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New York's race for governor heats up

Zack Seward

The campaign for governor in New York is heating up. The state Democratic Party is running attack ads against the Republican candidate for governor, while the GOP candidate is fighting back in an internet video.

Just two weeks before the party conventions, Democrats are airing negative attack ads targeting incumbent Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Republican opponent, Rob Astorino.

“Rob Astorino, so far right he’s wrong for New York,” a narrator intones, over a background of ominous music.

The ads capitalize on a dispute that Astorino, the Westchester County executive, is having with the federal government over a plan to build fair housing in the county. The lawsuit requires the county to analyze its zoning laws to find potentially discriminatory practices, and build affordable housing units in some of the county’s predominately white towns.

But Astorino contends the county zoning is not discriminatory, and has so far refused to authorize the housing projects. As a result, Housing and Urban Development is withholding over $5 million in funds. Democrats have seized the issue.

The ads, in part, accuse Astorino of civil rights violations, and say he’s been “threatened by the Department of Justice with contempt," for his refusal to stop discrimination.

The Rev. Al Sharpton visited a Westchester church to condemn Astorino, and has threatened to protest at future campaign events.

Larry Levy, with the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, says the ads are an example of a classic campaign tactic against a relatively unknown opponent.

“To get out there with as much negative stuff as you can, to define him before he gets a chance to define himself or define you,” said Levy, who added that the governor wants the first time most people hear about the Republican candidate to be during a Cuomo ad.

Astorino is fighting back with an internet video, where he accuses the Democrats and Cuomo of playing the race card.

“How dare you throw out the race card when you know it doesn’t apply?” Astorino asks in the video. “Have you no shame?”

Astorino contends that his zoning laws are not discriminatory and calls HUD’s actions arbitrary federal interference, and says the projects would result in insane hikes in property taxes. He points out that Cuomo himself lives in one the neighborhoods, in Mt. Kisco, that the federal government contends is in violation of the desegregation order.

“If you really think it discriminates, why did you move there?” Astorino said. “Why do you live there now?”

Cuomo has not offered any comments on the dispute, which has led Astorino to accuse the governor of hiding behind surrogates.  

Cuomo, with his $33 million war chest, has the advantage and the bigger megaphone. Astorino’s web video had just over 8,100 hits in the first three days. But Levy, with Hofstra, says that’s far less than the impact of television ads airing in the New York City market which could potentially reach millions.

“Astorino is fighting like David with rocks against Goliath with spears and chariots,” Levy said.

He says if Astorino manages to raise substantial amounts of money from New Yorkers or attracts the interest of a national Super PAC, he could counter the attacks. But he says the preemptive advertisements that portray Astorino in a negative light may make it even harder for the GOP candidate to raise that money.

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.