HUDSON VALLEY, N.Y. – Peter Harckham, who flipped the 40th State Senate District blue two years ago, is being challenged in his bid for re-election by Republican Rob Astorino, a former Westchester County executive and one-time candidate for governor of New York.
Harckham, 60, was elected to four two-year terms on the Westchester County Board of Legislators (2008-15) and spent four years as majority leader. He later spent time in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration, working on the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge project. In the Senate, he chairs the Committee on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse. He has two adult daughters.
Astorino, 53, was elected to two four-year terms as Westchester County executive (2010-17). His career also includes stints on the Mount Pleasant Board of Education, the Mount Pleasant Town Board, and the Westchester County Board of Legislators. Astorino also has an extensive career in media, having worked as executive producer of ESPN Radio in New York, program director of the Catholic Chanel on Sirius Satellite Radio, and most recently as a political commentator on CNN. He lives in Hawthorne with his wife, Sheila, and his three children: Sean, 17, Kiley, 15, and Ashlin 11.
Harckham, a South Salem resident, is running on the Democratic, Working Families, and Independence party lines. Astorino is running on the Republican, Conservative, and Restore Our State party lines.
More than $1.5 million has been spent collectively by the two campaigns, according to disclosure reports filed with the New York State Board of Elections.
Peter Harckham (D, WF, I)
Start off by telling the voters a little bit about yourself (your education, professional career, other qualifications/accomplishments).
Prior to being elected to the New York State Senate in 2018, I served in the administration of Governor Cuomo, where I helped lead the completion of the Mario Cuomo Bridge project. Before that I was a member of the Westchester County Board of Legislators and served as majority leader for four years.
Among my proudest accomplishments at the Board of Legislators were establishing protocols for emergency storm response and creating a county-wide Local Development Corporation to assist nonprofits with capital expansion. I also brokered a deal between the state and New York City to implement septic requirements near Westchester’s reservoirs, saving local municipalities (and taxpayers) millions of dollars.
As a state senator, I have been most proud of my work on substance use disorder, as well as helping to enact the most aggressive climate change legislation in the nation.
What are your core values? What guides you in your personal life, professional career, and as a politician?
My core values as an elected official, or what I refer to as Hudson Valley values, revolve around fairness. I believe that the government must continue to find ways to create opportunities for everyone regardless of age, race, ideology or gender. In order to achieve that, we must have a better understanding of each other. I have an open-door policy and try to meet with as many individuals and groups as possible in order to hear what their concerns and needs are, as well as to share ideas on how to strengthen our communities for the challenges ahead.
One thing that guides me as an elected official from my personal life is my own struggle with substance use disorder. I have been fortunate to have had the support and resources to overcome my own addictions, but other people face too many barriers to finding treatment. As the chair of the Senate’s Committee on Substance Abuse, I have been able to double treatment times paid by insurance, eliminate copays for patients and reduce barriers to treatment. Again, in regard to my sense of fairness, I feel we should all have access to the proper treatment.
What do you believe are the most pressing issues facing not just District 40, but this state? And do you have an action plan for your second term?
The most pressing issue that we are facing is the coronavirus and safeguarding our public during this health crisis. Part of my plan to help in recovery efforts has already been implemented: I wrote legislation to help small businesses and non-profits stay on their feet by creating a state-controlled loan fund. Without such a plan in place the economy in the state would be in a dire situation. My office has also helped hundreds of constituents who were struggling to receive the unemployment benefits that they deserved. Going forward, I will continue to work closely with Governor Cuomo to keep people safe, while also finding ways to ensure that our economy rebounds from this pandemic. Unlike my opponent, who drastically cut health care funding and emergency services funding while county executive, I believe we must continue to invest in these important sectors.
You are representing the Democratic Party in this election. What does it mean to you to be a Democrat?
Being a Democrat means that I believe in fairness and justice for all people. It means that I will continue to work to collaborate with people from all walks of life and with different points of view in order to ensure that everyone has a voice. With all of the dysfunction coming from the Republicans in the federal government, I could not be prouder to be a Democrat and fight for all of the things that the party represents.
