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Politics and Government

Westchester County Executive expected to become a GOP candidate for governor

Karen Dewitt
Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino speaks with reporters in Albany.

It’s expected that Republicans will have an announced candidate for governor as early as this week. Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino has formed an exploratory committee and has expressed interest in what most believe will be an uphill climb against Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is seeking reelection.

Astorino, a former radio executive, has twice won the county executive’s seat in Westchester County on the Republican line, in a region where Democrats now dominate.

He told reporters at the state Capitol recently that he believes he can draw on his experiences governing a large New York City suburban county to lead New York state.

“I think this state is going in the wrong direction,” Astorino said. "I feel very strongly about that.”

He said he was told in the Westchester race that he could not win, but he says the voters responded.

Astorino has held fundraisers and addressed Republicans at dinners around the state, including most recently in Binghamton, and set up a campaign website.

According to his official biography, the 46-year-old speaks fluent Spanish and is married with three young children.

Astorino is likely to try to keep the focus on economic concerns in a campaign, saying Cuomo has not done enough to create jobs.

“We’re losing in all metrics,” he said.

He also wants major reform in the implementation of the Common Core learning standards.

Astorino’s expected to make an issue of the state’s five year defacto moratorium on natural gas drilling, known as hydrofracking, saying that going ahead with it could provide needed fuel and create tens of thousands of jobs. Cuomo has said for the past year and a half that he’s awaiting the results of a review from his health commissioner before he can make any decisions. Astorino has accused Cuomo of dawdling because of pressure from environmentalists, and posted a short video on YouTube, in which he stands in front of a stark black and white map of upstate New York.

“To not reasonably and responsibly try natural gas exploration is a dereliction of duty by the governor,” Astorino says in the video. He also says he believes he could get environmental groups and state regulators together to devise a safe way to drill.

Astorino, who formerly ran satellite radio’s Catholic Channel, holds positions on some social issues that differ with the views of a majority of New Yorkers, and could potentially become an issue in a campaign. For instance, he is pro-life on abortion, but he dismisses any suggestions that he would try to prevent a woman’s right to choose abortion in New York under current law as a straw man.

“Abortion has been legal in this state for 44 years,” Astorino said. “Abortion in any major way in New York is not going anywhere.”

The Westchester County executive faces numerous challenges. Cuomo has a campaign war chest of $33 million and is consistently popular in opinion polls. Astorino currently has less than $1 million, though he says he’s confident he can raise much more.  

In the most recent Siena College poll, Cuomo leads Astorino by 42 points. Nearly three quarters of New Yorkers say they’ve never heard of the Westchester County Executive.

“Right now Cuomo is in a very strong potion," says Siena’s Steve Greenberg. “That said, we are more than eight months away from an election. That’s many lifetimes in politics.”

It’s still not settled whether Astorino would be the only GOP candidate for governor. Real estate developer Donald Trump continues to express interest in running on the Republican ticket, speaking at GOP dinners in New York City, Buffalo and Syracuse, and distracting attention from the little known county executive.

Cuomo has refrained from commenting on any potential races, saying it’s not yet political season. But he has in recent weeks, without mentioning Astorino, turned around the county executive’s argument against high taxes by singling out Westchester County’s tax rates.

“Westchester, New York, highest property taxes in the country,” Cuomo told a crowd in Niagara Falls.  

Cuomo, who has already said he wants to run for a second term, has not yet set a date to announce any of his reelection plans.