full of small shops and darted into several of them, beaming all the time and asking for votes. In demeanor, he seemed not unlike his political hero, who he calls “a great leader” who shaped him into a Republican at a very young age: former President Ronald Reagan.
“Whether he’s sitting in a boardroom or at somebody’s kitchen table, Rob comes across as someone who wants to help people,” said John Ravitz, executive vice president of the Business Council of Westchester County, which has not endorsed a candidate in the governor’s race.
Yet Ravitz, a Republican, also cited another attribute of Astorino’s that some see as a key weakness.
“When you talk to him, you know where he stands, and he’s not going to waver,” Ravitz said.
Members of the Westchester County Legislature learned that the hard way when Astorino took office in 2010. Faced with a recession-inspired budget crunch, Astorino produced a hard-right budget that the Democratic legislature rewrote. Astorino subsequently vetoed 160 of its line items, only to see 147 of those vetoes overriden.
“Working with Rob over the years, there is a consistency but also an inflexibility about the work we try to do in government,” said Kenneth Jenkins, a Democratic legislator who formerly chaired the county legislature. “He has an overall disdain for what government does. And understanding that the executive and legislative branches are co-equal – that’s a challenge for him.”
For proof that Astorino tends to get his back up, refusing to bend, just look at how he’s handled what’s become the biggest controversy dogging his campaign, which involves a settlement his Democratic predecessor as county executive reached with the U.S. Department of Housing and Development on an affordable housing discrimination case.
That settlement would have spread affordable housing beyond Westchester’s urban centers and toward its wealthy suburbs – a move that Astorino brands as a “historic federal overreach.” Astorino has refused to implement that settlement, and the federal government has withheld $20 million from local governments and nonprofit agencies as a result.
Cuomo got that issue spectacularly wrong at a recent rally in New York, saying: “We have a county executive running who is the only county executive in the United States who’s being sued by the federal government for housing discrimination because his county won’t allow low-income and minorities to live in his county.”
Astorino is not getting sued, and of course he is allowing low-income people and minorities to live in his county. But Cuomo’s rhetoric once again pulls out the race card that Democrats have been playing against Astorino throughout the campaign because of the housing discrimination case.
For his part, Astorino argues that the issue is not about race, but about local control of zoning issues.
Meantime, when asked if he considers Astorino a racist, Jenkins – the Democratic county legislator – said “No.”
But added: “I think he takes actions that would lead people to question whether he’s a racist. He’s playing to people’s fears.”
Of course, the Cuomo campaign has done all it can to make voters fear Astorino, too.
“This is not your father’s Republican,” Cuomo said of Astorino at that New York rally. “They think they’re going to repeal our gun law that’s saving lives and we say: No way...They think they’re going to roll back Roe v. Wade and take away women’s right to choose after 40 years, and we say: No way. They think they’re going to take back marriage equality from our gay brothers and sisters, and we say: No way.”
In Rob Astorino’s perfect world, all of that might be true, but Astorino stresses that reality does not necessarily comport with all of his wishes.
Sure, he’s vehemently against Cuomo’s SAFE Act, saying the gun control measure should be scrapped because it violates Second Amendment rights without dealing with the mental health issues that so often lead to gun violence.
But on the right to abortion, Astorino said: “This is a pro-choice state; it’s not going anywhere. But I’m not going to expand it like the governor would. That’s crazy.”
And on marriage equality, he said: “The same-sex marriage issue is over with. We’re not going backwards. And it was done the right way, through the legislature.”
Still, Edelman, the Westchester lawyer and political commentator, said it’s likely that many voters will not be able to look past Astorino’s longtime history as a social conservative, which stems from his devout Catholicism.
Astorino has not been without troubles in his life.
His father, a police officer, was imprisoned for a time on corruption charges. His stepbrother Salvatore Arena – whom Astorino says he hasn’t seen in 15 years – was at one time suspected of connections with the Genovese organized crime family. And while Astorino, at 47, is happily married with three young children, an earlier marriage ended in an annulment.
People who know Astorino well say that through it all, he has held steady, most likely because of his faith, which he even at one point turned into his livelihood, helping found the Catholic Channel on Sirius XM Satellite radio.
“He’s a devout Christian who knows how to interact with the faith-based community not just with words, but with actions,” said Edwers, the Mount Vernon minister.
Based on his track record, it seems as if Astorino knows how to interact with just about everybody. Thanks to his tendency to campaign where it’s least expected and to listen to voters of all kinds, he said he’s won unexpectedly large share of the African-American, Hispanic and Democratic votes in his two Westchester County races.
“People try, in this campaign, to portray me as a radical and all that nonsense, but people who know me best know that’s not true,” Astorino said. Besides, in this campaign he finds himself preaching from a very different gospel.
“Talking to voters across the state, I’ve heard about those social issues a handful of times,” he added. “What I hear from everybody is that they can’t afford to live in this state, that they’re looking for a good job, that we need to do something about the economy.”