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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Astorino's Independence move puts onus on Cuomo

Surrounded by supporters and joined by his wife

Surrounded by supporters and joined by his wife Sheila Astorino, second from right, New York State gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino, center, kicks off his campaign for the governor's race on Thursday March 6, 2014, on the steps of the Bronx County Courthouse. Credit: AP / Bebeto Matthews

Suddenly the true value of an Independence Party endorsement for statewide office faces its most serious public questioning in years.

Rob Astorino, the Westchester County executive and a Republican candidate for governor, said Thursday that he "can't see any scenario" where he'd accept the third party's cross-endorsement for the November election.

That may be easy for him to say, since Independence has been widely expected to offer Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo its endorsement anyway. But it does now place the onus on the governor to say how he will treat this minor party, given its often-controversial role in major-party politics.

Cuomo and company weren't challenging Astorino's remarks, made on an Albany radio show, that "there are plenty" of Independence leaders who cannot be considered "good honest people." The party's leaders in Westchester "don't stand for anything," Astorino said.

A party needs 50,000 votes for governor to retain automatic ballot status. That means if neither major party candidate is cross-endorsed, and a genuine third-party candidate runs instead, the party risks political irrelevance.

And this gives Cuomo, who had the Independence endorsement in 2010, potential make-or-break leverage over the line. How will he exercise it? Those in his camp declined to comment.

This week, Nassau Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs urged gubernatorial candidates in both parties to reject the Independence endorsement -- specifically to endanger its ballot status.

Michael Long, the Conservative Party's state chairman, promptly signaled rare agreement with Jacobs. His party's website stated Wednesday: "Chairman Long joins with Chairman Jay Jacobs in urging Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Astorino to reject the Independence Party nomination." Long is already backing Astorino for governor.

To the degree that a state party is a sum of its local parts, Independence crafts its own odd profile from one county to the next.

In Westchester, Astorino received its cross-endorsement for county executive in 2009.

But in 2013 he found himself in a nasty war against local Independence Party leader Giulio Cavallo, who dumped him for his Democratic opponent.

In 2012, Cavallo told Cablevision he hadn't been speaking to Astorino because the latter didn't take his recommendations for political appointments.

While state Democrats dodged, the Westchester Democratic Committee Thursday cited Astorino's past donations to the minor party and his effort last year to have allies join and influence the party on his behalf.

In Nassau, Jacobs' gripes with Independence are long-running. In an open letter he cited the most recent public questions surrounding party backer Gary Melius and state and Suffolk party chairman Frank MacKay's involvement in a ignition lock-technology company aided by local legislation.

But Richard Schaffer, the Suffolk Democratic chairman, said he sees Jacobs' issues as specific to Nassau.

This season, Schaffer's organization is cooperating in getting Independence line petitions for Reps. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) and Steve Israel (D-Huntington), as it is for Working Families Party petitions.

Still, with his pre-emptive statement Thursday, Astorino escalates the Independence intrigue. Sooner or later, Cuomo will need to make his plans known.

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