The Life of Westchester’s Rob Astorino
On the road (in an election year) with the County Executive
Every month, hundreds of invitations flood the offices of County Executive Rob Astorino: flag-raisings, banquets, church events, parades. This is why Astorino, 46, spends Sundays and many Saturdays in the front passenger seat of a black Chevy Tahoe as a plain-clothes police officer chauffeurs him from one event to another, an aide in tow to watch the clock and manage the social media and hold the framed proclamations his boss hands out at each event. Weekdays are for running the County, weekends for meeting the County. It’s a tight schedule with little margin for error, but it’s the part of the job Astorino says he likes best. “I set policy and oversee what’s going on and make tough decisions,” says the Mount Vernon native. “Part of the job is getting out, meeting different people. It’s a great opportunity to get feedback.”
On a Sunday in early spring, the eclectic schedule has an international accent. It starts with an appearance at the March of Dimes March for Babies at the Saxon Woods Park in White Plains. After a brief stop at home in Mount Pleasant, the C.E. (as his staff calls him) will proceed to a Little League opening day in Crestwood, a banquet at the Polish Community Center in downtown Yonkers, an Albanian flag raising at the Kensico Dam, finally wrapping up his official duties at the celebration of the 65th anniversary of Israeli Independence at the Westchester Day School in Mamaroneck.
The March of Dimes event has a carnival atmosphere. Hundreds of people mill about the Saxon Woods parking lot before the start of the fundraising walk. There are balloons, lots of strollers, cops in kilts, a guy in a Scooby Doo costume. Astorino arrives wearing khakis and a dark blue polo with the County Executive crest. He joins the current and former mayors of White Plains on a stage. The MC is a very enthusiastic local anchorwoman. The C.E. will repeat this routine throughout the day: Stand patiently, hands clasped in front of him, then say a few words—his speeches tend to be five minutes, tops—and depart, but not before posing for pictures and interviews. There is an art to a graceful exit, and he has mastered it.
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After the March of Dimes event, Astorino returns home to his tidy Dutch Colonial in Mount Pleasant to change into a light gray suit before heading back out. Sheila, his wife of 12 years, joins him in the living room. The daughter of Irish immigrants from Yonkers, she is lovely, mid 30s, with a big smile, dark hair, expressive blue eyes, and the slightly frazzled aura of a fulltime mother of three young children: Sean, 9; Kiley, 8; and Ashlin, 3. The kids are piled onto a chair together, watching TV, giggly and happy, with their parents’ huge eyes and open faces.
Devout Catholics, the Astorinos attended mass on Saturday to leave Sunday open for the C.E.’s whirlwind appearances. While he is on the road, Sheila will take the kids to a birthday party. Sometimes she has to call her husband’s scheduler to find out when he’ll be home, but today the schedule is clear: The family will meet up again around six for dinner at their favorite diner followed by Sean’s first lacrosse scrimmage at Westlake High School, Astorino’s alma mater.
Astorino does his best to balance work and family. He’ll steal an hour on workdays to read the kids a story, help with homework, and tuck them into bed. He takes them out for pizza or to Applebee’s, and enjoys cooking breakfast on Saturdays. “My specialty is croissant French toast,” he says. “I put amaretto in the batter.” He’ll go straight from a teachers’ meeting in Hawthorne to a press conference in Ossining. Occasionally, when work and domestic planets align, he’ll take the kids to family-friendly events and activities like marching in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Yonkers and cutting the opening-day ribbon at Rye Playland. Sheila, Sean, and Kiley were in the audience a few days earlier when Astorino delivered his State of the County address, along with his parents (long divorced). Astorino turned his two older children’s presence into a punch line; as a preamble, he showed a slide of Sean and Kiley, looking put-upon and holding a sign that read: “Free the Astorino 2.”
“What did that mean, anyway?” Sean asks impishly. He is his dad’s mini-me, with the same broad face and gregarious manner. He loves to press the flesh like his dad. After the State of the County speech, he chatted and shook hands with the grownups, completely at ease. Astorino has held a County political office since he was 21, and his children, too, seem born to politics, always in odd years: Sean in 2003, during his father’s first run for County Board of Legislators; Kiley in 2005, right before he announced he was challenging Andrew Spano for County Executive. (“I decided to run, and then we ran to the hospital.”) In 2009, Sheila was pregnant with Ashlin when he ran for County Executive the second time; she gave birth four weeks before Election Day. He beat Spano this time, on a platform of tax and budget reform. Recently Astorino joked to Sheila that he’s not only running again, but it’s an odd year. “She told me to go sleep down the hall for the rest of the year.”
