Friday, April 5, 2013

The Amazing Astorino: Can Any Democrat Beat Westchester's Republican Wonder?

It's good to be the Westchester County Executive.  The suburban county has a $1.7 billion budget,  5000 employees and its own amusement park.

But a lifetime pass for Playland isn't the ambition of the incumbent on the 9th Floor of the Michaelian Office BuildingRob Astorino wants to be New York's governor. 

Will his 2013 re-election stand in the way?

Westchester is a political palace.  Hillary Clinton went suburban cozy in its tony Chappaqua.  Astorino's putative statewide rival, Governor Andrew Cuomo, nests in nearby Mt. KiscoHarry Wilson, who ran a competitive statewide race for Comptroller in 2010, is a Westchesterian.  The massive investment in a replacement for the dilapidated Tappan Zee Bridge, which lands in Westchester's Tarrytown, is no accident.

On many levels, Westchester's Democrats are thriving.  Last year, they sent Republican Nan Hayworth packing from Congress and chose George Latimer for an open seat in the State Senate.  Democrats command a 10 to 7 majority on the county's Board of Legislators.

But neither Latimer, nor other popular Democrats like Scarsdale Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, are taking on Astorino.  Astorino won in a historic upset four years ago, besting his well-financed, 3-term predecessor Democrat Andy Spano in a suburban tax revolt.  Astorino failed to fell Spano four years earlier.  In 2009, the radio host powered to a convincing victory with thousands of Democratic votes.

So who are the Democratic Davids willing to tussle with this GOP Goliath?  A diverse trio, each representing a distinct slice of Westchester's Democratic electorate.  Democrats agreed to forgo a primary and embrace whomever wins the party's vote of its district leaders on April 24th. 

The loudest voice among the challengers is the current chief of the County Legislature.  Ken Jenkins, a Yonkers Democrat, has tangled with Astorino at every turn.  Jenkins has cast himself a defender of Democratic values and Astorino as a Tea Party conservative.  He has fought Astorino's cuts to child care and opposed public transit fare hikes.  He has sued (sometimes successfully) to limit the County Executive's power. 

With a solid base in Yonkers (the Southern Westchester city will cast 16.5% of the votes at the convention) and some surprising support in the county's northern Somers, Jenkins has a path to the nomination.  The African-American Jenkins will also pull support in heavily minority Mt. Vernon, which casts a bit under 11% of the vote.

But Jenkins political challenge in government has never been building a base, it's been getting and holding a consensus.  Though he was selected by his Democratic colleagues as their Chairman, he had to unseat fellow Legislator, and current opponent for the party' nomination, Bill Ryan to do it.  And two of Jenkins fellow Democrats humiliated the chairman this past December, when they bolted from the party's opposition to Astorino's proposed budget and made a deal with their GOP colleagues.

Jenkins critics cite these internal party battles as a temperament issue for the Chairman; his supporters view it as the price for Jenkins' willingness to do battle for their values.

Ryan, of White Plains, has a deeper governmental resume than Jenkins or Noam Bramson, the New Rochelle Mayor who splashily entered the race in December.  Ryan served in the State Assembly from 1982 to 1984, famously beaten by the then obscure Mayor of Peekskill, George Pataki in 1984 Reagan landslide.  Well regarded by his colleagues in Albany, Ryan remained on the Assembly Democrats' payroll as a regional liaison for 18 years after losing his election.

White Plains has 6.9% of the vote.  Ryan is a popular figure among the city's Democrats and most of the district leaders there support him.  And with decades of generally favorable relationships with Democrats across the county and state who respect his years of service, Ryan has many loyalties to call upon-- no small things in vote contained to party insiders.  He has picked up support in Peekskill too, leading some to suggest a Ryan rally.

Bramson, who has lead New Rochelle since 2006, is the only Democrat in the race with executive, rather than legislative, experience.  Once heralded as the "Boy-Wonder Mayor", Bramson's campaign rollout has been impressive and its "inclusive Westchester" message tailored to the liberal women that vote heavily in Democratic primaries.  Endorsements from progressive brand names like Congresswoman Nita Lowey have helped.

Bramson gets points for youth and polish-- and electability.  Some Democratic leaders believe that only Bramson-- an outsider to the rough battles between Astorino and county lawmakers like Jenkins and Ryan-- can out reform Astorino's own outsider image.  And Bramson's campaign, while focused on winning the nomination, is also already thinking about November- and how to increase Democrat turnout numbers from their abyssmal levels in 2009.

Bramson has also lead the race in fundraising.  In the last reporting period, he had $528,000 in the bank compared with $218,000 for Jenkins.  Ryan posted $43,000. 

But that's a pittance to Astorino's current  $2.2 million-- and the $4 million the Democrats expect the GOP incumbent to spend on his re-election.

The Democrat with the most at stake, Cuomo, has been mum on the internal party jockeying.  Speculation about Astorino's 2014 gubernatorial ambitions is being aggressively stoked-- by Astorino boosters looking to improve his fundraising prospects and by Cuomo fans looking to portray the incumbent as more focused on his political future than Westchester's present problems.

Democrats acknowledge Astorino's solid favorability numbers in party polling.  But significant spending by state Democrats once the nominee is selected could erode that.  Stopping a strong Astorino win in Cuomo's home county is a top tier political objective of the Governor's allies.

What is absent amid all the jockeying, however, is a Democratic consensus on how to oust Astorino.  When discussing the race, Democrats cite the county's growing Democratic party enrollment edge.  And Astorino's heated resistance to a federal fair housing order has encountered judicial hostility that could begin to rub swing voters the wrong way while energizing black and Latino Democrats.

But successful campaigns are those that have credible narratives and Astorino has honed his: protecting property taxpayers with three consecutive no tax hike budgets.  County taxpayers have tolerated the consequent service cuts, even while disliking them.  And the County Executive relentlessly polishes his outsider image-- even dressing up as Moses for Passover seders.  Jews are a significant, mostly Democratic, Westchester voting bloc.

With a multi-million dollar campaign chest, stable tax rates and divided opposition in the County Legislature, Astorino is as well-positioned as any GOP incumbent could be in a county where Democrats outnumber Republicans 250,000 to 132,000.

But the Democrats' suprising unity in Westchester after a tradition of messy primaries is the mark of party seeking victory.  And Cuomo allies in the political bohemoths like Local 1199 understand what is at stake.

Hillary Clinton has some free time too.