State comptroller race sees political civility, observers say

Onondaga County Comptroller Robert Antonacci in downtown Syracuse Onondaga County Comptroller Robert Antonacci in downtown Syracuse on Sept. 19, 2013. Photo Credit: Brett Carlsen / Syracuse.com

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ALBANY -- In an election year that has already seen a candidate ridiculed for his height, and a threat of a lawsuit to stop a negative TV ad, something has emerged in one race that seasoned political observers didn't expect to see in New York's hardball politics: civility.

"I don't intone that Tom DiNapoli is corrupt in any way, shape or form," the Democratic comptroller's opponent, Republican Bob Antonacci, said last week in answer to reporters' questions. "I don't think as a person or as a leader he himself is corrupt."

"Tom is a gentleman," added Antonacci, the Onondaga County comptroller.

In May, DiNapoli broke a cardinal rule for most incumbents. Those in office usually refuse to name their opponent to avoid any attention to the challenger. But in his first campaign comment by news release and on Twitter, the Great Neck Plaza Democrat said: "I welcome Bob Antonacci to this race and look forward to talking to the voters about the issues important to working families across New York State."

"I can't stand the negative campaigning," Antonacci said. He once had a disagreement with DiNapoli in their respective comptroller positions, he said, and DiNapoli called him personally to explain.

"I liked that," Antonacci said.

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Antonacci tweeted at DiNapoli on Thursday while the state comptroller was at the State Fair, reminding him of a public relations miscue by Mayor Bill de Blasio when he used utensils to eat pizza: "Friendly advice for my opponent @tomdinapoli @NYSFair don't eat the sausage w/fork & knife I don't want to win by TKO . . . ."

DiNapoli's campaign spokesman Russell Murphy said, "Tom DiNapoli has always welcomed those running for public office as New Yorkers should always be entitled to a choice."

The exchanges caught some Albany veterans by surprise.

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The loudest statements in the 2014 state election year have included the state Democratic Committee's calling Rob Astorino, Republican candidate for governor, "little Robbie," while the state Republican Committee called Cuomo "cowardly" for refusing to debate. A week ago Astorino threatened TV stations and cable systems with a lawsuit if they continued to air a Cuomo ad that accused Astorino of corruption in his job as Westchester County executive. In a June radio interview, when Astorino leveled accusations of corruption against Cuomo and Albany, the governor dismissed it with a chuckle: "Yeah, that's funny."

"It looks like we're going to have the usual dose of nastiness," said Gerald Benjamin, distinguished professor of political science at SUNY New Paltz. "Having said that, it's positive that some major candidates in the state think civility is important."

"It's remarkable in terms of what's going on elsewhere in New York politics," said Richard Brodsky of the Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University and a former assemblyman. "Campaigns in the end always reflect the temperament and character of the candidates."

They see the tone of the comptroller's race so far as an aberration, rather than a trend.

"Both DiNapoli and Antonacci are honorable public servants who both appreciate how each has earned their reputations," said Dick Dadey of Citizens Union, a good-government group.

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"Their civility shows a level of welcomed respect for their approach to public service," Dadey said. "New Yorkers appreciate and value candidates who debate the issues and don't seek to tear down their opponents."

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