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By the time we arrive at Schultz Park in Crestwood, the Little League parade from the train station to the baseball diamond is winding down. Parents and children stream onto the ball field, carrying balloons and pushing strollers, the kids in jerseys of various colors. Fire trucks lead the way. A flag hangs behind the backstop. It is an all-American scene straight out of The Suburban Idyll Handbook. The dads wear shorts and sandals, the well-coiffed moms, designer sunglasses. Astorino leaves his tie and jacket behind and stands by the entrance to the field, shaking hands and saying hello as parents and kids stream onto the baseball diamond, forming a ring around the infield. A few people wish him good luck in the fall. Someone asks the C.E. if he’s going to throw out the first pitch. “I’m ready,” Astorino says. “I just might throw a curve.”
US Congressman Eliot Engel, Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano, and assorted local pols show up, and, by the time they gather on the pitcher’s mound, opening day of the Hillcrest Lakers Community Club of Yonkers Little League looks suspiciously like a campaign event. A few preschool T-ball players hold an American flag and lead the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance. Batting cages are dedicated to the memory of Frank Sinatra Jr., a local ballplayer who passed away suddenly a year earlier. His father throws out the first pitch. Two teenagers, a boy and a girl, receive sportsmanship awards; a little girl gamely belts out the National Anthem.
Mayor Spano introduces Astorino: “This is our guy. He helps us out all the time with the County fields.” Astorino says a few words and presents a proclamation to the kids with the trophies. Then it’s time for the long goodbye, as he shakes hands and chats his way toward the exit. Brendan Murnane, his aide that day, is watching the time. A young guy in a dark suit, he’s been shadowing Astorino since 2009, tactfully keeping him on course. “It’s a delicate balance when you’ve got to step in,” he says. “But I recognize the body language.”
But there’s always something throwing a wrench into Brendan’s best-laid plans. Someone tosses the C.E. a baseball. On a grassy area beside the field he throws a few pitches to a guy with a catcher’s mitt. Astorino was a high school athlete until a case of mono in his sophomore year re-routed his path into school politics, but the old form, the good arm, are still there. Finally Brendan steers him to the waiting SUV. He opens the back of the vehicle, revealing tubs of campaign materials. Astorino puts his tie on, using the Tahoe’s window for a mirror, and he’s off to downtown Yonkers.
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If it’s lunchtime, this must be the Polish Community Center on Waverly Street. Once the hub of a vital Polish-American community, the massive turreted building is now up for sale. Apparently the Mormon Church is interested. In the meantime it functions as a catering hall. Astorino puts on his jacket and heads inside while Brendan follows, proclamation in hand, to the annual luncheon for the Westchester Pulaski Association.
We are definitely not in Crestwood anymore. Children in native Polish costume run around the cavernous ballroom. A woman calls tables up to the buffet in heavily accented English. It’s an older crowd, nicely dressed. Astorino goes from table to table, shaking hands and chatting. He is in friendly territory. When he smiles for photos, his dimples appear on cue. He exudes a smooth, squeaky-clean charisma that older voters adore. He is a poised and persuasive speaker, at ease in front of an audience. He speaks fluent Spanish and has an ear for all languages. Before an appearance, he’ll Google or ask someone how to say hello in whatever language the audience happens to speak. At the podium he delights the crowd by saying czesc: Polish for hello. He presents the proclamation and says a few words about the importance of family traditions, says another Polish word, followed by more handshaking and photographs. “We’re going to work hard for him,” says one supporter about the upcoming re-election campaign. “He’s so busy. And he’s got children at home. This is extracurricular.”
Though you could make the argument that in a campaign year, when every handshake and photograph is a potential vote, every appearance is on the curriculum.
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The driver heads north toward the Kensico Dam Plaza. For the past three years, Westchester County’s Albanian community has raised its national flag there to commemorate the day in 1912 when the tiny but tough eastern European country declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire. We are on schedule to get there by 2 pm. Brendan keeps busy posting photos to Astorino’s Facebook page and Twitter. Astorino does his own Twitter posts once in a while. “The first time I Tweeted, someone on the staff assumed we were hacked and went into panic mode. I finally said I did it. Like I’m not capable of doing my own Tweets?”
Of course he’s capable. Astorino is a media guy after all, radio in specific. His first job out of Fordham University (where he majored in communications) in 1990 was the Shadow Metro Traffic reporter, trolling the skies over Westchester in a chopper. (It got really exciting when his pilot got lost in the fog and got “a little too close for comfort” to the Citigroup building in Queens.) He worked as reporter and anchor at WFAS in Hartsdale for 10 years. In 2001, he helped to launch ESPN Sports, becoming its senior producer, and after losing to Spano the first time, he joined SiriusXM’s The Catholic Channel as program director and on-air host. When he beat Spano the second time, he got a shout-out from his talk-show sidekick Archbishop Timothy Dolan.
