Interviews With Outgoing and Incoming County Execs Andy Spano and Rob Astorino
We talk with outgoing County Exec Andy Spano (who tells us why he lost) and newcomer Rob Astorino (who explains why he ran).
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Our New County Executive
How “the guy next door” rose from County Legislator to County Executive—second time’s a charm
By Elzy Kolb
Rob Astorino’s careers in broadcasting and politics have taken the lifetime Westchester County resident a long way from home. The Mount Vernon native has met a pope (Benedict XVI), a president (George W. Bush), and a prime minister (Britain’s Tony Blair), rubbed elbows with countless media and athletic icons, and attended more top-level sporting events than he can remember.
But regardless of who he knows or where he’s been, the new County Executive comes across as the guy next door, the neighbor you know you can count on to help when your car has a dead battery.
Like many of us, Astorino, who currently resides in Hawthorne, enjoyed watching It’s a Wonderful Life during the holidays, and the 42-year-old’s own story has kind of a Bedford Falls quality, in which early friendships, relationships, and interests remain permanent touchstones. There’s a continuity and connectedness in his life that seem rare in our increasingly mobile and electronically linked society.
“Some people take a long time to find out what their passion is and what they want to do,” says Laura Schwartz, whose friendship with Astorino began at Thornwood’s Westlake Middle School and High School. She recalls that by seventh grade, “Rob was so clear about what he loved: sports and politics. All his life he’s been involved with both.”
A bout with mono at age 15 sidelined him from playing the sports he so enjoyed (football, baseball, basketball, and soccer). “I was really upset. ‘What do you mean I can’t play sports?’” Astorino recalls asking. “But something really great happened out of something really bad.” A neighbor asked if he’d like to announce the Westlake football games for public access TV. From that moment, “I was hooked on broadcasting,” he says. “I started a weekly public access show with high school sports highlights and interviews.”
While home sick, he was asked by several friends to run for student council president—and agreed. Schwartz helped with her Republican friend’s campaign, the first of many times. The self-described “liberal from Connecticut” was Astorino’s treasurer on his County Legislator (2003 to 2005) and County Executive campaigns in 2005 and 2009.
Astorino went on to serve two terms as Westlake’s student council president—which sealed his love for politics. “I enjoyed being in a leadership role,” he says. One of Astorino’s initiatives at Westlake was organizing a safe-rides program to keep students from drinking and driving. His classmates sometimes teased Astorino, calling him Alex P. Keaton after the fictional young Republican, wonderfully played by Michael J. Fox on the 1980s TV sitcom, Family Ties. Former county legislator Sue Swanson, whose son was a pal of Astorino’s, says, “He is the ultimate politician. He was born into this profession. In politics, you need a thick skin and a sense of humor.”
While still in high school, Astorino worked with Swanson on the 1985 campaigns for Mount Pleasant town supervisor and town board. The candidates “won in a big upset,” Astorino says. During that campaign, Astorino met the man he recently appointed county attorney, Robert Meehan. “Rob stood out as the youngest person taking an interest in the local community,” Meehan says.
Astorino considered enrolling in an out-of-state college, but decided on Fordham for its “great communications department and great radio station,” and fell in love with radio at Fordham’s WFUV-FM. “Radio is more intimate than television. In many ways, you can be yourself in radio. Talk radio, sportscasting—I had a blast.” He majored in communications and minored in political science and Spanish. “I always loved Spanish,” he says. “One of my big regrets is not studying abroad. I would have loved studying in Spain or Mexico for a semester.”
While still at Fordham, Astorino was elected in 1988 to the Mount Pleasant School Board and, in 1989, he campaigned for Meehan when he successfully ran for town supervisor, and two years later made a victorious run for Town Board. “In those Town Board work sessions,” Meehan says, “Rob came up with some very innovative suggestions and was extremely dedicated.”
Astorino’s fondness for one-liners and elaborate pranks triggered a long-running friendship with Andrew Castellano, a colleague at radio station WFAS in Hartsdale, where Astorino worked as the AM program director after finishing college. Though Castellano is a Dallas Cowboys’ fan, for more than a decade his office window displayed a Miami Dolphins sticker as a result of a lost bet. The details of the bet are long forgotten, but Castellano recalls that his Dolphins-loving co-worker formalized the agreement with a detailed contract, specifying that the winner’s team sticker would remain on the loser’s window forever. Astorino even had the contract notarized.
Astorino’s ability to make her laugh is among the characteristics that impressed the former Sheila McCloskey, Astorino’s wife of eight years. The two met when she was a waitress at Pete’s Saloon in Elmsford, while she was working on her master’s degree in special education at Lehman College. By the second date, she knew he was the one. Her initial good feeling about him further was validated when her car broke down on the Saw Mill River Parkway. She called Astorino, who alerted the police and arranged to have the vehicle towed. Afterward, Sheila recalls her future husband telling her, “Even if you never marry me or see me again, you still have to let me help you buy a new car.” They went car shopping together and he helped her choose a new Jetta and make the down payment.
The couple became engaged after dating for a year, and, in 2001, got married in Ireland, then went on a a summer-long European honeymoon. In Barcelona, where they spent six weeks, Astorino took a three-hour Spanish-language immersion course each morning. With three little children—Sean, six; Kiley, four; and infant Ashlin—the Astorinos are sticking closer to home these days. Both are eager to resume their travels, with Iceland ranking high on her list, and South America and European cities on his.
Astorino continues to make time to play softball, full-court basketball, tennis, golf, and to make regular visits to the gym. “He has room for improvement, and you can quote me on that,” Castellano, his frequent golf buddy, says.
Astorino was elected to the County Board of Legislators in 2003 and, two years later, he made an unsuccessful run for County Executive. Last year, he decided to make a second run for the office. “Nobody was stepping forward,” he says. “It’s never good when there are uncontested elections. That’s how people get complacent.” Astorino earns $160,760 as County Executive.
Astorino has vowed to make it home in time for dinner and to get the kids ready for bed several nights a week. “I don’t want to look back in ten, fifteen, twenty years and have regrets that I missed so much.”
As County Executive, Astorino may not have as many opportunities to mingle with international figures as he did as a broadcaster—figures such as Pope Benedict. Until December 4, Astorino was program director for the Catholic Channel on Sirius-XM Satellite radio. He covered the Pope’s 2007 visit to the U.S. After the Pope recorded a 30-second message for the Catholic Channel, he turned to Astorino and asked if he had done an okay job. “What was I going to say?” he asks. “‘No, Holy Father. Please, take two, with a little more emotion!’”
The following year, he met the Pope again, this time in the Vatican for a conference on Catholic media. Astorino was glad to have a second chance because it gave him an opportunity for a better photo with the pontiff. The first time around, he says, “my eyes were closed.”
Elzy Kolb is a White Plains-based freelancer who’s using the long winter evenings to brush up on her woefully bad Spanish, improve her guitar chops, and peruse kitchen-remodeling magazines.