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Marc Molinaro: from teen mayor to (he hopes) Republican governor

TIVOLI – It’s the calling-card story of Marc Molinaro, the Republican candidate for governor: At age 18, he became a trustee on the village board of this Hudson River community and, a year later, was elected mayor – the nation’s youngest at the time.

Inspiring, but maybe also a bit nerdy or, at the very least, an un-teenager kind of move?

“That’s what we all thought at the time," said Joel Griffith, recalling when his high school acquaintance took that first government post in this Columbia County village 45 miles south of Albany.

“We all had part-time jobs in Tivoli that we could ride our bikes to. I was a dishwasher at a Mexican restaurant. Marc worked at a deli making sandwiches. Then, 18 months later, he’s the mayor. It was really kind of a shock," said Griffith, who today, at the mature age of 44, is Tivoli’s current mayor.

Molinaro took to the job with passion. When the streets and sidewalks needed sweeping after winter, he got a volunteer force together with brooms. A speeder going through a stop sign got barked at by the teenage mayor. When the source of a sewer smell couldn’t be precisely located, he camped out overnight as a town worker searched for it. When a child died in a car accident, a young Mayor Molinaro went to comfort the grieving parents.

“We used to tease him in snowstorms when he was mayor because he’d get out there with a bull horn to declare a state of emergency. Those were not our 19-year-old concerns, but I look back and I have to do those kinds of things now and I think, ‘Wow, I can’t believe he was shouldering those kinds of responsibilities as a kid," said Griffith, who is not enrolled in any political party.

In 1994, the year New York voters embraced a little-known, ex-mayor from Peekskill, George Pataki, to be its governor, Molinaro entered politics, or as he prefers to call it, public service. A year later, the mayor of Tivoli – which today has a population of about 1,100 – retired.

“I ran home and I said, ‘Mom, I think I want to run for mayor.’ She said, ‘That’s fine, but you still have to clean up your room,’ " Molinaro said.

Those are good, small-town story book tales, perhaps. But Molinaro, 43, said his early leap into public service – first inspired by a high school teacher named Steve Sutton – shaped his outlook on government and its possibilities and limits. Or, as he says, government that is “protective but not intrusive."

“The residents here took a risk on a kid and in doing that defined who I am and what I believe. … I learned everything I know about public service in this place," Molinaro said during an August interview in a gazebo just outside the village hall, the building he helped renovate and from which in April he began his campaign against Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

It is, without a doubt, a Hail Mary campaign that Molinaro is running. He's recently taken to wearing a pin of Underdog, the cartoon superhero. There are 3 million more Democrats than Republicans in the state. Democrats say they are energized by what's happening in Washington. And Cuomo has erected a formidable wall fueled by eight years in office and a bottomless campaign account.

But on a sunny August morning, Molinaro did his best to appear poised and confident with a considerable dose of self-effacement.

An upbringing with struggles

Marcus J. Molinaro was born in Yonkers and, after his parents divorced, he and his mother moved to Beacon, a then-gritty riverfront city in southern Dutchess County. The family’s finances were cobbled together with the help of government food stamps. He recalls standing in line picking up food stamps when one of the clerks made his mother “feel worthless.”

“I saw in action what government could do to someone who didn’t feel that their life didn’t have much value, and that was searing in my memory," Molinaro said. Today, he said he asks the social services workers in Dutchess County – where he is serving a second term as county executive – to treat recipients “with care and respect."

Molinaro lives in Red Hook, next to Tivoli, and is still very close with his mother, who resides just north of him. “She is unfortunately too much in my life. She’s an Italian mother," he says. He calls her one of his heroes. “She feels insignificant, feels she didn’t have value as a hard-working mom, and she was so totally wrong."

It was his mother, and step-father, who helped him distribute campaign flyers when he first ran for mayor, a post he was re-elected to five times. He says the village board and mayor’s job showed him the importance of listening, and “of knowing when to lead and when to follow." When he took the job, he said, he read every book of the village board’s minutes back to 1872.

Rising to higher posts

Molinaro became Dutchess County executive in 2011, leading a county with rural and urban issues, whose southern-most border is just 50 miles from the New York City line – and that is home to 10,000 more Republicans than Democrats.

Prior to that, he served in the state Assembly from 2007 to 2011. His party enrollment put him in the minority, a status that made it difficult for him, or any Assembly Republican, to get bills passed. He got five bills, mostly local, signed into law, and he sponsored bills to impose stronger DWI penalties, give tax breaks for alternative fueling stations and volunteer firefighters, and set anti-bullying standards in schools, according to a search of legislative records.

Molinaro said he happily worked with Democrats in the majority to get other bills passed – without his name getting credit on the bills.

“It’s obviously frustrating to be in the minority and not get your legislation through, but he was very at ease in working both sides," said Sen. Thomas O’Mara, a Chemung County Republican who sat next to Molinaro in the Assembly chamber where the two men once served together.

Molinaro was elevated to an Assembly post that had him heavily involved in floor debates where the GOP typically plays the role of contrarian. “He was very good on his feet as a debater in the Assembly," O’Mara said.

