Westchester’s Astorino to Challenge Cuomo for Governor

Republican Rob Astorino, the top elected official in mostly Democratic Westchester County, a New York City suburb, said he will run against Governor Andrew Cuomo with a campaign focusing on taxes and corruption.

Astorino, 46, announced his campaign today via a video posted on his campaign website. It followed a months-long build-up that started when he won a second term as county executive for Westchester, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1. Astorino is the only Republican to formally enter the race against Cuomo, who’s completing his first four-year term.

“If New York is losing, and the evidence says it is, we need to make a change,” Astorino said in the video. “New York’s No. 1 in all the wrong things under this governor, and we’re paying a price for it. We have the highest taxes in the country, the worst business environment and the most corrupt government.”

Cuomo, a 56-year-old Democrat, who is mentioned as a potential presidential candidate, has raised more than $33 million without formally announcing he’s running for re-election in the third most populous state, campaign filings show. He entered 2014 with 66 percent of voters viewing him favorably and an almost 50-point lead over Astorino in a potential match-up, a Jan. 20 Siena College poll showed. Three-quarters of voters didn’t know enough about Astorino to form an opinion, the poll said.

‘Attractive Candidate’

Astorino, a former radio producer for ESPN in New York, has been counted out in almost every race he’s run since he won a seat on a local school board as a senior at Fordham University, according to interviews with Westchester elected officials and analysts. In 2005, as a county legislator, he took on Andrew Spano, a two-term county executive. He lost by about 16 points. Four years later, Astorino beat Spano by about the same margin.

“He is an attractive candidate who has proved twice that he can win a county that has a 2-to-1 Democratic enrollment,” said Steve Greenberg, a Siena pollster. “If he has the ability, and this is a big if, to raise the kind of money needed to run a statewide campaign, he has the potential to be an extraordinarily credible Republican opponent to Andrew Cuomo.”

Cuomo will be able to use his campaign funds to attack Astorino immediately, shaping the public’s image of the candidate before Astorino has a chance to do so himself, Greenberg said. Astorino will need to raise cash quickly to counter that, he said. On Feb. 4, Astorino formed a campaign committee to begin raising funds. He said at the time it was a way to gauge interest.

‘Competitive Race’

“We’ll have what we need to run a competitive race,” Astorino said in a Feb. 4 interview in Albany, the state capital. “We don’t have to match him dollar for dollar, and we never will.”

Even before Astorino declared, Cuomo showed he’s ready to go after Republicans on social issues as a governor who pushed through a divided legislature a law legalizing same-sex marriage and another that carried some of the toughest gun regulations in the U.S. He’s also made abortion an issue by pushing a measure opposed by Republicans who control the senate that would match New York abortion laws with federal.

“Who are they?” Cuomo said in a January radio interview of his potential Republican opponents. “Are they these extreme conservatives, who are right-to-life, pro-assault weapon, anti-gay, is that who they are? Because if that is who they are, and if they are the extreme conservatives, they have no place in the state of New York, because that is not who New Yorkers are.”

Gun Law

Astorino has said in radio interviews and press releases that Cuomo’s gun law has kept at least one gun company from expanding in New York. In the February interview, Astorino said he supports “traditional marriage” and that New York is already too lenient with its abortion laws.

“Cuomo is pushing abortion because it helps him raise money,” Astorino said.

In 2009, when Astorino defeated Spano, he did it with about half as much cash as the incumbent. The campaign focused on the county’s property taxes, which had ballooned under Spano and were -- and still are -- rated the highest in the nation among counties. The tax issue helped him defeat Spano, though voters were also tired of the Democratic leader after 12 years, said Jeanne Zaino, a political science professor at Iona College in New Rochelle, who has been following Astorino’s career.

Astorino said he will try the same tactic against Cuomo. New York had the worst rating for business taxes headed into 2014, based on a comparison of corporate levies and those on property, individual income, retail sales and unemployment costs, according to a report by the Tax Foundation, a nonprofit research group in Washington.

Cuomo’s plan to cut $2.2 billion in taxes over the next three years may limit Astorino’s ability to target the governor on the issue, Zaino said.

“If you can’t differentiate Cuomo from Astorino, or another Republican, why would you replace him?” Zaino said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Freeman Klopott in Albany at fklopott@bloomberg.net

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