Imagine for a moment the voters who moved to Westchester this summer and their introduction to the political landscape is this county executive’s race.
If they relied on certain news articles and television reports along with the ads they may have read, heard or watched in order to glean some information about the two candidates, two-term incumbent Rob Astorino and challenger George Latimer, chances are they haven’t learned anything of much value.
The two candidates, with a combined public service record of more than 50 years, have engaged in one of the most disgraceful and ugliest campaigns in recent memory. If they haven’t plunged into the gutter sullying each other then they’re both teetering on the edge of the curb.
It’s sad because regardless of whether you agree with their politics, Astorino and Latimer have had long and distinguished public service records. Astorino started on the Mount Pleasant Board of Education, served 12 years on the Mount Pleasant Town Board, was a county legislator for two years, then has managed to comfortably win two elections in a heavily Democratic county. In between, he also ran for governor in 2014.
During the past 30 years, Latimer has risen from the Rye City Council, to the Board of Legislators, including four years as its chairman, then for the past 13 years in the state legislature.
Both have had some strong successes, but that’s been thrown out the window. What’s more important than decorum – and there’s nothing wrong with a good, hard-nosed campaign – is that they’ve spent precious little of their time discussing what matters to county residents.
Most residents care about taxes, safety and services and how those issues can affect quality of life, not what dirt a candidate can dish on an opponent. Certainly not when the accusations are spewed on an almost daily basis.
With that being established, after eight years of Astorino at the helm, the county needs a change in leadership.
There’s no denying that Astorino has made good on his zero tax levy pledge, which isn’t insignificant. That’s what he has run on and it will always resonate with the public. After eight years, though, it’s fair to ask, at what cost? About a month ago, the state comptroller placed Westchester on the fiscally stressed list, the second worst rating of any county in the state. The administration has borrowed to pay for pensions and tax certioraris, not the best way to conduct the county’s business.
Astorino has pointed to bipartisan successes, and that is true. The 99-year lease for the North 60 biomedical project in Valhalla was approved by the Board of Legislators unanimously and is one example. Earlier budget compromises may not have pleased everyone but that’s how government is supposed to work, give a little to get a little.
Despite fits and starts, the privatization of Playland may turn out to be the right move, as the county had been losing large sums of money on the amusement park.
But blind privatization of anything can be fraught with pitfalls. Astorino’s rush to try and find an operator for Westchester County Airport was done without consulting legislators and surrounding communities and its potential impacts. Plus, the first-year payment to the county would have conveniently been $15 million, the precise gap in the budget heading into this year.
There has also been an increasingly partisan bent to Astorino’s politics, starting with unnecessary resistance to the affordable housing settlement, costing Westchester $25 million in federal grants. To Astorino’s credit, the county has complied with the settlement but it was messier than it should have been.
Between the outcry over last year’s gun show and his constant use of the term sanctuary county during the Immigrant Protection Act debate, Astorino has done more to divide the county’s citizens than unite them in the recent past.
There should be confidence that Latimer has the experience to step in and have a limited learning curve. Although he hasn’t served in White Plains since 2004, the familiarity he has with the issues and how county government operates will serve him well.
His call for a state comptroller’s audit of county finances is worthwhile. Despite Astorino’s ads pointing to his record of adding up tax increases, in a tax cap world Latimer will be under scrutiny to deliver either zero increases or only small increases that are imperative to solidify the county’s finances.
Latimer has stated there is no need to privatize Westchester County Airport, which should be welcome news for the communities surrounding the facility and in the flight path.
He should also be able to have a productive working relationship with Albany, which would be a welcome change.
It’s time for a course correction in Westchester and Latimer is the candidate most likely to deliver in that regard.