Astorino would face tough road in Nassau, analysts say

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, who has announced Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, who has announced his plan to run for New York State Governor, speaks during the 1st annual NYS Rally in "The Great American Opt Out" at Comsewogue High School in Port Jefferson Station, March 29, 2014. Photo Credit: Ed Betz

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Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, the likely Republican gubernatorial candidate, faces a tough road in GOP-dominated Nassau County, where party leaders and lawmakers have close ties to Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, political analysts say.

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano was one of the first Republicans statewide to back Cuomo's 2 percent property tax cap. Nassau's other top GOP elected official, State Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), often touts his ability to work with Cuomo on balanced budgets and holding down spending.

Nassau GOP leaders and others said they expect top county Republicans to endorse Astorino -- but not to go after Cuomo aggressively.

"Eddie will not be leading the charge against Andrew Cuomo," Nassau GOP chairman Joseph Mondello said of Mangano.

Former U.S. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, a Republican, said Cuomo "has worked diligently both politically and governmentally in Nassau County. And I suspect it will pay off for the governor."

Experts expect both candidates to focus heavily on Nassau.

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The county has 330,000 registered Republicans -- the most of any county in the state, representing nearly 12 percent of GOP enrollment statewide. Another 216,000 voters are unaligned with a major party.

The county executive's office and control of the legislature are in GOP hands.

Cuomo needs to put up big numbers in Nassau and other suburbs, not only among Democrats, but Republicans and independents as well, to show he has broad appeal and remain on the short list of presidential candidates in 2016, analysts said.

Astorino needs a strong showing in Nassau to stand a chance against Cuomo, an incumbent with wide name recognition, analysts said. Astorino also will be looking to tap Nassau's wealthy donor base to compete with Cuomo's $33 million campaign war chest.

Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, said Astorino could find it challenging to identify issues that will gain traction with Nassau Republican voters.

For instance, "Astorino might try to capitalize on the frustration that a lot of people may have with Sandy," over financial reimbursements that still haven't arrived, Levy said. "But it's a lot harder to do that when fellow Republicans are praising Cuomo to the rooftops."

Astorino campaign spokeswoman Jessica Proud predicted Nassau voters will rally around Astorino's message of cutting state mandates, holding down property taxes and boosting the statewide economy.

"We're going to be focused more on issues than politics," Proud said. "These are very relevant issues to the people of Long Island."

State Republican Party chairman Ed Cox said GOP county and state lawmakers don't want to criticize Cuomo before Tuesday's deadline to approve a state budget. But as the election nears, the party will unify behind Astorino, Cox said.

"When the people of Nassau County take a look at the records of Rob Astorino and Andrew Cuomo, they will agree that Astorino would be the best governor for the people of Nassau County and of New York State," Cox said.

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Cuomo and Mangano declined to comment. Nassau spokesman Brian Nevin said Mangano and Cuomo "place people before politics" and "maintain an excellent governmental relationship that benefits the taxpayers of Nassau County."

Proud described Astorino and Mangano as friends who have "a natural alliance" on statewide issues such as taxes.

GOP officials predict Mangano will follow the path set by Cuomo in last year's Nassau County executive race.

Cuomo did not endorse Democratic candidate Thomas Suozzi until close to Election Day, when the governor issued a blanket statement of support for the entire slate of Democratic candidates on Long Island.

Mangano defeated Suozzi, a former Nassau County executive, by 18 points. Two months later, at Mangano's inauguration, Cuomo praised Mangano's "extraordinary leadership."

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Cuomo and Mangano first connected in September 2011 at a vintage car show at Eisenhower Park, where they admired each others' vintage Corvettes.

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) recalled that at news briefings and in closed-door meetings in superstorm Sandy's aftermath, Mangano and Cuomo "would complete each other's sentences. There is a genuine friendship and respect in the way they talk to one another."

Cuomo also has helped Mangano with Nassau's fiscal problems. Nassau faces a $122 million budget shortfall in 2014, according to the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, a state board that oversees Nassau's finances.

Cuomo signed legislation allowing Nassau and Suffolk each to operate 1,000 video slot machines, which Nassau anticipates will bring in $19 million in new revenue in 2015. Suffolk expects $58 million in revenue over the next decade.

Another bill gave each county 100 red light cameras, which are expected to generate at least $6 million annually for each county.

Last year, Cuomo replaced Ron Stack as NIFA chairman with former North Hempstead Supervisor Jon Kaiman. Stack had helped block several key Mangano initiatives, including the passage of new labor deals with county unions.

Kaiman has helped broker new labor deals that would end a three-year wage freeze on county employees. The deals require new hires for the first time to pay 15 percent to their health and pension plans. NIFA has required Nassau to set aside $129 million in new revenue from speed cameras, sales tax and mortgage recording fees to cover the contract costs.

Bridge buildingOne Nassau Democrat was among several officials who said the NIFA personnel changes were made by Cuomo specifically to help Mangano.

"It's all about not wanting trouble in November," said the source, who declined to be identified. "He does not want trouble in the suburbs."

Skelos, the state's top elected Republican, also has little incentive to attack the governor as he will be looking for Cuomo's help in preserving a GOP Senate majority, according to sources from both parties. The Republicans' narrow majority in the Senate depends on a coalition that includes a conservative Democrat and a five-member Independent Democratic Conference. Skelos' office declined to comment.

Cuomo has built strong ties with Skelos and is unlikely to travel to Nassau during the campaign to attack GOP Senate candidates, observers said.

Arthur "Jerry" Kremer, a former Democratic chairman of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, said Cuomo's years of bridge-building with Nassau Republicans will pay off in November.

"Cuomo's relationship with Mangano has long-range benefits," Kremer said.

"The party will not walk that extra mile against Cuomo."

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