Westchester is an “amazingly diverse county,” County Executive Rob Astorino told members of the Hudson Valley Gateway Chamber of Commerce last week at its monthly breakfast meeting.
Mr. Astorino added that, “Out of 1 million people, el veinticinco por ciento de la población es Hispana,” and then immediately translated that as “25 percent of our population is Hispanic.”
That’s just one example of what makes the Mount Pleasant resident a consummate retail politician. He has a canny ability to seamlessly slip in and out of multilingual mode to bring home a pertinent point with resonance.
Now midway through his third four-year term as county executive, the father of three remains that rara avis among elected officials: Forceful yet disarmingly charming, in confident command of the facts yet smoothly spontaneous, with a quick wit always at the ready.
His exquisite communications skills were honed as a media executive with ESPN and other major companies, and he has leveraged those and his being a quick study into a thriving career in public service. That includes giving Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the 2014 gubernatorial race a run for his money—a campaign war chest of $46 million, to be exact—even as the Astorino campaign had only $6 million to spend.
At the Dec. 8 Gateway Chamber holiday gathering, held on stage at Paramount Center for the Arts in Peekskill, the bantam bulldozer spent a breezy 20 minutes at the podium, without a single note, covering a wide range of highlights from his portfolio of pressing matters that affect not only Westchester residents, but those in Putnam county as well. He spent another 20 minutes answering audience questions.
On his agenda was Playland, Westchester Airport, Hudson barges, affordable housing, economic development, the budget, emerging local industries such as Life Sciences and Biotech, and Indian Point.
The statistic pinpointing the county’s sizable, growing Hispanic population, which is indicative of its overall diversity, was part of his response to a question about any interest he might have in running again for governor in 2018.
By way of underscoring his passion for the current gig, and life-long love of the county, Mr. Astorino recounted growing up in northern Westchester on Locust Avenue, and attending Lincoln-Titus Elementary in the Lakeland school district. His family moved to Thornwood, where he went to Westlake High. He’s lived in every tier of the county: upper, middle, lower.
He said the county’s welcoming diversity includes 15 percent African-American residents. He added that it is “the eighth largest Jewish county in the United States.
Mildly deflecting the inquiry about whether he has one eye cast toward Albany, Mr. Astorino called Westchester “a great place, and I love what I’m doing, but who knows what going to happen [in two years].”
Further warming to his de facto role as head cheerleader for the county, he also noted that the county’s marketing push for job creation is predicated on a highly educated and highly skilled workforce that should be appealing to growth industries looking to hire: 45 percent of county residents over 18 hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. “That’s second only to Washington, D.C.,” he said, adding with a chuckle, “but who thinks Washington, D.C. is smarter than us?”
The Westchester County Board of Legislators was scheduled to vote on the 2017 budget this past Monday, Dec. 12. With that outcome pending at the time I write this, here’s a rundown of other observations by County Executive Astorino at the Chamber event:
His philosophy of good governing is summed up by 1) protecting taxpayers, 2) preserving essential services, 3) promoting economic growth. “Everything we do has to fall under those three Ps,” he said. “We took a hard line not to raise taxes. We have to behave like a business would” by working hard to find ways to increase revenue and contain costs. “Raising taxes in a heavily taxed county is the wrong approach. It hurts business and drives consumers elsewhere. We’ve seen a migration from the Hudson Valley, and from the state.”
“Raise your hand if you’ve been to Playland recently,” he said of the amusement park in Rye owned since 1928 by the county. When no hands went up, the county executive continued, “Exactly. That’s why I want to change it. Running a roller coaster is not a core function of government.” The proposed privatization calls for a management company to take over and pay the county an annual fee, starting at $350,000 a year and escalating over time. The management company also will invest $30 million to upgrade the venue, with the county contributing a far smaller amount.
Apart from the years-long battle between the county and the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) over how many units of affordable housing are needed, and in which locations, Mr. Astorino said a parallel battle is taking place focused on his First Amendment rights as an elected official.
“The federal government has threatened me and basically told me to shut up.” He said they told him, “You will say what we want you to say, and if you say anything contrary to that, we will come after you. It’s in front of the 2nd Circuit Court right now, and is a major case that affects every elected official in the U.S., because if you can’t speak out in favor of what you think is true, we’re done.” The court was scheduled to hear the case on Tuesday, Dec. 13.
Hudson Barges and Indian Point
Acknowledging the valuable support of state Sen. Terrence Murphy and other local officials, Mr. Astorino called the widespread opposition to barges parking themselves indefinitely along the river, next to towns like Peekskill and Cortlandt, “a bipartisan issue.”
He explained, “We’re very much in favor of commerce, but we’re also in a unique part of the country. Everyone should know by now I am very pro-Indian Point. It is illogical to close it without any kind of resource, which we don’t have, to take its place. It should stay open for a variety of reasons.
“To park barges close to Indian Point would be a security risk, would be a blight on our area on tourism, and it would be counter to everything we’ve been working on the last decade or so to bring the Hudson River back.”