In the fall of 1970, I was a graduate assistant, team-teaching an introductory course in philosophy at Fordham University. A bright-eyed freshman by the name of George Latimer took my course but was unfortunately assigned to a different class. Less than two decades later, our paths finally did cross! George was elected to the Westchester County Board of Legislators after first serving on the Rye City Council. In 1998, he became the first Democratic chairman of the Westchester County Board of Legislators.
George Latimer eventually won a seat in the New York State Assembly and later the State Senate, demonstrating time and time again that no challenge was too great for this Mount Vernon native. Recently, he announced that he was taking on perhaps the most difficult test of his career as he announced his candidacy for Westchester county executive. Having received the Democratic endorsement at the convention, Latimer nonetheless still faces a primary battle on Sept. 12 against Ken Jenkins, a county legislator representing Yonkers. If successful, he would then be up against the Republican incumbent County Executive Rob Astorino in the November general election.
Despite his busy schedule, George was gracious enough to sit down with me and talk about these upcoming political contests:
Why are you taking on such a difficult race against a presumably strong incumbent?
Having served on the Board of Legislators both as its chairman and as a member for 13 years, I have a strong feeling of attachment to county government. It is a regional government, it is a local government. There are people who look at White Plains as a mini-Albany… now that I’ve been in Albany and have seen how that government functions, I think that the county needs to operate with a town government feeling—incorporating the co-operative spirit that you can get on the local level which you never can get in either Albany or Washington where politics is a pitched battle because the ideologies are so dug in…
While the county is diverse from Yorktown to Mount Vernon, there are certain functions that the county is responsible for doing, which, if it does well, benefits everybody. You should look at that as the mission of the government… not some ideological crusade.
The present county executive, Rob Astorino, ran for governor once and presumably will run again. What are your future plans should you succeed in becoming our next county executive?
The county is a $1.8 billion operation. This is not a stepping stone for another position. At my age, I’m not stepping anywhere. I view this as an opportunity to make what I hope will be my last and most significant contribution. I have a strong affection for county government and I want to see it change its present course.
What, in your experience makes you especially qualified for the job of county executive?
I’ve seen the alpha and the omega of our county. I grew up in a very poor neighborhood and I’ve represented wealthy areas of the county. I think I bring to the table someone who loves the county, who appreciates business, who understands how county government functions, who grasps the ins and outs of how you have to work with Albany. The truth is that if you can’t interact with state government you won’t get things done anyway. I’m not doing this as a launching off point for me. My sole objective is to see what we can accomplish when we all work together toward our common goals over the next four years.
What’s your vision of what a Latimer administration would be like?
My vision for the county is a government much more open than what we’re seeing now. I think there has to be a greater interaction between the county and local governments. The county has approached it more along the lines of an attitude of: “We have these powers and authority and we don’t intend to share it.”
I also think the government has to adopt a more holistic view of the county and not just focus on the portions of our community that are doing very well. In my senate district, my constituents are doing very well. They don’t really need government’s help at all. But there are issues in places like Port Chester and Yonkers that desperately need attending to in a thoughtful, pro-active way. I don’t mean to suggest that government can solve all the problems itself but it should work with the community based groups to help find solutions. Right now, that’s not happening.
Given the negativity of today’s political climate, what type of campaign do you anticipate will be waged in the fall?
I don’t believe in negative campaigning and personal attacks, where you say things about your opponent and try to diminish them. What I envision in the fall, should I prevail in the primary, is for Rob and me to have a debate over our sharp disagreement over policy and direction, not a disagreement over personality. There is no room for personal attacks. Often, people will use anything to win, suggesting their opponent doesn’t share their values and worse. Those type of attacks diminish all of us.
Please summarize briefly why people should vote for you, in September’s primary and in November’s general election.
I think that what people are looking for today is a change in the leadership that they have, not just at the local level but at the higher levels of government as well. I believe that they want a person they can talk to, a person who understands where they are coming from and who has a life experience they can relate to. They also want a leader who is approaching these issues in a practical minded way, not in a negative ideological “I hate you and you’re the enemy” way. If we don’t look for solutions that we can all join in on then we won’t be able to solve any problem at all. That’s the kind of all-inclusive, responsible, and level-headed county executive I will be and I hope on that basis people will support me.