George Latimer Leads Westchester With a Motivation for Change
County Executive George Latimer has been leading Westchester for more than a year but hasn’t lost sight of what pushes him to effect change.
Latimer walking down Purchase Street in his hometown of Rye.
Photos by Ken Gabrielsen
"Anything is fair game,” says Westchester County Executive George Latimer at the head of our recent interview, and apparently he means it. During our lengthy conversation, Latimer is fully engaged and downright unguarded, holding forth on such topics as the current president, pop music, bipartisanship, social media, weight loss (he’s trying), political legacy, and the Jets. Whether or not one aligns with his politics, it’s hard to argue that he isn’t fully dedicated to fighting for what he believes is best for the county.
First, a quick synopsis of Latimer’s backstory. Born to “working-class folk” in Mount Vernon in what he describes as a tough neighborhood, Latimer was the first in his family to attend college, graduating from Fordham in 1974.
He then earned a master‘s degree in public administration from New York University, taking a sharp left into corporate marketing soon after, where he successfully “climbed ladders” for more than 20 years. “A lifelong career in the public sector isn’t easy,” he explains frankly.
Still, the call to serve in public office always remained: “It’s like a virus; it infects you,” says Latimer, who seems to have a particularly bad case. He describes said calling as the need to “be involved in public decisions, where you see a potential path to help.” Officially following that path in 1987, Latimer was elected to a Democratic seat on the city council of Rye, to which he’d moved after marrying Rye native Robin Phelps.
That victory kickstarted a career that has included seven terms as a Westchester county legislator, followed by many years in Albany as assemblyman and state senator. As a legislator, he is known for passing some 20 laws, establishing and changing policy on such issues as the Freedom of Information Act, radio piracy, and the environmental protection of Long Island Sound.
Proud of his accomplishments, Latimer felt compelled to pursue the county executive position, which he perceives as even more hands-on. As a lawmaker, he explains, “You don’t have the power to take what you believe to be true and actually implement it. You’d like the chance, at least once, to set up a team, to set direction, to get things done.”
Doing the politico thing at Poppy's Café.
It’s clear that Latimer is a dedicated statesman with years of experience, but what is he like as a person, outside his role in government? Truth is, Latimer the elected official doesn’t really have an off switch; he is, at least mentally, on the job at all times. “I don’t collect coins or stamps,” he says. “It’s pretty obvious that I spend a lot of time doing this,” he adds, gesturing around his office. The hard work of substantive meetings, along with the many social obligations of the post, “can suck up lot of time in a 168-hour week. I don’t really sleep a lot,” he says.
Meet-and-greets, however, aren’t just obligatory glad-handing for Latimer. He clearly has a genuine interest in people, paired with a generous gift of gab — which brings us to his social media presence. Latimer has so much to say, the more outlets at his disposal, the better.
Most of us are now well aware of the potential pitfalls of the tweeting politician, but Latimer is quite adept. Instead of attempting to transmit policy updates in 240 character bursts, Latimer often links his tweets to Facebook stories, to flesh out ideas on such complicated issues as the county budget and bond rating, as well as his thoughts on, well, just about everything.
While Latimer is not immune to the occasional gaffe, his communications director, Catherine Cioffi, actually supports his Twitter habit. “I’ve asked him take things down maybe two or three times,” she laughs. “He is so in tune with what people need to hear and want to hear. He’s great on social media, and he’s very funny. He was a marketing guy; he gets it.”
Latimer will tweet about the Beatles (he loves George Harrison), classical music, movies, his thoughts on current events, the weather, American history, his mother’s death, his daughter Meaghan’s wedding — it’s all there. “Social media at its best is a window on the actual person,” he explains.
A peek through Latimer’s open window immediately reveals his passion for New York sports. He will tweet about “another brutal Jets loss,” or talk at length about how all of his favorite teams (Mets, Knicks, Rangers) “stink” now. He even finds a way to link sports and politics when referring to his longtime advocacy of bipartisanship in government.
Latimer first appointed Republicans to head committees when he was chairman of the board of legislators, back in 1998, a controversial move, given that Democrats hadn’t controlled the legislature for decades prior to winning the majority in 1997.
“Democrat leaders said, ‘We’ve waited 90 years for this. Why are you giving power away?’ I said, ‘The best way to get results is to keep everybody engaged in the game,’” Latimer recounts. He’s still at it today, appointing Republican Jim Maisano, for example, as director of the county department of consumer protection. “I have lots of friends and associates who are conservatives,” Latimer says. “We debate issues. If it gets too hot, we’ll stop and commiserate about the Mets.”
While Maisano admits that his appointment came as a bit of a surprise, he didn’t hesitate to join the current administration. He has worked with Latimer in government for some 21 years and respects his methods. “Being in different parties, we’ve sometimes agreed to disagree,” Maisano says. “George was always very good about that, keeping relationships positive.”
“I have lots of friends and associates who are conservatives. We debate issues. If it gets too hot, we’ll stop and commiserate about the Mets.”
That said, Latimer, who makes friends on both sides of the aisle and inspires intense loyalty from his staff, is no pushover. He will fight back against critics, often online. And while Latimer has been accused of being perhaps too eager to do battle with political opponents, he’s not apologetic. “What triggers me more is not when somebody makes a snotty comment but when they say something that’s untrue. People don’t get to say anything they want,” he explains. Harking back to his Mount Vernon days, Latimer points out that the rule of “back-at-cha” was part of life where he grew up.
He is quick, however, to delineate the limits of his combative side when he says, “Unlike the tweeter-in-chief, I don’t call people names and go after them personally,” Latimer says, adding: ”Trump goes after people personally — calling [Senator] Richard Blumenthal ‘Danang Dick’ or something ridiculous. I don’t insult anybody with a title. But if you misrepresent my position on something, I’m going to reference that,” focusing instead on setting the record straight, which an in-depth study of his Internet presence essentially confirms. Truth is, most of the personal connections Latimer makes are positive ones.
When researching this story, sources tapped to comment on the county executive reached out to me, which almost never happens in this business. At times, I felt as if I were unwittingly cast in a “very special episode of The West Wing: Westchester.” Andrew Ferris, Latimer’s chief of staff, for example, has worked with his boss for the past eight years, moving with him from post to post, starting as Latimer’s intern at the state assembly. Latimer instantly took Ferris under his wing, consistently asking for his input. “He’s very inclusive in all his decision-making,” Ferris says, “Of course, it helps that he’s right all the time — so knowledgeable on the issues.”
Turns out Latimer’s mentoring of the young people involved in government is part of a master plan. Well aware that “there is no Mount Rushmore for county executives,” Latimer feels it’s his duty to leave behind an inspired group to take over in the future. “I’ll reflect on these days and know we did some good, but what’s best will be the young people of this administration who will someday be leaders in their own right,” Latimer says. “Hopefully, they’ll look back and say these years were formative ones and that George gave us the opportunity to grow. That will be the greatest legacy.”
20-year Katonah resident Gale Ritterhoff is a frequent Westchester Magazine contributor.