North Salem, N.Y. - Last year, Robert Kesten, a 20-year Lewisboro resident, announced his candidacy for New York State Senate District 40, which represents more than a dozen municipalities in Dutchess, Putnam and northern Westchester. Since then, Kesten has been endorsed by the Democratic committees of Beekman, Lewisboro and North Salem.
Kesten, who is seeking to unseat two-term incumbent Terrence Murphy (R-Yorktown), graduated from Fox Lane High School and Syracuse University and continues to substitute teach in the Bedford School District. His two children attended Katonah-Lewisboro schools.
Professionally, Kesten has worked on Capitol Hill for U.S. Sens. Tom Daschle, Harry Reid and Paul Simon. He also worked on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington, D.C. Upon returning to New York, he launched his own consulting firm and worked with, among others, Fred Orenstein, former minority leader of the New York State Senate. Kesten also founded and operated a film festival for five years.
Kesten sat down with Halston Media last week to talk about his candidacy. The interview has been edited for space.
What brought you into this race?
Very simple. My older son has schizophrenia and he is very dependent on a good, stable health care system. With Congress talking about wiping out the Affordable Care Act, which may not be perfect but it was certainly better than what existed before, I was getting very uneasy. So, I called and made an appointment to go to Senator Murphy’s office. I went up there and he was not there. They said he had just left and that I could meet with his chief of staff and his communications director. So, I said that was fine.
We sat down and I started asking what proactively they were doing to protect New Yorkers, especially New Yorkers like my son, in case the Affordable Care Act and all of the other kinds of things that Congress was talking about doing away with, happened. They said, point blank, “That’s a federal issue. We have no position on that.” So, I asked, “How you can have no position on what you’re doing proactively in order to make sure that negative circumstances don’t befall New Yorkers?” And, they just kept shaking their head. I said, “You’re not agreeing with me, so please stop shaking your head. I’m asking you pointed questions for a reason. You don’t have to agree, but I would like something other than, ‘We have no position.’ ”
Congress is also talking about block grants for Medicaid and Medicare and all of those other kinds of things. Block grants have historically not worked out well. Once again they said, “Federal issue. We have no position.” So I said, “If I’m not mistaken, the senator is on both the health and the mental health committees. So, how do you have no position on health care and mental health?” “Those are federal issues; we have no position.” So, I said, “What about the three times the Assembly has passed single-payer?” They said, “As long as we’re in charge of this chamber, that will never see the light of day, so we have no position.”
I walked out of there with a woman I went up to his office with. She said, “I’m glad you asked those questions about health care because yesterday I was diagnosed with cancer. So, as much as they don’t care about your son, they don’t care about me, either. Would you run?” I said, ”I don’t think so. I didn’t come here with the intention of running for office. But, I think that it’s clear that this isn’t the kind of service that we should have as New Yorkers.”
I went and spent some time with my son, and then I decided it was really something that, based on the experience that I had professionally and historically, what I would bring to the table would be very different than what the current senator had and probably most people in the state Legislature.
They maintain these are federal issues. What can the state do? What would you fight for?
I definitely think that on every score, some kind of single-payer universal health care plan makes the most sense. It’s not socialized medicine, it’s not doctors and hospitals working for the state or for the county. It is a robust plan that eliminates tremendous amounts of costs and streamlines the medical process, which means that more money and more attention can go into providing health care than goes into the administration, and that’s vitally important.
By going to a single-payer and eliminating so many layers of bureaucracy, we also potentially lower property taxes and other taxes because so much of that right now is tied in with health care. The bulk of your property tax goes to schools. The bulk of the school budget goes to providing health care for retired workers and current workers. If that comes off the top, you’re shaving off 25 percent or more of people’s property taxes, when you’re facing very escalating property taxes and less of it being deductible. So, this hits me as an absolute win-win situation for every single person in this county, in this state. We already know that property taxes are archaic in terms of being the primary source of funding for education. Well, it’s certainly archaic in being the primary source for paying for people’s health care.
Tell me about some of the other issues you have heard on the campaign trail, or some other issues you would like to correct or improve in the senate.
