Rob Astorino, likely Cuomo challenger, works to become a household name

Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino speaks during a

Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino speaks during a gun rights rally at the Empire State Plaza on Tuesday, April 1, 2014, in Albany. (Credit: AP / Mike Groll)

ALBANY -- He's behind in the polls. He's way behind in the money chase. He's not even the official Republican candidate yet and his opponent won't acknowledge him.

But Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino is running laps around New York as if it's the homestretch of the campaign.

Like the old Johnny Cash song, "I've Been Everywhere," Astorino's been to the Bronx, Buffalo, Canastota, Canandaigua, Port Jefferson, Tarrytown, Albany, North Bangor, Lake Placid, Binghamton, and Owego over the past seven weeks. He's made campaign stops at gun shops and the Hispanic Federation gala, just to name a few.

"I'm not afraid to go to any area. I'm not afraid of any topic. Of any group," Astorino, 46, said over lunch last week at an Albany diner, a short break between broadcast tapings.

If Astorino, the Westchester County executive, has been going nonstop since declaring his run on March 6 to unseat Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, it's partly because he has to. A recent Siena College poll found that 66 percent of registered New York voters either don't know who he is or don't have an opinion of him. The survey also found Astorino 30 points behind the Democratic incumbent.

But he sees a path to victory -- and is focused on getting others to see it, too. So far his campaign has focused on taxes, jobs and out-migration, and the controversial Common Core academic standards. Upstate, he has criticized Cuomo on natural gas and new gun laws. He says voters will know him by fall.

"Long Island is going to get to know me pretty well," Astorino said over a burger and fries. "They're going to know what I stand for -- which is very different from the governor."

Astorino has been a rising star in the party since his 2009 upset of Democrat Andrew Spano in Westchester. After he won re-election last fall by a 12-point margin, he vaulted to the top of the list of potential Republican challengers to Cuomo. He's expected to officially become the party's nominee at its convention next month in Astorino's home county.

Along with crisscrossing the state, Astorino has done a slew of radio and TV interviews, and produced 15 online campaign ads, two addressing the audience in Spanish.

His first career

Politics wasn't his first career.

He was on an upward track in broadcasting. He loved sports but always paid more attention to the announcers as a kid. From award-winning local radio reporter to co-founder of ESPN's New York radio station to head of satellite radio's Catholic Channel, Astorino's media career was steadily ascendant.

"He was a good boss. He pretty much let us do our jobs and didn't nitpick," said John W. Kennedy, a blogger for Belief.net and the former morning talk show producer at the Catholic Channel. "He wasn't a micromanager. He was never: 'Why didn't you do it this way?' "

Kennedy said Astorino was all business, no politics.

"I never knew his politics until he was running for Westchester County executive," Kennedy said. "Democrat? Republican? I didn't know."

But Astorino has had a foot in politics for a long time. He was elected to the Mount Pleasant school board at age 21 -- while still a student at Fordham University. He served in the county legislature for two years before running unsuccessfully against Spano in 2005. But four years later -- after the stock market meltdown collapsed the economy -- Astorino routed his rival.

Supporters and critics in the Westchester legislature agree on one thing: the former radio broadcaster has been an effective communicator. "God gives everyone a skill," Astorino said. "Mine was communication. It's certainly not using a hammer and saw, as my wife could tell you."

"He is a good talker," said Catherine Borgia, a Democratic legislator from Ossining. "He is someone who makes a lot of big, bold promises, and people like to hear big, bold promises. But so far, he hasn't delivered."

Borgia cited Astorino's stalled efforts to get a vendor to take over Playland, a county-owned amusement park in Rye that annually loses money. She said the executive hasn't produced tax cuts as big as promised either -- but Astorino points to numerous overrides of his vetoes.

Both Borgia and Republican Legis. Jim Maisano of New Rochelle said they interact with Astorino's staff much more than the executive himself on daily issues.

Laser-focused

"He's focused like a laser beam on his main issue: getting the county's finances in order," Maisano said. "The one thing about Rob that is different from other county executives is that he is focused on one area."

The once Democratic-dominated county board is now controlled by a coalition of Republicans and breakaway Democrats -- somewhat like the State Senate. That's made lawmaking easier for Astorino, Maisano said.

"But one thing that's been true in either case is that Rob is always willing to sit down with people and talk," Maisano said. "Frankly, sometimes those meetings didn't go well. But Rob was always willing to sit down."

On the personal side, Maisano said Astorino isn't one to socialize much with other pols: "He races home as soon as he can. He's not going out to dinners."

Astorino's schedule and style are part of what he brings to the campaign. He kicked off his campaign in the heavily Democratic Bronx, giving part of his address in Spanish. He said he's going to go where Republicans traditionally haven't. He's criticized Cuomo as a bully and said he would offer a different approach.

"I can find agreement with anybody," Astorino said. "If you work with people, you can find commonality. A handshake, building trust -- that's how you get things done. Not shouting at people."

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