This district is predominantly Democratic but has been won by Republicans before. How can you appeal to people who might be on the fence?
I was actually the first Democrat to win this Senate District in about 100 years, and I did so by making promises to fight for all the constituents of the district. I believe I will be re-elected because I have kept those promises. I helped pass common-sense gun safety legislation, passed the toughest climate change legislation in the nation, delivered a billion dollars in extra school aid funding, enacted a permanent property tax cap and a middle-class tax cut. There's still a lot of work to do, but I will keep working and fighting for the people of the 40th Senate District.
Rob Astorino (R, C, ROS)
Start off by telling the voters a little bit about yourself (your education, professional career, other qualifications/accomplishments.)
I’m first a husband and a father. My wife Sheila is a public school special ed teacher and we have three amazing children, Sean (17), Kiley (15), and Ashlin (11). I count my blessings every day.
I served two terms as Westchester County executive from 2010 to 2017, keeping my promise never to raise taxes and helping to create 44,000 new private sector jobs by removing tax and bureaucratic obstacles wherever possible. I was able to do that by building a bipartisan coalition of legislators so we could actually get things done.
When I came into office, Westchester was facing a massive budget deficit, and, naturally, many were calling for tax hikes. Instead, I streamlined government, beginning with cuts to my own office, and improved services with less. We strengthened the safety net by increasing spending to those in need, added daycare slots, and eliminated veteran homelessness in the county while keeping the budget flat. When I left office, Westchester had the highest credit rating of any county in New York State.
I began my public service while at Fordham University, first serving on my school board and later on my town board while working as a sports broadcaster. I later served as Station Manager of The Catholic Channel on Sirius/XM Radio, where I had the opportunity to interview the Archbishop every week—and once the Pope! After leaving office, I served as Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s delegate to the Mother Cabrini Foundation that helps low-income and vulnerable New Yorkers. I also worked as a contributor on CNN.
I’ve spent my entire life in the Hudson Valley, mostly in Mount Pleasant. My father was a police officer; my mother is a nurse, and I was raised with strong middle-class values—work hard, treat others the way you’d like them to treat you, be grateful for what you have, not envious of what you don’t.
What are your core values? What guides you in your personal life, professional career, and as a politician?
My faith certainly guides me, and I’m not afraid to say it. It reminds me every day that I’m fallible, and that the most important thing we can do on earth is be kind to one another.
I’m probably best known publicly as a stickler on taxes, and some wrongly suggest that means I don’t care about new program x or new program y. But it’s just the opposite; I’m a spending hawk because high taxes have real consequences for real people, especially for families in the middle class and working class struggling to get by.
Taxes isn’t just a word, they’re the difference between buying new clothes for a daughter or son and hand-me-downs; buying healthy food for your children or cheap processed garbage, and senior citizens taking a full prescription dose vs. breaking the pill in half and praying it’s enough. Fiscal conservatism in government is a moral responsibility, as I see it, and it’s a sign of respect for those you represent.
Working with people who disagree with me or hold differing views is equally important. When we stop listening we stop learning, and we unfortunately see that dynamic both in Albany and Washington today. Partisanship has gotten in the way of progress, and that’s not acceptable in a democracy like ours. To move forward, we have to start working together again.
My governing philosophy can best be encapsulated by what I call the “Three P’s”—Protect taxpayers, Preserve essential services, and Promote economic growth. Those are my guiding principles as an elected leader. And I could add a fourth: keep your Promises. Do what you say you’ll do in office, and I’m proud to say I’m known for having done that as Westchester County executive. I’ll do the same in the State Senate.
What do you believe are the most pressing issues facing not just District 40, but this state? And do you have an action plan for your first 100 days in office?
Restoring public safety and defeating the massive tax hikes heading down the pike come immediately to mind.
