McKinstry: In Westchester, the county executive race is ON

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New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson attends a City

New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson attends a City Council hearing concerning the 2013 budget. If the budget is approved, the average taxpayer would pay about $206 more a year. (Dec. 4, 2012) Photo Credit: Faye Murman

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Gerald McKinstry Portrait of Newsday editorial board member Gerald McKinstry

Gerald McKinstry is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

Ken Jenkins took a beating last week. No way around it.

When eight Democrats walked out of a budget vote and turned off the lights only to be upstaged by a coalition of seven Republicans and two Democrats who passed a $1.7 billion compromise budget, the chatter began: Is Jenkins really cut out for county executive?

Some political watchers don't think so. They figure he's done. Over. Kaput.

"I don't think Ken is going to get the nomination. Democrats are having second thoughts," said Mike Edelman, a long-time GOP political consultant who has known Jenkins for years and duked it out with him every week on News12. "He's got a real problem. He overreacted to a situation."

Sure, he overreacted. He miscalculated and even mismanaged his ability to rally all Democrats on the county board to push back on County Executive Rob Astorino's budget proposal, which included more than 100 layoffs and millions in spending cuts, but no tax increase.

Even though other Dems are in the mix, don't turn the lights out on Jenkins. He's still running for county executive, you can be sure of it. He may not have announced his candidacy on Monday as many thought he would, but that announcement will be coming soon to a fundraiser or rally near you.

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"Ken knows more about the county (government) than anybody," said Chuck Lesnick, the Yonkers City Council president who considered a run for the position but is no longer pursuing it. "Ken has been living and breathing this stuff on a day-to-day basis."

Anybody who has watched Jenkins, chairman of the Board of Legislators, knows he doesn't break easy. He works his tail off. Retreat isn't in his playbook.

In fact, the endurance he shows in challenging the Republican county executive at every turn -- in meetings, courtrooms and press releases -- is the same sort of stamina he'll show in a run for Westchester's top office. If the Democratic caucus played hoops, Jenkins would have them running a full-court press from the tip-off to the final buzzer.

Any other Democrat wanting to run for county executive will have to go through Jenkins.

So far, only two Democrats have announced. There's Legis. Bill Ryan of White Plains, a former board chairman, but few Democrats believe he can go the distance. And now there's New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson, who said Friday that he's the guy to beat Astorino, making his much anticipated run official.

As a city mayor, the New Rochelle native has executive experience. As a longtime confidant and staffer of Rep. Nita Lowey (D-Harrison), he understands the relationship between federal and local government -- and its politics. And he'll surely be able to raise money for the race, which means many in the party like his odds.

Lesnick and other Democrats acknowledge that a primary may not be such a bad thing if the candidates don't engage in a nasty or bitter battle for the nomination.

Whoever pulls ahead for the Dems, the platform is already set: They'll portray Astorino as a heartless bully, citing cuts to day care, health clinics and union jobs.

One party member told me the great thing about this latest budget fiasco was that the final product doesn't have Jenkins' imprint on it, so they can pin it entirely on Astorino. Another said the county executive is now "saddled with the cuts." By that logic, his budget fit could have been a shrewd move.

But Astorino's campaign said he won't alter his message at all -- his issues will be the same in 2013 as they were in 2009: Curbing the size of government and controlling property taxes that are among the highest in the nation.

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"Whoever they end up with is fine," said Bill O'Reilly, Astorino's political spokesman and a columnist. "[Voters will] realize that Rob Astorino has kept his word in freezing those taxes."

The election may be more than a year away, but the county executive race is upon us.

Gerald McKinstry is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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