I was fortunate last week to get my old friend and Westchester County Board of Legislators Chairman Michael Kaplowitz to interrupt his busy schedule and grant me an interview.
Can you describe what the county board does?
We learned early on in civics class that there are four levels of government: local, county, state and federal. I’m on the second rung. I am lucky to have been elected and re-elected from the Fourth District. I share Yorktown with John Testa, who does a fine job for us. We work together to protect the town we share (Yorktown) and look out for the town’s interests on the county level. Three years ago, I was also honored to be elected chair of the Board of Legislators. And for those who may not know, it’s akin to the speaker of the house.
Running the board is no easy job, but I enjoy it immensely. There are 17 of us (county legislators). We run on two-year terms and we will all be up this coming year. We are a co-equal branch of government equivalent to the county executive, Mr. Astorino. And between the two branches, we run the county.
What’s the present state of the county?
The state of the county is good. For seven years in a row, we’ve had no tax increases for property tax purposes. That’s good. We’ve been able to balance our budgets quite successfully. We have a lot fewer people on our payroll, yet through increased productivity, there has not been a diminution of services. We are the backbone really of the county. When you think of us, think of the buses, the jail, the Department of Health, the district attorney’s office, the county clerk’s office, support for the college, the airport, the sewage treatment plants, the water plants, a lot of the bridges, highways, county police, park system, north county trail, and of course the biggest of all—the Department of Social Services.
I don’t know if you know this, Jim, but 20 percent of Westchester County is on Medicaid. As you know, it’s a health system for people who are disabled and unable to foot the bill and they desperately need help from their government.
So, as you can see, we play a very important role in the lives of our constituents. By and large I think we do a nice job. It’s not me, it’s the 4,000-plus employees who are working very hard to serve our citizens. So we are very lucky to have a good workforce providing essential services. People call us all the time and we are happy to help.
Government today seems to be dominated by extreme partisan politics. What about Westchester County?
We have a legislature that works very well with the county executive. We are of different parties but we work hard on a transactional basis. We are respectful to each other. We have a good working relationship with each other. We do what Tip O’Neil and Ronald Reagan did: We try to get along. But we disagree, a lot of times. Legislators always disagree—that’s to be expected. But we do it “agreeably.” So, the vice chair of the county board is Republican. Never in the history of Westchester County have we had the chair of one party and the vice chair of the other major party. And we get along.
What’s your secret?
Every single legislator—Republican, Democrat or Conservative—is now chair of a committee. Everyone has “skin in the game,” they are all sitting at the table. I have discovered what you knew, Jim, and what I now know—that if people have an “ownership,” they then bring their “A game” to it. Once that happens, they want to trade and compromise and bring all their energy to our legislative efforts because they now have a proprietary interest in the outcome. This legislature is a bi-partisan legislature and I would hope that other governmental bodies would look to us as a model and how to bring people of different political persuasions together. And yes, we all get pressure from the extremes in our respective parties to be more strident and not work together, but we have resisted and I believe the end result is a legislature that has worked well for the people of Westchester County.
I understand that you just returned from the west coast?
I just came back from Simi Valley, Calif., and specifically the Ronald Reagan Library. I was reminded of the Reagan years, where you had a president and a Congress with vastly different political agendas, yet they did work together. The main antagonists back then actually liked each other, would have drinks and go out to dinner together. They had a strong sense of collegiality. Yes, they had differences, but they respected each other. That’s a model that I hope comes back some day on the national level.
I can only play my little role, on my level, to bring some “high calling” to the County Legislature. If that co-operative level can be achieved here then maybe it will be duplicated elsewhere or at the very least that we get something positive out of it for the County.