Astorino downplays abortion issue, but opposes expansion

Surrounded by supporters and joined by his wife Surrounded by supporters and joined by his wife Sheila Astorino, second from right, New York State gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino, center, kicks off his campaign for the governor's race on Thursday March 6, 2014, on the steps of the Bronx County Courthouse. Photo Credit: AP / Bebeto Matthews

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ALBANY -- Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino said Friday that abortion rights are a settled matter in New York and sought to downplay it as a campaign issue, although he said he would oppose any expansion.

The Westchester County executive wrapped up a two-day campaign-kickoff tour by bashing Democrat Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's economic, education and gun-control policies, endorsing term limits and labeling the State Capitol a "cesspool of corruption" where he'd never allow his two daughters to work.

But he also got personal, acknowledging that he tried marijuana in college and that he's changed his position on the death penalty.

"When I was in college, I smoked a couple of joints," Astorino said. "And I did inhale, and that's the last time."

The issue came up after Astorino said he is open to legalizing medical marijuana under tight controls, but said Cuomo's plan to allow certain hospitals to dispense marijuana under certain conditions was rushed and is flawed.

Astorino, who has been heavily criticized by abortion rights groups since declaring his candidacy Wednesday, sought to minimize his anti-abortion stance. Though he's opposed, he indicated he wouldn't take action to curb rights.

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"Abortion in this state has been legal for 44 years," Astorino said. He later added that "abortion is not my issue" in the campaign, but rather taxes and jobs. He said he'd oppose a bill that Cuomo supports: Proponents say it merely codifies under state law abortion rights guaranteed under Roe v. Wade, while opponents say it could open the door to later-term abortions.

Similarly, Astorino said the "death penalty is a dead issue right now." New York's highest court struck down the state's death penalty in 2004 as unconstitutional and the legislature has made no serious attempt to revive it.

Astorino said his thinking has "evolved" on capital punishment. He now believes "it's probably the wrong thing to do" although he sees some "exceptions" in some cases.

Asked what Cuomo policies he'd roll back, Astorino named a gun-control law and Cuomo's tax-free SUNY initiative.

The latter would allow some companies that build on or near State University of New York campuses to be tax-free for 10 years. Cuomo hails it as a way to lure high-tech businesses; Astorino called it a "convoluted tax scheme."

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"You have to set up shop where he says you have to set up," the Republican said, adding he favored a more broad-based tax-cut approach.

Cuomo officials have been directing questions about Astorino to the state Democratic Party, which didn't immediately comment Friday.Astorino said he opposed the so-called Safe Act, which tightened the state's definition of what constitutes an illegal assault weapon, among other things.

Astorino is trying to appeal to Hispanics -- he addressed a crowd in the Bronx in Spanish on the first day of his tour. But he stopped short of wholly endorsing the "Dream Act," a bill that would give New York students who are in the U.S. illegally access to state tuition assistance. He said he likes it "in theory" but would wait to see the details of anything the legislature approved.

Astorino also said he didn't believe he'd face a GOP primary against either developer Donald Trump or Carl Paladino, the party's 2010 candidate.

"No, I don't believe he'll run," Astorino said of Trump.

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