Two years ago, Republican Bob Cohen came within a hair's breadth of defeating long-time Democratic incumbent Suzi Oppenheimer for the 37th district seat in the New York State Senate. In 2010 Cohen positioned himself as a fresh alternative to the long time incumbent and therefore symbol of Albany dysfunction that permeated the electoral landscape. Cohen ran as a moderate, nonpartisan businessman with the mission to fix Albany.
That 2010 campaign came on the heels of a slew of scandals and corruption and the hijacking of the State Senate by the Gang of Four (who are now gone from the scene with some serving jail time) and on the heels of Governor Spitzer's ignominious departure as governor -- replaced by the hapless David Paterson. Cohen's campaign of a fresh start resonated against the 26-year-veteran Oppenheimer -- causing the result to be a nail biter at the end -- with Oppenheimer eking out a squeaker of a win.
Since then, Bob Cohen has moved to New Rochelle -- and the GOP controlled State Senate re-arranged the lines of the 37th senate district to get rid of Democratic leaning Scarsdale and Ossining and replaced them with Republican strongholds of East Yonkers, Tuckahoe and Eastchester (as well as to loop into a section of New Rochelle where Cohen now resides) in an effort to craft a district more hospitable to Cohen. While the registration advantage of the new district still belongs with the Democrats, most political observers view the district as a tossup.
Yet before securing the Republican nomination for the race, Cohen did first have to deal with one nuisance, a somewhat bizarre challenge from the right by Diane Roth-Didonato of Armonk and a member of the North Castle Town Board. She garnered the endorsement of the failed and wacky candidate for governor Carl Paladino. Roth ended up being bounced from her primary challenge by the Cohen campaign for her inability to obtain enough legitimate signatures to get on the primary ballot -- but not before lodging a nutty attack on Cohen -- lambasting him for being the object of an assassination attempt in 1991.
On the Democratic side, once Oppenheimer announced her retirement, George Latimer, a popular former Rye City councilman, county legislator (with a stint as chairman of the board), and current assemblyman stepped up to run for the seat. Latimer is viewed by many Westchester politicos as a much stronger candidate than Oppenheimer would have been. Throughout Latimer's career he has been viewed as a bipartisan, hardworking, and thoughtful policymaker, who actually thinks about a bill's impact on the real world before he votes.
By 2012 the Albany political landscape changed with the ascension of Governor Andrew Cuomo -- and his perceived success of manhandling the legislature. It becomes much harder to run on an Albany-needs-fixing-platform. So with the Cohen campaign not likely to gain traction on that theme again -- they have chosen to mount a one-issue campaign: define George Latimer as a tax and spender.
And if you're a registered voter but unaffiliated with the Democratic party in the district -- you have been deluged with two or three mailers per day for weeks -- from the Cohen campaign, from the New York Senate Republican Campaign Committee -- and from some anonymous Teaparty/SuperPAC from Virginia -- all smearing Latimer as the worst, most evil, pernicious tax hiker the world has ever seen. Unanswered questions remain about these mysterious out-of-New York expenditures on Cohen's behalf as posed by Lohud columnist Phil Reisman and a piece in the New York Times.
The problem with this generic dumbed down Tea Party line of attack -- is that while property taxes are a huge issue here -- Westchester residents are typically a little savvier and a little more sophisticated to swallow whole what the Cohen campaign is selling. Latimer has not been in a position to directly raise or lower property taxes since he left the County Board of Legislators nearly 10 years ago when he was elected to the State Assembly. The Cohen attacks have latched onto three of Latimer's votes on which the Assemblyman actually put good policy ahead of good politics:
• 2 Percent Property Tax Cap: Latimer voted against the 2 percent tax cap -- because it was not coupled with any kind of mandate relief -- mandates that require municipalities, counties and school districts to provide programs and services but without any funding -- i.e., Albany mandates must be paid by those governmental entities that are funded predominantly by the property tax. A tax cap without mandate relief is a ticking time bomb for our schools, towns and counties. One of the most egregious unfunded mandates is requiring counties to pay for a major portion of Medicaid costs. New York is one of only two states in the entire country where these costs -- mandated from the State -- are pushed down to the county level (i.e., property taxpayer) for payment. On the education front, New York has a much more intensive level of mandated services for special education than is required by Federal law. And as well-intentioned as these programs and requirements are -- Albany fails to provide any funding for these -- further burdening the property tax payer. So George Latimer bravely voted no on the tax cap -- not because he's for higher taxes (as the Cohen campaign has been relentlessly pushing), but due to the lack of concurrent mandate relief -- which still is not on the table in Albany. The result -- school districts like Port Chester had to make a decision to either end full-day kindergarten -- or end an elementary school literacy program. They chose to end the literacy program... this year. The tax cap has already adversely affected poorer school districts -- and more and wealthier school districts will get hit with layoffs, larger class sizes, and program eliminations.
• MTA Tax: While Latimer has sponsored bill to eliminate the MTA payroll tax -- he felt compelled to vote for the its implementation when the MTA was on the brink of insolvency in 2009 -- and the only option on the table for Latimer was to vote for the MTA payroll tax -- or watch commuter fares more than quadruple. That was the Hobson's Choice that Latimer faced -- and seeing the need to maintain a viable mass transit system in the New York metropolitan area -- held his nose and voted for the tax -- and ever since has been working for repeal and a viable long-range plan for the MTA's sustainability. Latimer did succeed in getting the tax repealed for school districts.
• Tier Six Pension Plan: In the arcane world of public sector pension policy (or lack thereof), a proposed Tier 6 was proposed, which would lessen the pension benefits of public employees hired in the future. This was buried in an avalanche of bills at the very end of the legislative session at 4 a.m. -- and seeing that there was no immediate or even near-term relief from skyrocketing pension costs and how the bill was delivered to legislators -- with no time to read it and/or amend it -- Latimer -- acting on sound policy principles (and again, perhaps unsound politics) -- abstained on the measure.
So basically, these three votes -- taken on principle -- not politics -- is being used by the well-funded Cohen campaign as a cudgel against Latimer -- with a mail drop volume and Cable TV buy that has never been seen for a state legislative race in Westchester.
With a lot less in the bank than Cohen, Latimer is now pushing back -- stating that he has a real record of lowering taxes and has the experience and clout to fight for Westchester residents. Just recently, Cohen's of business owning and operating apartment buildings in predominantly lower-income areas of Manhattan was explored by the New York Daily News.
A Sienna College poll released two weeks ago had Latimer ahead of Cohen by about three points -- well within the margin of error.
So all eyes are on this race -- and all expect the fur and mud to fly. A series of debates are slated to be held over the next couple of weeks.
Expect another nail biter on November 6.
Follow David A. Singer on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidasinger