Budget win gives Astorino clout for posing as moderate

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino speaks during an

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino speaks during an event in White Plains. (Credit: Faye Murman)

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino's success in assembling bipartisan support for his 2013 budget was a stinging setback for Democrats who had been confident about ousting him in 2013.

Even Legis. Bill Ryan (D-White Plains) gave Astorino credit for some shrewd maneuvering during budget negotiations. Ryan intends to challenge Astorino, a Republican.

"The Democrats didn't have enough to push back," Ryan said of the negotiations.


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Last week, Mike Kaplowitz (D-Somers) and Virginia Perez (D-Yonkers) broke ranks with their colleagues on the Board of Legislators and negotiated a compromise with Astorino and Republican lawmakers. The compromise created a $1.7 billion budget that contains fewer layoffs and milder cuts than Astorino initially had proposed as the solution to an $85 million budget shortfall.

Westchester County pundits are saying that the budget deal deflated the giddy overconfidence of Democrats, who had been glowing over victories in recent federal and state elections. More importantly, the professionals say, it gave Astorino a chance to portray himself as a moderate who can reach across the aisle to get things done.

"They like to paint him with these broad brush stokes, that he's negative on things, he's negative on social programs," said Doug Colety, chairman of the county Republican Party. "He's not. He reached out to compromise."

The defections of Kaplowitz and Virginia Perez were particularly embarrassing to board chairman Ken Jenkins (D-Yonkers), until recently the presumptive front-runner against Astorino.

When Kaplowitz and Perez announced their decision to cross party lines, Jenkins and his fellow Democrats -- including Ryan -- walked out of the legislative chamber, temporarily turned off the lights and microphones and switched on a buzzer normally used to call legislators to vote. The buzzer continued buzzing for more than an hour.

"It made Kenny Jenkins look petty because of the tactics," said Mike Edelman, a political consultant who often works for GOP candidates. "You don't shut off the lights and the microphone. That's not the way to react to it. It makes him look like he's fighting with Rob to just fight Rob."

In the wake of the compromise, Assemb. Amy Paulin (D-Scarsdale) said she is considering a run for county executive in part because of Jenkins' perceived setback.

"There has been an enormous outpouring of support for my candidacy, especially after what happened at the county," Paulin said.

Asked how Jenkins' political stature had fared in the aftermath of the budget vote, Paulin was blunt: "Not well," she said.

New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson also is considering a run. He declined to comment on the subject. But Paulin said Bramson would make "a very strong candidate."

Astorino's camp has not overlooked the opportunity to emphasize moderation and compromise.

"It shows reasonableness," said Bill O'Reilly, a spokesman for Astorino's political campaign. "It puts him right in the middle, right in the center of the county, and presents him as someone who is able to get things done. When you contrast that with Washington going off the [fiscal] cliff, that's a pretty stark contrast."

Elected in 2009 as the Tea Party wave of extreme conservatism was sweeping the country, Astorino often has been criticized by Democrats as a right-winger who wants to shed union jobs and resist a federal court order to desegregate wealthy Westchester towns. Now his supporters can point to the budget deal as evidence of moderation.

Before the compromise, Democrats had been riding high in Westchester County.

In November, county voters overwhelmingly cast their ballots for President Barack Obama while defeating a Republican congresswoman and sending new Democratic legislators to Albany. Gov. Andrew Cuomo -- a Mount Kisco resident whose top advisers are all from Westchester County -- is wildly popular. Many New Yorkers are now calling for Chappaqua resident Hillary Rodham Clinton to run for president after she steps down as U.S. secretary of state and returns home.

With all of that going for them, local Democrats had allowed themselves to relish the thought of unseating Astorino, the sole remaining high-profile Republican in the county.

"If we can get rid of Mr. Astorino next year, then we will be at the apex," said Mark Lewis, vice chairman of the Westchester Democratic Committee.

But the budget deal has sewn doubts.

"There's no reason to believe a one-time deal on a budget is a paradigm shift," said Evan Stavisky, a Democratic strategist. "The challenge is for Democrats to make the case as to why they need a Democratic county executive."

Republicans argue that the electoral math benefits their side: 2013 isn't a presidential election, said Legis. Jim Maisano (R-New Rochelle), so Democrats can't expect a repeat of 2012's voter turnout.

"Republicans are much more competitive in the odd years," Maisano said. "It's a much closer electorate. When you get the full wrath of the electorate, you get a lot of young people, a lot of transients, a lot of people in apartments. They tend to be Democrats."

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