Given the C.E.’s willingness to take on unions over pension contributions, it’s a little surprising to hear that he’s a union man: His on-air radio hosting gigs earned him a SAG-AFTRA card. He misses radio, but gets his fix by guest-hosting The John Gambling Show on 710 WOR every now and then. As we drive around, the radio is tuned to news or sports.
He takes a call from Ned McCormack, his communications director and advisor. They talk about five times a day. The C.E. has two cellphones, a Blackberry for official business, an iPhone for personal and campaign use. He talks to McCormack on the BlackBerry, to his wife on the iPhone.
The C.E. says Sheila didn’t know what she was getting into when he ran for County Executive. “I don’t think either one of us did.” His voice softens. “She’s the best. There’s no way you can do this kind of a job without a balanced life and complete and utter support at home. It’s impossible. I come home and I’m exhausted some days, but with three kids, she’s as exhausted as I am.”
What does he do on his day off?
“Day off? What’s that? I’m thinking of joining the County Executives Union.” He chuckles. “I do get invited to a lot of places. I wish I had more time.” He loves to play golf. He’d like to play with his friend Michael Bloomberg, who has a quiver of private golf club memberships, not to mention two properties in Westchester. “Funny story,” says Astorino, who has no private golf club memberships. “After I got elected, during the transition, Mayor Bloomberg invited me down to Gracie Mansion. We start talking about golf. I said, ‘Where do you play?’ He starts rattling off Bermuda, two courses in Westchester, Long Island, the Hamptons. He says, ‘Where are you a member?’ I said, ‘I just got accepted to six different courses: Saxon Woods, Maplemoor, Dunwoodie…’”
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Our five-hour tour does not include a lunch break. Fortunately, the Tahoe’s glove box is stocked with granola bars and gum. “I have the sweetest tooth,” Astorino admits. “Cakes, cookies, all the junk.” There are also two yarmulkes in the glove box, on hand for the Israeli event. “Both were made for me,” he says. One says westchestergov.com; the other, made by a powerfulJewish constituent’s wife, has his name in Hebrew. “At least, that’s what I was told,” he quips. Then he asks Brendan for the Albanian talking points.
Let the record show the C.E. consumes nothing but bottled water that afternoon. There are sandwiches at the Albanian flag raising, but he doesn’t touch them. He jumps into the crowd and does his thing. A tent is set up in front of the dam wall, with a stage in between, one of those hauled in on a tractor-trailer. Brendan stands by, proclamation under his arm. The next event, Israeli Recognition Day, is all way in Mamaroneck. Noam Bramson, Astorino’s Democratic rival in this election year, is going to be there, too. Astorino has about 45 minutes for the Albanians.
The chairs under the tent are fully occupied, two of them by elderly women in babushkas. Young people in native Albanian costumes practice their dance steps. A jogger staggers by, wearing his first sunburn of the season. It’s become increasingly apparent that something’s off. There’s a problem with the sound system, someone says. The minutes tick by, and tick by some more. Brendan starts to twitch, like the hero in a race-against-time action movie. The C.E., on the other hand, seems unfazed. “I’ve never seen him angry,” Brendan confides. “Frustrated, yes. But never mad.”
If there’s one thing the C.E. hates, it’s leaving an event prematurely. And so he stays, talking and posing for pictures. The day is warm, but his brow is dry. Finally he takes the stage with the other principles. An elderly man in traditional folk costume sings a robust version of the Star-Spangled Banner, followed by the Albanian national anthem. The C.E. is introduced in Albanian. “C’kemi,” he says, and the crowd applauds. His speech is about the human spirit wanting to be free, speaking out for one’s beliefs, “even if it comes at great personal peril.” He finally slips away just as the singing and dancing begins.
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I-287 whizzes by in a blur. Astorino tells a story about how he got pulled over in White Plains for speeding early in his tenure as County Executive. “The cop took one look at me and laughed. Of course the story was all over. The police commissioner of White Plains calls me, laughing.”
The Westchester Day School sits on a former estate in the tony Orienta section of Mamaroneck. The C.E. is an hour late. He’s missed the speeches, the TV cameras. As we bump toward the parking lot, a photographer loyal to the Astorino camp runs up alongside the Tahoe and yells, “Rob! News 12 is pulling out saying they’ve got a lot of material from Bramson!”