“I don’t recall there being any learning curve for him," O’Mara said.

O’Mara, who has shared salmon fishing trips with Molinaro on Lake Ontario, was one of a few lawmakers to attend Molinaro’s 2015 wedding to Corrine Adams; it is Molinaro’s second marriage. Molinaro had two children with his ex-wife, including Abigail, who is on the autism spectrum and who Molinaro said “reminds us that every tiny success is worth celebrating." In government and in the governor’s race, Molinaro has heavily promoted programs to benefit people with special needs. He and Adams have had one child together, and another is on the way.

Molinaro’s wife became part of the campaign when Cuomo, in an ad, suggested she got a job with a developer because the businessman had dealings before the county government Molinaro leads. Molinaro shot back dismissing the claim and said Cuomo was merely trying to deflect attention from his once-close advisers convicted on corruption charges this year.

“My wife, my six-month-pregnant wife, is out of your league. … You want to pick a fight? Stick with me," an emotional Molinaro said to Cuomo in a video posted in September on his Twitter account.

Conservative or moderate?

To listen to the Cuomo campaign, Molinaro is a hard-core conservative out of touch with most New Yorkers. They note his positions against certain gun control measures, against a bill pending in the Legislature to expand abortion access, and that he voted against an equal pay measure in the Assembly as well as the 2011 law legalizing same-sex marriage. Cuomo and his surrogates rarely miss opportunities to call him “Trump mini-me."

“There is nothing about me that you could tie to the things that (Cuomo) ties to the president, other than I believe he loves his country and I believe I love my country," Molinaro says of Trump. In a recurring claim that conservative Republicans cringe at, he notes he did not vote for Trump, instead writing in the name of Chris Gibson, a former New York congressman. “I’ve given every day of my adult life committed to a dignified duty as defined by Robert Kennedy. I suggest the governor read Bobby Kennedy’s biography and what he spoke of," Molinaro said.

What angers him? “Anger. I don’t like the anger. I don’t like the hate. I don’t like the loud shouting we see in our public life. I don’t like the disrespect…If I don’t share your values it doesn’t mean we should hate each other. I don’t like when it comes out of the president and I don’t like it when it comes out of the governor, and it does. I think it is so corrosive," Molinaro said.

The Republican, if elected, said on his first day in office he would introduce what he calls his “ “government accountability” act, which he says will address Albany corruption problems by limiting pay-to-play campaign finance loopholes, impose term limits and provide more transparency on economic development spending. He has proposed a cut in local property taxes, funded largely by having the state take over the local share of Medicaid expenses, and would impose a “zero-based” budgeting system.

Five going on 50

Has he ever gotten in legal trouble? “No, I did get a parking ticket once. I paid it," he said.

Did he ever do anything that stupidly put his life at risk? “I’ve done stupid things but none that I regret. I was an elected official at age 18. There’s not a lot of weirdness or crazy things. What do you get away with? Your life is an open book," he says of an adulthood spent in government service.

“My mother will tell you I was 50 when I was five," Molinaro said laughing. But, quickly turning serious, he said that was partly because as a boy he would be the one to call the utility company when payments fell behind.

For fun, Molinaro says he feels equally comfortable at the opera or a Mets game. He is a New York Giants fan; his grandfather was buried wearing a Giants shirt. He says he roots for the Buffalo Sabres. He takes family vacations to Virginia Beach near where his wife is from, and the Adirondacks.

“He’s very much a down to earth, good guy," said Hans Hardisty, a commercial real estate executive and friend of Molinaro.

Hardisty says people regularly come up to Molinaro when he is out in public. “He always gives the time," Hardisty said of restaurant encounters he’s witnessed. Asked how Molinaro reacts when a constituent approaches him with a complaint, Hardisty said: “He says, ‘I appreciate you saying that, but here’s why we did what we did’ … He’ll talk it through. I’ve never see him say ‘leave me alone.’ Never."

Molinaro encouraged that calls be made to try to find people who would say anything personally bad about him.

The local unit of the Civil Service Employees Association, the big public workers union, has photos on its web site of labor leaders with Molinaro at events, including a media event to criticize a Cuomo local government plan and, in 2015, when CSEA endorsed him for a second term, citing his “good working relationship” with the union.

Two of the local CSEA leaders in those photos did not return calls over the past couple weeks seeking to discuss Molinaro. [The statewide CSEA parent union has endorsed Cuomo.]

Also not returning a call seeking to discuss Molinaro was Hannah Black, a Democrat who is the Minority Leader of the Dutchess County Legislature.

Why the GOP?

Molinaro has expended much effort trying to cast himself as a moderate Republican who can, if anyone is listening despite his poll standings, appeal to Democrats. Why is he a Republican?

“I became a Republican because I know that you need government and I know the limits of government and finding that imbalance is very important," he said, complaining about extreme views on the right that want to slash certain welfare benefits and on the left that want to socialize government.

“I felt that the party, and it certainly did at the time, at least locally, represented limited and active government that helped people achieve what they wanted to achieve," Molinaro said.

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