A Candid Discussion with the Republican Candidate for Governor of New York
Anyone who has read this space over the years knows about my friendship with gubernatorial candidate for New York, Rob Astorino. We were professional colleagues for 12 years and our families have been close for 25. I have written extensively here about his two successful runs for Westchester County Executive in 2009 and last year. I covered the accepting of his party's nomination for the governorship this past spring and, mere weeks removed from Election Day, I thought it fitting to present our recent discussion of inside politics on the campaign trail.
jc: Ok, first thing I have to ask you, as a friend, how's it going, how are you feeling, what's this like? What's your mood?
RA: Going well, I mean it's a lot of travel. It's a big state, sixty-two counties. There's not always an easy way to get from here to there. So, we're driving a lot. Sometimes when we're lucky we have a couple of people with planes and they'll take us around. It's just a long campaign, but it's going well. The seeds are growing quickly. We planted a lot of seeds in the summer and they are all starting to sprout now. This is where it has to happen, down the home stretch. The Rasmussen poll has it down to 49-33, but when you look into it, those that are certain to vote is 47-37. So this is when it's really happening, people are paying attention.
jc: What are the seeds that you planted in the summer?
RA: Meeting with all these different citizen groups around the state; "Second Amendment rights" groups, anti-Common Core, going to African American and Hispanic neighborhoods, just being everywhere - talking to people and garnering support and grass roots. Now the effort's to get it all put together so we lead into the final days and the polls on Election Day. It all comes down to that. Polls don't matter at all. Every poll is just a quick snapshot of who they poll on a sample, the turn-out model. All of that varies tremendously.
jc Right, you have to convince people you have a shot. That's what keeps people away from the voting booth; they see these polls and they say; "He has no chance. I'm not going to get up on a rainy day."
RA: I know, and it's a little frustrating, because you talk about the vast majority of people, including all the press, which have no clue how to read a poll. We know, and we've known from day one that there are a lot of cracks in the armor and it's all coming to a head now. In the primary, forty-percent voted against their city governor, which is unheard of. Cuomo's opponent, Zephyr Teachout won thirty-one counties. So it just shows that there is no big base support for Cuomo. He has problems on his Left, he has problems on his Right. He hasn't fixed this state, which is where he is going to lose the middle. The turnout is going to be critical. A lighter turnout in New York City and a heavier turnout upstate and we're going to be in a great position to win. That's what we expect.
jc: Your number-one issue is still the taxes and the highest taxed state and all that stuff. Do you find when you are out on the trail, that's the thing that comes back to you or is it the Second Amendment thing (NY Safe Act) or Common Core?
RA: Overall the taxes and the economy everywhere we go. Second Amendment issues are the biggest upstate. Common Core is a threat out here all over. For Long Island, it's energy costs and taxes. So it's all economics, there's no question. This is coming down to the state of our state. They look at Cuomo, who has had four years, made a lot of promises, and didn't come through. I mean, we're no better than we were four years ago.
jc: You're from Westchester and you were able to win in a very blue area. Now you have to go upstate where the big Republican support frames you as more New York City, so is that the tougher sell or is it pushing down here and trying to get the independents to buy in?
RA: The up-staters have a lot of suspicion about down-staters, because they feel like all their taxes get sucked down into New York City. I spent a lot of time upstate talking to people and getting them comfortable with who I am and realizing that I understand that the upstate economy is ranked worst in America and there is no reason for that. We can turn that around. It begins with upstate, because New York City, by and large, is doing fine and it will always, because it's going to be the most resilient. It has the most resources. Upstate has resources and yet it continues to get pushed down because of the policies coming out of the state. Their blessed upstate with natural gas and yet this governor refuses to allow natural gas drilling, like every other state is doing in America. It's because he's politically paralyzed. Yoko Ono says no, so he doesn't and he's telling everybody upstate you're on your own. Meanwhile, unemployment is unacceptably high. There is a mass exodus out of the state. It doesn't have to be that way. So I had said in the first ninety days we're going to set up the rules and regulations to safeguard the public water and health and then move forward, which is what we should be doing.
jc: You have mere weeks to go. What's the plan now?
RA: We are going to spend a lot of time on Long Island, in the Hudson Valley and important markets upstate. That's really what it's going to come down to. We need to get about thirty percent out of New York City. So we could lose New York City 70 to 30 and we hit our number. Last year there was a Liberal movement with Deblasio and it was only a twenty-five percent turnout in New York City. If that happens again that's very beneficial to us. Joe Lhoto, the mayoral candidate for the Republicans got twenty-five percent of the vote last year, so we should be able to pick apart areas and get to 30.
Staten Island's also worth work, we have to spend time there. Upstate, we have to win fifty-seven percent of the vote or more and that's very doable, and we have to win the suburbs, which is doable. We have to spend most of our time in those areas, but it's achievable, it's there. You have a very week incumbent with this economy and a very unpopular president and that all comes into play. The national mood comes into play; political winds, which are with us this time, that's all in the mix. Finally, it's the intensity of the voter, which is also on our side this time. That means we have real good tail winds, the passion is on our side. People want to vote for a whole bunch of reasons. On their side, it's not there. That's big intangible in this race.
jc: Let's talk about these negative ads. First off, they're hilariously bad. There is always this picture of you that looks like you are trying to kill somebody's grandmother. It's amazing how they put these things together. I have to ask; where the hell is Reince Priebus and where is the national Republican Party providing you the funds to combat this? I never see any ads with you hitting him back. Is it because you don't have that kind of cash flow now or what's going on with that?