A frisson of urgency fills the Tahoe. The C.E. puts on his jacket and his kippa and exits the vehicle. He will not be rushed. He greets a friend and double-checks that the Hebrew letters on his kippa do indeed read “Rob Astorino.” The party is winding down. Bramson is gone, News 12 is gone, Eliot Engel is on his way out, but the C.E. schmoozes like nobody’s business. He seems to have many friends among that 10 percent of Westchester’s population that is Jewish. He talks for a while with retired ballplayer Art Shamsky and gives the proclamation to Ron Burton, president of the powerful Westchester Jewish Council.
Before the Tahoe has left the property, a mini media crisis hits. Ned McCormack calls to tell the C.E. that News 12 is working on a story that Astorino failed to attend the Israeli event on purpose, blew it off, snubbed the Jews. And if they don’t hear from him otherwise, they’re running with it.
Oy vey. The C.E. calls the station. Brendan furiously posts pictures from the event on Facebook and Twitter to prove the C.E. was there. After being put on a hold for a minute or two, Astorino patiently explains that there’s no story here; that he was late because the Albanian flag-raising event started an hour late and he was stuck at the Kenscio Dam. He hangs up and says, “We’ll see if they run it.” (They did not.)
On the way home, the conversation turns to bullfights. Astorino has spent time in Spain (that’s where he learned Spanish), so he’s seen a few. Bullfighters are extraordinarily respected in Spain, he says, for their courage, their finesse in defeating a thousand pounds of injured, angry beast. It’s dangerous—he’s seen a matador get gored—even if the odds are tipped in his favor: “Before it goes out, they stab the bull, they weaken it. But it keeps coming at you and coming at you.”
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Dinner at the Thornwood Coach Diner goes about as one might expect dinner with three children under 10 to go. Sean, who is wearing his lacrosse uniform, orders the sweet potato waffles, and Kiley follows suit. Sheila decides on the matzo ball soup. Rob (back in his casual uniform of polo, khakis, and boat shoes) orders a bacon cheeseburger. He is wearing his Dad hat now, but, in public, he’s always got to be on. Upon entering the diner, he had made a point of speaking to the kitchen workers in Spanish. At the table, he greets other diners as they come in. Ashlin spills her water, and it’s time to go to the game. Rob brings up the rear, shaking hands on the way out.
Westlake High School sits up on a hill. It’s windier and overcast up here; a day that began in early spring is ending in late winter. The sun is a bright disc behind hazy clouds. Astorino went to high school here, so he knows the place. We arrive a bit late, and the coach calls out to him, “I can’t get mad at you, can I?”
While Sean plays, Astorino stands on the sidelines, talking to the other dads. He is not just another Dad, but everyone tries to pretend otherwise. Sheila wrangles the girls. Then Rob takes them away, running down the hill with them, playing tag.
Sheila explains that they met in 1999. She was waiting tables at Pete’s Saloon & Restaurant in Elmsford, while studying for a degree in speech therapy. Rob, who was deputy supervisor of the Mount Pleasant Town Board at the time, liked to eat dinner there before hosting his weekly radio show on WFAS. They married in Ireland in 2001.
Sheila says Rob tried to prepare her for life as a politician’s wife.
“He told me, ‘This is my path in life.’ I said, I support you, whatever you want to do.” She doesn’t watch the news: “I just don’t want to hear anything negative. He’ll tell me when he gets home what’s going on.”
And there’s plenty going on. As a small-government conservative in a liberal-leaning county, Astorino’s relationship with the Democratic-dominated Board of Legislators is contentious at best; they spar endlessly over taxes, jobs, budget cuts, Rye Playland. His David-and-Goliath standoff with the federal government over the affordable housing settlement has actually won him fans that admire his refusal to back down, and he’s being talked about for statewide office, perhaps senator or governor.
On this Sunday in April, a judge is threatening to slap him with contempt charges and a fine if he doesn’t re-introduce legislation that forbids Westchester landlords from discriminating against potential tenants based on sources of income such as Section 8 vouchers. When he told Sheila about the judge’s contempt threat, she tremulously asked him if he was going to jail. (The matter has since been resolved.)
Sheila says that as long as she’s known him, her husband has stuck with his principles, whatever the cost. “He hasn’t changed at all. Hands on the Bible, he’s the same. His morals, his ethics: that’s who he is.”
The lacrosse game is a success. Sean scores a breakaway goal that has his parents cheering and fist-pumping. These moments are precious, and the C.E. knows it. “You don’t get the time back,” he says. He leans in, to share some advice former County Executive Andrew O’Rourke, his late mentor and friend, gave him years ago.
“He said to me, ‘Don’t make the mistake a lot of people in politics make. Don’t bring your troubles home. The day has to end. Go home to your family and enjoy your kids, because tomorrow you’ll start all over again.’”
Dana White logged hundreds of miles researching and writing Westchester Magazine’s Best Places to Live feature in the April 2013 issue.