Can Astorino Be Trumped?

Donald Trump looms bigly over this year’s race for county executive.


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illustraton by brian taylor; photograph by stefan Radtke

You can Tweet on it: Like an angry orange moon, President Donald Trump looms bigly over this year’s race for county executive.

The election is still five months away, an eternity in politics. But Democrats are already testing a strategy to unseat two-time Republican incumbent Rob Astorino by tattooing him indelibly — and unfavorably — with the Trump brand. The gamble is that a large swath of Democratic voters who normally stay home in off-year elections will be energized to go to the polls this November, not to smite Astorino so much as to vanquish an evil Trump Mini-Me or a hybrid Trumparino

During the late presidential race, Astorino supported the mercurial billionaire developer. After the election, Astorino was approached by Trump operatives, who asked him if he had any interest in being named secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Ironically, the county executive was, and still is, engaged in a bitter, not to mention costly, fight with HUD over an affordable-housing settlement. Astorino politely demurred, but the fact that he was even casually considered for the Cabinet post in the first place showed Trump’s penchant for mischief.

Push polls are gauging Astorino’s vulnerability — and Democrats see signs of hope. One political insider told me that some results reveal an “even race” when Astorino was paired with the president’s views on hot-button national issues such as immigration, gun rights, abortion, and climate change.

But polls can’t predict the future — a fact Trump proved. And while it’s one thing to tar Astorino as Trump’s clone, it’s a very open question as to whether the characterization will inspire enough Democrats to vote against him. 

In theory, it shouldn’t be difficult. After all, Democrats enjoy a 2-to-1 enrollment advantage over Republicans. In the 2016 presidential race, Hillary Clinton got 65 percent of 404,164 votes cast in Westchester, while Trump received a paltry 31 percent. Some party faithful see the trouncing as a rallying cry. 

“We need a County Executive who reflects our values, not his golfing partner’s,” declared a post on The People Against Trump-Astorino, an eviscerating Facebook creation. “Want another chance to vote against Trump? It’s coming in November.”

However, unlike Republicans, Democrats do not turn out in large numbers in uneven years. In the 2013 county executive race, only 80,362 enrolled Democrats bothered to vote for Democratic challenger Noam Bramson — little better than 30 percent of the party’s active enrollment. In stark contrast, about 80 percent of enrolled Republicans voted. Astorino beat Bramson handily, with 56 percent of the overall vote.

Not a few Democrats in Westchester lean Republican when it comes to voting in local races. These voters especially approve of Astorino’s signature achievement of holding the line on county property taxes for seven consecutive years. That’s why casting Astorino as Trumparino won’t be easy. A longtime politico and inveterate Astorino enemy who spoke to me on background admitted that Astorino is already defined — and that presents a challenge. “People know him and have a favorable opinion of him,” he said.

George Latimer, a state senator from Rye, was picked by the Democratic leadership to run against Astorino — though Latimer will likely be challenged in a primary by County Legislator Ken Jenkins of Yonkers. The party standard bearer, whoever it ultimately may be, must decide either to embrace the anti-Trump rhetoric or let surrogates and supporters do the dirty work.

For now, the Trump card is being enthusiastically thrown by an activist group called Indivisible Westchester, whose members have confronted Astorino at “Ask Rob” town-hall meetings.

Astorino spokesman William F.B.   “Bill” O’Reilly dismisses them as “hyper-partisans lobbing hand grenades.” Evoking Trump, he said, “is a sign they have nothing to run on.”

For his part, Astorino is taking a low-key approach. At a raucous “Ask Rob” session in White Plains in February, a member of the audience asked him what he thought about Trump’s belief that climate change was a hoax.

Astorino didn’t take the bait. “I can only deal with my world here,” he said. Translation: He won’t be visiting Mar-a-Lago anytime soon.  

The opinions and beliefs expressed by Phil Reisman are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Westchester Magazine’s editors and publishers. Tell us what you think: email edit@westchestermagazine.com

 

 

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