RA: Well, we just went up on TV, but it's nowhere near what we need on a regular basis. But it is having an effect, because I am seeing the numbers going up his numbers are going down and it's been consistent, really. The fact that he spent sixteen million dollars so far on pure negative ads and he's been on a steady decline and we've been slowly but surely going forward and up tells you something. I don't think people are buying it. It's so over the top. It's so outrageous.
It's all based on two dubious at-best characters. One is this is a civil lawsuit that was filed against me and one hundred people last year right before my county executive race. It was all meant to be a political hit on me. The two people that this lawsuit was filed by, and that is the basis for Cuomo's whole negative ads against me, is one guy is an independent party chairman in Westchester who was being investigated for no-show jobs and pay-to-play scams, a pension scandal by the Moreland Commission that Cuomo shut down to protect him and then took the nomination by the Independent Party. The other guy, Sam Zurica is a strip club owner, who has filed lawsuits like we brush our teeth. Every day it's against someone else. He was arrested and indicted by a federal grand jury last week on tax evasion and many other fraud claims. He has such a violent history that the federal judge is refusing bail. He has to stay in jail until his trial. These are the two characters that have filed a lawsuit against me last year before the election.
jc: What about the charges of cronyism?
RA: Yeah, it tries to make it look like it's all patronage when these are a few positions and most every position is civil service. There are a few exempt positions where I can appoint and I do. I appoint qualified people who are going to be loyal to me. Should I do hire Cuomo's people?
jc: I thought we were past that when the president of the United States' brother was the attorney general.
RA: Yeah, no that's okay.
jc: There are just certain things that are part of politics - you win and that's the perks of winning; you get to put people in there that you want to put in.
RA: Exactly, as long as they're qualified.
jc: That's why I am waiting for my job.
jc: I don't understand why the Republican Party has not come to your aid on this. Is it because they feel it's a state they can just give away? That's what these power politics guys do; they say, "Well we can't win New York, so let's dump all our money into Arkansas or somewhere else". I get that, but it seems like all the garbage is flowing one way.
RA: Well, that's why the Republican Party will never win consistently unless they start investing and building their party in states that are blue and turn them purple and then eventually turn them red. If they don't want to invest any money anywhere they are never going to have success. Anyone looking at the polls, anyone who knows how to read polls will know this is the race to invest in. We have a very week incumbent now with big issues; a federal investigation against him for corruption, an economy that is ranked dead last in America with mass exodus of people, highest taxes, worst business climate and an incumbent that just lost forty-percent in his own primary. The polls have him under fifty percent now. There would be no bigger prize in America for the Republican Party than for them to win the governorship of New York.
jc: Is there going to be a Left Wing party that is going to run a third candidate in this thing?
RA: There's a Green Party candidate, yeah. This guy, Howie Hawkins, he's the Green Party. The Green Party is the far Left and he is absolutely able to siphon away from Cuomo. It's possible he could be the Ralph Nader of the 2000 election.
jc: Are there going to be debates coming up in the next couple weeks or what?
RA: Cuomo is going to try to run the clock out. He is going to an undisclosed location with Cheney until Nov 4th. He doesn't want to sit there and have to defend his record to the public, who he has completely disregarded. He doesn't want to talk to the press and doesn't talk to the public. Any events he does are staged and he leaves immediately, so he doesn't have to talk about a second term, which he refuses to do. He doesn't have to defend the ridiculous, false ads he runs against me. He doesn't have to defend why he underpaid his property taxes by thirty-thousand dollars, because he didn't take out building permits for all the work he did on his house. He doesn't have to defend why he's being investigated for corruption by federal prosecutors. These are things he doesn't want to talk about, along with the economy and job loss and people loss. So, he's going to try to do everything to run out the clock.
He has an obligation. I have accepted all five of the invitations we got from the media for legitimate public debates. Last year when I was running for election and I was up in the polls and my opponent was a Harvard trained debater, I debated five times. I could have played it safe, debated once or not debated at all, but I debated him five times, because I believe very much in the importance of the dialogue.
jc: So how is the family doing with all this? Every time I talked to Sheila (Rob's wife) in the past, you know, it takes a big toll. Obviously you're traveling all the time.
RA: I have to tell you it's been much more manageable than I expected. I am able to get home more nights than I thought. Some nights later than others, but I do get to see everybody in the morning. I am waking up in my own bed, so I get to see everybody. So it's not as bad as I expected with regard to travel, because we make an effort to get home. It's tiring, it's a big state. The good news in the summer is Sean (his eldest son) traveled with me for trips. Kylie (his eldest daughter) came on a trip. We all went on a trip together where we started in Niagara Falls. Went to Letchworth State Park, which is gorgeous. We ended up at the Finger Lakes and went to the State Fair in Syracuse. So we got to do some things together. Before we know it it's going to be over with. Win Lose or Draw, we'll have a great experience and maybe having the honor of leading the state of New York.