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Cuomo's GOP challenger gains from ethics commission controversy

Karen Dewitt
GOP candidate Rob Astorino discusses his campaign plans during an Albany press conference.

The little known and underfunded Republican challenger for New York governor has been getting a boost from incumbent Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s troubles over alleged interference in an ethics panel. Rob Astorino has been doing his best to keep the controversy, first reported in an in-depth story in the New York Times, alive.

Rob Astorino, the Westchester County executive running for governor on the Republican line, seemed dead in the water just a little more than a week ago. Despite a busy public schedule and frequent interviews with the media, Astorino had very little money for campaigning, just $2.4 million to Cuomo’s $35 million. And the GOP candidate was 37 points behind in the polls.

Now, with Cuomo on the defensive over a scandal involving his ethics commission, Astorino says he’s seeing some gains in fundraising and interest in his campaign.

“It’s been about $500,000 in the last week and a half,” said Astorino, who says he’s received commitments from some Republican governors to campaign with him, though that list does not include New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.  

“We’ve also got a lot of inquiries from people in New York City, and across the state, that want to help,” he said.

Credit Karen Dewitt / WRVO
GOP gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino speaks during a press conference in Albany.

Experts say to become known among voters and paint a negative picture of your opponent, a major party candidate in New York needs a minimum of $10 million.

Astorino has traveled the state holding news conferences, sent out frequent videos, and even mocked Cuomo for remaining silent for five days after the New York Times story appeared. The newspaper says the governor’s staff interfered with subpoenas sent by the Moreland Act Commission, when probes reached too close to Cuomo’s own donors.

The commission was disbanded by Cuomo shortly afterward, in exchange for an ethics law that critics called weak. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is investigating.

On Monday in Buffalo, Cuomo offered a lengthy defense of the commission, saying it was underappreciated and accomplished a lot. And he insisted that the commissioners were independent, citing a statement by Commission co-chairman and Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick said while he listened to Cuomo’s top aide Larry Schwartz’s advice about rescinding a subpoena, he later decided to send it anyway.

Cuomo chided the Times reporters for drawing what he said were the wrong conclusions.

“He rejected the request,” Cuomo said adamantly. “The rejection is ipso facto, a statement of independence because he said no. If you had watched the movie to the end, the name of the movie would have been Independence. You named it Interference. Watch the movie to the end.”

Astorino, one day later, says the governor’s answers are still not enough.

“He’s hoping that the press and the public accept his definition of what interference is or isn’t ‘ipso facto’, the movie is over,” Astorino said. “But that’s his movie. Right now the new director is Preet Bharara. I think there’s a sequel coming. We don’t know how it’s going to end.”

The GOP candidate also caused some backlash for himself with his own movie reference on Monday. Astorino compared Cuomo’s tactics to the Marlon Brando character in the film "The Godfather," saying the commissioners were given an offer that they couldn’t refuse.

Statements were immediately released from Italian-American Cuomo allies. Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle called the analogy insulting and degrading, and said that Astorino, as a fellow Italian-American, should be ashamed of himself.

Astorino brushed off the criticism.

“Give me a break,” he said.

But he concedes that perhaps the more apt analogy comes from the Wizard of Oz, where the curtain is pulled back on the operations of a powerful figure.

Cuomo is still considered to be the favorite for reelection this November, but his challenger continues to hope that the events of the last few days will be, in his words, a game changer.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.