ROB ASTORINO TAKES THE STAGE
Republican Candidate for Governor of New York On The Road Less Traveled
The Rye Town Hilton or the Westchester Hilton at Rye or whatever they’re calling this behemoth by the Hudson these days was packed with over four hundred Republican delegates from across New York State to officially nominate my longtime friend and compatriot, Rob Astorino for governor this week. It was a surreal site, and not because I would normally be throwing up near this many national or local party insiders unless someone is paying me, but as his friends and family repeated over and over; this is the BIG step.
It’s weird enough having as close a friend as Rob run for such a lofty position, as even he admitted to the immense national position governor of New York affords a newcomer, but for a two-term county executive with a ten-person staff and a significant spread against a state brand name like Cuomo?
Sure it was a blast, as always, to visit with Rob and his family in the VIP room hours before he would take the stage to accept his party’s nomination. After the ponderous roll call that turns ceremony into torture, he stood poised to take a larger stage, the national stage, the one where nobody can turn back from; it is, as Rob so poignantly whispered to me as they readied his march towards this cauldron, “now a part of history”.
It is not lost on Astorino or his staff that they are looking at a hard road against a political brawler in Andrew Cuomo whose pedigree to personally eviscerate opponents is well documented. And although Astorino survived the pitiful likes of Andy Spano, who treated the 2009 campaign for county executive as a bar fracas, this will be different.
By the time the NY State Republican Party decided to cast its collective vote for my friend, the Cuomo re-election machine had already labeled him a racist and extremist, the standard opening salvo for a Republican candidate these days. And for some of the many GOP candidates across this fruited plain, this is not entirely unfounded, but this is just lazy politics. Those kind of mutants don’t win elections in Westchester, one of the bastions of progressive politics for the past half-century plus.
However, there is no point in my gushing on about someone I consider a brother in many respects, so I’ll try and keep the rest of this thing analytical and explain why Cuomo’s early scheme of first dismissing my friend as a novice and then trying to besmirch his reputation is a failing one.
Firstly, Astorino has shielded himself wisely in those who will be of utmost import to keep him where he is comfortable, within the arena of ideas. His running mate for Lt. Governor is Chemung County Sheriff Christopher Moss, who happens to be an African American and president of the New York State Sheriff’s Association, is key for two reasons; it renders absurd the asinine notion that the candidate is racist and it fires up the key central and western parts of the state, where former Republican governor George Pataki siphoned enough votes to beat Mario Cuomo in 1994 (a campaign I covered). You see, although Astorino walks the party line of gun rights, he does not make it his rallying cry, but Moss will and did in his opening speech, which pretty much centered on it for ten consecutive minutes.
Next, the Astorino camp paraded not one but two women to introduce him, (important these days for any Republican, thanks in no small part to the idiot rambling of several candidates these past years), one an African American and longtime friend, Pearl Quarles, who spoke tenderly of knowing the candidate’s genuine compassion as a father and lifetime resident of Westchester, and Buffalo Assemblywoman Jane Corwin, who spoke convincingly of his dedication in soliciting all voters under his tent.
Back to Pataki, whose improbable victory 20 years ago evokes similarities to Astorino for me (not the least of which is that the opponents name is Cuomo), especially since I also covered his run for mayor of Peekskill, mere miles from where Rob has spent his entire life, and where we both worked as sports broadcasters for ten years. As I stood with many of the former Pataki aids before and during Astorino’s acceptance speech, there was detailed talk of the candidate also embracing the underdog role. Rob had made it a point to assure me he relishes coming from out of nowhere to challenge, as he did in 2009. His grueling defense of his record last year in a successful re-election campaign was a different animal, and he knows it. The inevitability of Cuomo in a year where Democrats are most likely going to get their clocks cleaned nationally is no slam-dunk. No one knew much about Pataki in May of ’94, in fact, non name recognition alone cost him nearly 20 points in the polls; something he made up in a manner of weeks in the autumn of that year.
“If Cuomo wants to sling mud at me, and I expect this to be nasty, then that’s his deal. I have other ideas.”
Finally, the most pertinent aspect of Astorino’s image is that there is no image, despite hokey visuals of him interacting joyfully with his family and speaking stridently with his constituents in pre-fab settings on the Hudson or the inner city. Astorino is the real deal, and it was on display during what I think was the finest speech I have seen him deliver and one of the best stump speeches I have heard since Barack Obama’s stirring oratory following his stunning victory over Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucuses.
During the 20-minute slice of political art, Astorino abandoned the kind of artifice usually doled out at these things – red meat, name-calling, rousing one-line hokum – and began to deconstruct what he deems the ills of New York by statistically unfurling its failures nationwide, and in each instance New York, which he repeatedly referred to as “the empire state”, was dead last. Fiftieth, he pointed out, in education, tax burdens, infrastructure, growth, etc. The most impactful moment was his referring to aging New Yorkers as waiting out a de facto economic prison sentence, recounting discussions with neighbors who were simply eyeing retirement for a chance to abandon New York for more affordable environs.
Not once did Astorino call Cuomo a socialist or anti-American or an extremist, but simply and effectively pointed out his derision for the Common Core Act or the Safety Act, as any opponent would, otherwise, what’s the point of the democratic exercise? Not once did he rant like a professional wrestler about being “a true conservative” or refer to Cuomo as a loony liberal, and believe me, this was the room to pounce.
Astorino also steered clear of social issues, as he has done with great effectiveness in two runs for county executive in a widely Democratic county. In fact, I counted no hackneyed hoot-and-holler moments in this speech, which I deemed (with great reference to Doctor Thompson) a king-hell whoop of a political dissertation in a spontaneous text to the man as he wrapped up this impressive opening salvo with a brilliant list of the glorious history of NY from sports to invention to celebrity, evoking the best of Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” miasma without the Gipper’s Hollywood schmaltz.
As Rob told me before taking the stage, “If Cuomo wants to sling mud at me, and I expect this to be nasty, then that’s his deal. I have other ideas.”