There are a lot of people that are concerned about what does and does not go on in Albany. The fact that it’s three or four people in a room that seem to make all these decisions, decisions based on a process that either most people can’t follow, don’t follow or don’t even know how it came about. I think that if anything we saw in 2017 with the growth of organizations and institutions that are engaging more and more people in the political process, that it’s time for New York to enter the 21st century and really be much more inclusive, allowing people to participate in the system.
The one thing I learned from my own experience working with government officials was that the No. 1 responsibility of an elected official is to make sure the electorate has the best information available to them so they can make intelligent decisions.
And I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a legislator that has laid it out for me so that I can understand what’s going on all the time so that I can make an intelligent decision for myself and my family. I’m always feeling that we aren’t being told something, rather than we’re being told too much. One of the things that I would do, and we’ve started doing them, is town halls.
One person by themselves may not be able to change a system that’s stuck in the 19th century or the 18th century, but by bringing awareness and by providing real, unbiased information, I think that invites the electorate in. And if you invite the electorate in, that makes it all the more vibrant.
What can the state do to hold utilities accountable?
Several months ago, way before this was the problem that it is now, I started the Lewisboro NYSEG Task Force. Before I knew that there was going to be storms, before I knew anybody else was highly focused on this, I started our own neighborhood task force. What I came to be aware of working with Lewisboro and going to Pound Ridge to see what they were doing was that we as citizens don’t really know what the technology is that’s out there, don’t know what changes are happening in other communities that could make our communities work better.
Part of the problem in this area, and it’s not new, so it’s shameful that is has not been addressed before by people who have been in office for years: On the Con Edison side, we’re on the north end of the territory. On the NYSEG side, we’re on the south end of the territory. So, we’re the bastard child of both companies at both ends, and therefore the last to get and the first to be ignored. That, I think, is the biggest problem with everything.
We can have smaller centers, less reliant on a large grid, which is always going to be more prone to problems just by the nature of its size and antiquity. So those are some of the things we’ve got to bring to the table and we’ve got to get these companies to talk about.
We’re always at a disadvantage, so we’re told, “It’s the trees. The trees are coming down so you don’t have power.” We’ve had trees since way before there were people here, as far as I’m aware. There were forests before there were people. This can’t be the only problem that we have going forward. There’s been energy here for over 100 years. There have been trees for more than that. So, why are we having the kinds of problems that we’re having? If those are the problems, why haven’t they been addressed in meaningful ways so it’s not still a problem? Why are certain towns like Scarsdale, their lines are underground, ours are above ground. Does that make a difference? If so, how, why, where and when? None of these things are answered in serious or meaningful ways.
Should there be any state standards for school security? Or, should schools handle it on their own?
I certainly believe that schools and communities should be able to determine those kinds of things on their own. But I do believe that the state has a responsibility to do the research: What really makes a school safe? Because we’re not just talking about schools. We’re talking about malls, public libraries and other public gathering places. Although there might be different requirements for each, there are going to be an awful lot of similarities.
People should be able to gather without fear, and people should also be able to gather without wondering who next to them may have a concealed weapon. Even if that person has the right to bear arms, that doesn’t mean it makes everyone in the group comfortable. And when you start to make people uncomfortable and everybody is carrying, it becomes a more dangerous situation. I think we need to understand what the facts are, how we get here, how we get there before we jump to conclusions about what the best answer is. Because the best answer doesn’t just come from subjective views. It comes from really understanding the situation and very often the most obvious solutions to a problem are not the best solutions.
Do you think New York has room for improvement?
Everything has room for improvement, no matter what it is. We have to remember that these mass shootings, as awful as they are and as terrible as they are, that’s not the No. 1 illegal use of guns. Suicide is probably up there at No. 1. Domestic violence is way up there. People that you know are more likely to kill you or hurt you than strangers. The fact that the facts aren’t out there in the way that they need to be so people understand what the situation is, is one of the biggest problems that we have. We’re easily confused, we’re easily angered, we’re easily inspired by fear because we don’t really have the information we need to make an intelligent decision to protect ourselves and our families.