After Noam Bramson graduated from Harvard in 1990, he landed an internship with then-freshman Rep. Nita Lowey (D-Harrison). Years later, upon graduating with a master's degree from Harvard's Kennedy School, he went to work as Lowey's deputy campaign manager.
Over the next two decades, as Bramson served first on the New Rochelle City Council and then as mayor, he stayed with Lowey, working either as a staffer or as a consultant or speechwriter. In that time, her stature in Congress grew, to the point where she is now the ranking Democrat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
Bramson, 43, sees Lowey as a mentor who taught him how to get things done in public life.
"Nita is an extraordinary role model," he said. "She is among the hardest working, most principled and most effective individuals I've ever known."
His critics see the relationship differently, suggesting that the main thing Bramson learned from Lowey was how to tax and spend and grow government.
"What I can't figure out is what Noam Bramson has ever done in the real world," said William O'Reilly, Astorino's campaign strategist. "He's been a political staffer or a politician all his adult life."
In Westchester County, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a ratio of two to one, an alliance with a highly respected party figure like Lowey can be a significant advantage. Voters have re-elected the 75-year-old congresswoman 12 times. In 2012, when she was opposed by Rye Town Supervisor Joe Carvin, she won in a landslide, getting more than 64 percent of the vote.
Plainly, Bramson has analyzed his mentor's battle-tested style, and adopted aspects of it.
Lowey can come across as a kindly grandmother, but packs a punch. A crowd in Little Theater at the Westchester County Center went quiet last year when she excoriated a shamefaced Kevin Burke, chief executive of Con Edison, over the utility's bungled response to Hurricane Sandy.
"She's plenty tough when she needs to be," Bramson said. "The niceness is not a pose. It's genuine. I don't think being nice and being tough are necessarily inconsistent and mutually exclusive qualities. Too many people think in order to be tough and strong you need to be a jerk, and that's not true."
Bramson enthuses over Lowey's political skills.
"I've watched her wrestle with different decisions and always base her judgment on what is best of the people she serves," he said. "I've observed her interact with other decision-makers. Her ability to assemble coalitions and work across lines to accomplish important objectives is second to none."
Bramson says he stopped working for Lowey full time, at the end of last year, to concentrate on his duties as mayor of New Rochelle and the campaign for county executive.
Asked to discuss her relationship with Bramson, Lowey -- on a visit to Israel -- sent a written comment to Newsday.
"I've known Noam for the last two decades, and he has proven himself to be a devoted public servant," she said. "He is committed to improving the lives of people in the Lower Hudson Valley. He has shown the ability to understand and evaluate all sides of an issue. I trust his judgment and have great respect for him."
LOWEY'S IMPORTANCE IN 'INTRODUCING' BRAMSON
Democratic political consultant Evan Stavisky suggested that Lowey's help could prove critical to the Bramson campaign.
"When you are running against an incumbent, one of the challenges is to introduce yourself," said Stavisky. "Voters look for cues. One of the best cues you can give is that you are trusted by one of the leaders they already trust."
On the other hand, the relationship may play into one of Astorino's strong suits: staunch opposition to "tax and spend" government.
The 45-year-old Astorino was elected in 2009, riding a nationwide wave of antigovernment sentiment that he continues to exploit locally. In his recent State of the County address, Astorino again promised there will be no increase in county taxes during the coming year. He harped on the fact that county taxes have been reduced by 2 percent during his tenure. He denounced the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and its plans for affordable housing in Westchester as destructive overreaching.
Astorino is already trying to portray Bramson as a big government Democrat. Early broadsides against Bramson have called attention to New Rochelle's tax rate, which has increased by nearly 50 percent since Bramson became mayor in 2006. O'Reilly, the Astorino strategist, suggests that Bramson is blind to the impact of tax increases, because he has spent his entire career in politics and government.
"That explains his mindset to constantly expand government and raise taxes to pay for it," O'Reilly said.
For his part, Bramson seems intent on running in the Lowey mold of mainstream Democratic concern for civil rights and help for the disadvantaged. He has labeled Astorino as a Tea Party Republican -- whose stances on abortion, gay marriage and other social issues are at odds with the core values of Westchester voters.
Republicans say the Tea Party talk is dishonest. And they blame the Lowey connection.
"Where do you think he got that script from?" said Legis. Jim Maisano (R-New Rochelle). "Here he is running for county executive, but he's talking about issues the county executive rarely deals with. That's a script from Washington, D.C. Take the three or four issues that can get you elected and ram them home."