Friday, March 8, 2013

Suburban Shootout: Election 2013 and the Politics of Gun Control

While the 2013 New York City Mayoral election will stir the downstate political pot this year, the electoral fortunes of Democratic Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and State Senate GOP Majority Leader Dean Skelos will be colored by battles for three County Executive seats in the city’s suburbs.

Voters in Nassau, Rockland and Westchester will head to the polls this November to pick their counties’ CEOs.  While the fiscal challenges facing those communities will dominate the campaigns in each, it’s already clear that the dicey politics of gun control is also shaping the electoral landscape.

Democrats have incumbent GOP County Executives Rob Astorino of Westchester and Ed Mangano of Nassau in their sights.  Rockland’s Republican incumbent, C.  Scott Vanderhoef, is stepping down.  The Cuomo administration, with its relentless focus on the suburb-friendly property tax cap, is keenly aware of its political needs in these swing counties.  The suburbs abandoned Governor Mario M. Cuomo for George Pataki in 1994, costing the Democrat his re-election.

Gun violence is on the front pages everywhere because of the Newtown massacre.  The issue was further inflamed in Rockland and Westchester when The Journal News, the regional Gannett daily, posted an interactive map of lower Hudson Valley gun permit holders on its website.  Protests ensued. 

Polling shows strong public support for Cuomo’s gun control measures, known as the SAFE Act, in the suburbs.  Support is high among the moderates who determine electoral outcomes and most fiercely among likely Democratic primary voters.

Astorino and Mangano appear determined to keep the focus on school safety and illegal guns, while steering as clear as they can of the Albany gun control debate in which they either alienate their anti-gun control base in the Republican and Conservative Parties or turn off general election moderates.
In Rockland, Vanderhoef is not running again and has kept mum.  But, strangely, Democrats on the Rockland County Legislature provided the votes to pass a strong anti-gun control and anti-Cuomo resolution that was proposed by the GOP candidate for County Executive, Legislator Ed Day.
Following the Newtown tragedy, Mangano immediately went on the offense on school safety, organizing multiple “Active Shooter” forums for Nassau schools to address potential school intruder scenarios.  Mangano also hung tight to Nassau DA Kathleen Rice (who recently passed on challenging him) in announcing and implementing a Gun Buyback Program for illegal weapons. 
Nassau, of course, is home base for Skelos, the GOP Senate Leader who governs with Independent Democrats, and who is taking flak from the party’s base for letting Cuomo’s gun bill on the Senate floor.  Many Senate Republicans opposed the measure, but Nassau’s Republican senators, worried about their appeal to the swing voters in their districts, backed it.  But the heat from the right is on—Long Island’s Sen. Phil Boyle is now calling his support for the measure a “mistake.”  Skelos’ power base is the Long Island delegation and if they are weakened by a local gun debate, so is he.
Mangano has been able to demonstrate a concern about school safety, a huge concern for the women with children who strongly back gun control, without wading into the intense conservative opposition to the state’s recently passed gun control legislation.  Mangano’s website lists no press statement on the SAFE Act. 
Mangano’s Democratic opponent will be either former Exec Tom Suozzi or Adam Haber.  Neither has made gun control a major point of distinction with Mangano to date but cracks in the Senate delegation will keep the issue on Newsday’s front page and the county executive will have to be clearer about his views without angering his partisans or the county’s pro-gun control moderate voters.
Astorino has followed a similar strategy in Westchester, though the Democratic-controlled Board of Legislators there successfully (and unanimously) passed a bipartisan resolution backing a federal assault weapons ban.  Astorino held a very high profile school safety summit with former NYC Police Commish Bill Bratton and released his own safety plan.  With Astorino now drawing a primary opponent to his right, however, he will feel political pressure from the Republican base to vocally oppose the state’s gun control law.  His failure to do so may make his primary tighter than he’d like, and weaken his prospects for the GOP’s gubernatorial nomination to take on Cuomo in 2014.
Astorino has drawn generally favorable press and adeptly hewed to the anti-tax message that allowed him to upset Democrat Andy Spano four years ago.  While he has played to the GOP base by vigorously questioning the county’s settlement of a housing discrimination case with HUD, social issues are not his game.
Democrats—whether they nominate Legislature Chair Ken Jenkins, Mayor Noam Bramson or Legislator Bill Ryan—are determined to make Astorino squirm.  Gun control is popular in Cuomo’s Westchester backyard and the Governor himself will no doubt drive that message home.  At the same time, Astorino can’t hug gun control unless he wants to become the Steve Saland of 2013, where a broadly popular GOP moderate is undone by a third party challenge from the right (Saland backed marriage equality).
Defeating Astorino would be a political twofer for Cuomo, reclaiming Westchester’s top post for a Democratic Party he successfully rebranded with the tax cap and sidelining a well-financed, high-profile potential re-election challenger.  Because debate on social issues like guns and choice are very effective in peeling Democratic women away from Republicans who run as moderates, expect an intense effort to paint Astorino as out of the mainstream on gun control.
Rockland is the most peculiar case.  Vanderhoef, who opted not to run for a sixth term, is focused on salvaging his fiscal legacy before he leaves office.  He is struggling mightily to convince county legislators to make the spending cuts that can bolster the county’s worst in the state bond rating and reduce its $100 million deficit.  Gun control is not on his agenda.
But it is powering the campaigns of his four (or five) potential successors.  Two of them are influential county legislators, Ilan Schoenberger (D) and Ed Day (R).  Both are members of local gun rights organizations and they oppose Cuomo’s SAFE Act.  The other candidates are Suffern Mayor Dagan Lacorte (D) (disclosure: I have done political consulting for and contributed to Lacorte’s campaign) and former County Legislator and Spring Valley Justice David Fried.  Lacorte strongly backs gun control, is a member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns and does not own a firearm.  Fried, a gun owner, has taken a more nuanced position on gun control, not directly supporting any specific proposed state or federal legislation.
Guns provided an early point of contrast in the campaign, when a local website solicited the candidates’ views post-Newtown.  But the battle really amped up when Day introduced a resolution in the County Legislature blasting Cuomo’s SAFE Act.  He was backed up (though some say simultaneously sidelined) by fellow GOP Legislator Frank Sparaco, who proposed a number of amendments to the resolution.   Sparaco is rumored to be looking at the exec race too.
The Republican minority lacked the votes to pass the bill.  To their aid came Schoenberger, who pioneered the county’s program to hand out trigger locks for gun safety but had taken a clear position against the SAFE Act.  Sparaco himself credited Schoenberger’s parliamentary skill for garnering votes from 6 of the Legislature's Democrats to pass the resolution.  5 Democrats were opposed.
It is an unpopular position for Schoenberger with Democratic primary voters, and the Governor’s office has made its intense displeasure with his vote known.  A political alliance with Sparaco, who holds sway over the Independence Party endorsement, has upsides, however.  Progressive Lacorte is unlikely to let the issue go away in the primary—but an upsurge in turnout by gun owners, a significant Rockland constituency, could help Day in November.  And there are many pro-gun Democrats, who will now gravitate towards Schoenberger in the primary.
The great progressive achievement of Cuomo’s first year in office, marriage equality, impacted State Senate races in 2012, but did not reorient New York’s tribal and geographic politics.  Gun control, another pillar of the Democratic social agenda, may. 
The suburban gun politics of 2013.  They are watching in Albany.  And in New Hampshire.