Likely Gop Challenger Says He Can Beat Nys Cuomo

02.24.14 | Bob Price

Rob Astorino's expected run for governor of New York would seem to put him in a mismatch in name recognition, fundraising and party registration against incumbent Andrew Cuomo.

But the Republican Westchester County executive, who is setting out an agenda focused on cutting taxes and creating jobs, scoffs at the notion he can't win. And he's already warning the governor to be ready for a fight.

"There's going to be nothing timid about this campaign," Astorino said in an interview with The Associated Press. "It's going to be bold, with new ideas, a little bit of a shock to the system."

Astorino, who is expected to make his announcement within two weeks, envisions toppling Cuomo by winning the upstate region ("where Cuomo is most disliked") and the suburbs ("It's who I am") while taking just enough of the heavily Democratic New York City vote.

It could be a tall order.

"He's got his work cut out for him," said analyst Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Poll. "He has to become well known, he has to make a case that Cuomo needs to go and that he's seen as the alternative."

One recent poll showed Astorino trailing Cuomo by 34 percentage points. Another found that 76 percent of respondents didn't know him or had no opinion of him. As for campaign funds, Cuomo has already raised $33 million.

"I love starting like that," said the 46-year-old Astorino, who is quick to point out he's been the underdog before.

In 2009, when he challenged incumbent county executive Andrew Spano, Astorino wasn't widely known beyond his hometown. His background was mostly in radio management, he was a Republican in a very Democratic county, he had already lost the same race in 2005 and he didn't have much money.

But after promising to hold down the county's eye-popping taxes, he won that election by a wide margin and was re-elected easily last year.

"It's 2009 all over again," he said of a potential gubernatorial bid. "I knew we had a shot against the odds. The climate was right, the issues were right, I was not going to be outworked and we were the little engine that could."

Born in Mount Vernon and raised in Mount Pleasant, where he still lives, Astorino graduated from Fordham University. His first fulltime job was as an airborne traffic reporter.

"That was always fun, lifting off at 5:45 in the morning and flying over New York City and the metropolitan area and watching it come alive," Astorino said.

His broadcasting career flourished. He became a station manager and was hired by Disney to launch ESPN's New York radio station in 2001. He later helped start the Catholic Channel on Sirius XM satellite radio and hosted weekly shows with Cardinals Edward Egan and Timothy Dolan.

Meanwhile, Astorino was elected to Mount Pleasant's school board and then its town board. In 2003 he was elected to the county Legislature but found that being in the Republican minority limited his ability to cut spending. So he ran for county executive.

"I was very frustrated that I couldn't change the direction of the county," said Astorino, who with his wife, Sheila, has three children ages 10, 9 and 4. "I wanted to be able to raise our kids in the community and county I grew up in and I didn't see that happening unless I jumped into the arena."

Astorino won some national attention for battling the federal government over a housing desegregation settlement he inherited. He says the county is complying with its obligation is to build 750 new units. The government is withholding millions in grants as a dispute over other aspects of the agreement lingers.

"We continue to do what we're supposed to do," Astorino said. "The less intrusive they are the faster we can do it."

Opponents are likely to point out that Astorino is personally against abortion, though he says he recognizes "this is a pro-choice state where abortion has been legal for 44 years."

Cuomo, who lives in Westchester County, hasn't spoken publicly about an Astorino candidacy but has pointed out that Westchester is still by some measures the most heavily taxed county in the country.

But most of those taxes are not levied by the county, and Astorino has kept a 2009 campaign promise not to raise county property taxes.

Astorino says he wants to bring that kind of discipline to Albany. He supports lowering business taxes and relaxing state regulations to encourage job growth, while Cuomo has proposed business tax relief of his own: cutting the corporate income tax, establishing a property tax credit for manufacturers and eliminating net income taxes on upstate manufacturers.

Astorino supports hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, saying it would be a financial boon to the state. And he says he would clean up corruption.

Lawrence Levy of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University said a GOP candidate who has done well in Democratic-leaning suburbs should be taken seriously. But he added that Cuomo is also popular in the suburbs, too.

"And the big question is whether Astorino can raise the money and keep the Republican Party unified to run the truly focused and glitch-free campaign he has to," Levy said.