Speculation over Astorino in governor race

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino speaks during a

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino speaks during a ribbon-cutting ceremony reopening the top of the Kensico Dam to recreational traffic in Valhalla. (May 24, 2012) (Credit: Angela Gaul)

As electoral buzz goes, Rob Astorino may be to the 2014 governor's race what Andrew M. Cuomo is to the 2016 presidential race -- a subject of early and continual armchair speculation.

Astorino, the telegenic 45-year-old Republican Westchester County executive, unseated Democrat Andrew Spano in 2009 amid frustration about famously high taxes on homeowners.

"Obviously he's a rising star in our party," said Anthony Casale, a top adviser to state GOP Chairman Ed Cox. "He won a tremendous upstate victory three years ago, he's been governing in a very admirable style, and despite the obstacles, he does it well."

Casale counts Astorino among several "new and younger faces" in the GOP, alongside Marc Molinaro, 36, the first-term Dutchess executive and others he said he was reluctant to mention for fear of leaving someone out.

But just as Democrat Cuomo shrugs off discussion of the White House, Astorino and company have stayed away from publicly weighing a 2014 Albany bid. Like County Executive Edward P. Mangano in Nassau -- where demographics parallel Westchester in key ways -- Astorino is expected to seek re-election next year.

On behalf of his county, Astorino has made several statements that seem crafted to prod the current governor. He's called for mass transit as part of a new Tappan Zee Bridge, urged repealing the state law that keeps public-employee contracts from expiring pending a new pact, and he's demanded quicker action to relieve expensive mandates.

Last month, in his state-of-the-county speech, Astorino proclaimed: "Unfunded mandates are like a terminal disease. And Dr. Albany's response is: Let's wait a few more years before starting treatment." Of Tier 6 pension changes, Astorino said: "it was a first step, but frankly not much of one . . . The day of reckoning has already arrived for our school districts, villages, cities, towns and the county."

Astorino -- whose earlier career was in broadcasting -- highlighted taxes and union concessions in his address. "After two years in office, the county tax levy is down 2 percent," he said in his address. "And my vow to keep taxes down has not changed . . . "

He's also noted that the Teamsters union, one of eight representing Westchester employees, agreed to start contributing 10 percent of health care premiums, a share that rises to 12.5 percent in 2015, in exchange for modest pay hikes.

Astorino, who wasn't immediately available for an interview Tuesday, faces a different mix of problems and advantages than Nassau's Mangano. Westchester hasn't fallen under the control of a state monitoring board. But Astorino has a critical Board of Legislators controlled by opposition Democrats with whom he wrestles over county laws and budgets.

Just Tuesday, the board majority accused the administration of handling child-care funds in a way that would make needy families pay more. The two sides have also exchanged blame on stalled capital projects. And a years-long court issue over racial segregation in Yonkers housing still splits itself along partisan lines.

Any attention to a governor's bid for Astorino is "a long way off," the state GOP's Casale said. "He needs to get re-elected as county executive first."

That sort of response may sound familiar. The twist is that if he were to run, Astorino would face in Cuomo a well-funded incumbent who happens to reside in his county.