My opponent inexplicably championed the dangerous no-cash-bail law in Albany responsible for New York’s growing crime wave. And that’s not just me saying it: judges, prosecutors, and other law enforcement leaders—including four NYPD commissioners—have cited the Harckham law as the spark for this crime wave.
The Harckham no-cash-bail law allows the immediate release of career criminals for crimes including: stalking, harassment, criminal possession of a gun on school grounds; selling drugs to a minor; patronizing a person for prostitution in a school zone; failure to register as a sex offender; child pornography; animal torture; arson, assault, manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, grand larceny. The list goes on...
The Harckham law has also made witness intimidation a major impediment to justice and crime fighting. Those arrested for crimes are now given the home address of the victim and witnesses and other personal information about them. Someone who committed a crime in your own house now has a right to re-enter your premises and take pictures under these so-called “reforms.”
The Harckham law must be repealed in the name of public safety and common sense.
Secondly, the planned tax increases out of Albany have to be stopped. Raising taxes would be the worst thing we could do to the economically vulnerable New York. Tens of thousands of Hudson Valley residents are out of work or scraping to get by, and raising taxes would drive them and the mostly small businesses that employ them out of the state. New York has to address its high-tax and anti-business regulatory burden. That’s how we grow this state again.
You are representing the Republican Party in this election. What does it mean to you to be a Republican?
This is a good opportunity to mention that I’m running on a special party line in November that volunteers created for me during the dog days of summer. The “Rebuild Our State” line was created for two reasons—to send a message to Albany that tax relief and job growth are absolute priorities for struggling New Yorkers, and to give Democrats and independents who don’t want to vote on the Republican line this year a place to go. I will also be running on the Conservative Party line. People can vote for me on any of the three.
To me, being a Republican means several things. It means more efficient government, reasonable not counterproductive taxation, respect for the Constitution, as much local control of government as possible, individual and religious liberties, a clean environment, safe streets, a strong national defense, and yes, helping the least among us.
I fully appreciate the role of government. It is essential in so many areas, but government has an innate tendency to grow and grow and grow without delivering results for the people paying the bills. More government doesn’t always mean better government. A prime example: New York State has a budget about twice the size of Florida’s, and Florida has a substantially bigger population than we do. Does anyone think New York’s government is twice as good as Florida’s? I certainly don’t. New York also pays more for Medicaid than Texas and Florida combined, both states more populous than ours, and yet our Medicaid services are riddled with problems and inefficiencies.
But whether one is a Republican or a Democrat, it’s vital that we have a healthy, balanced two-party system in New York and Washington. One-party rule in Albany is proving disastrous for our state. We need a healthy competition of ideas to thrive. I think we can all agree on that.
This district is predominantly Democratic but has been won by Republicans before. How can you appeal to independents and also Democrats who might be on the fence?
I was twice elected county executive in deep-blue Westchester with a margin of 13 points. I couldn’t have won without the strong support of Democrats and independents, as well as Republicans. In fact, Democrats and independents were the first people I thanked on Election Night in 2009, and I’ve always remained grateful to them for their confidence in me.
It makes me especially proud to have been supported by people who disagree with me on one issue or another—we can’t all agree on everything—but voted for me because I had kept my word to my constituents. I still get stopped by people who say that, and it means a great deal to me. Accountability in office is super important.
It’s the same in this state senate race. I’ll need crossover voters to win, and I’m confident that will happen. For enough people, it’s not which party they’re in, it’s which candidate best represents their values and interests—who will hold the line on taxes, work hardest for me, and govern with common sense.
Bipartisanship is critically important today. As county executive, I built a bipartisan governing coalition with a majority-Democratic legislature because I wanted to get things done, not fight all the time. There’s too much of that in Albany and Washington; we need to start working together again to move the state and nation forward.
Someone’s party registration isn’t who they are. First, they’re mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, grandparents, or young people starting out. They’re third-generation firefighters, healthcare workers, lawyers, or day laborers. All have one thing in common: they’re doing the best they can to get by for themselves and their families. When you think of people that way—for who they truly are—the politics melts away.