POUGHKEEPSIE — He comes from perhaps the humblest background of any major party candidate for New York governor in recent history. His father wasn’t governor, like the current officeholder, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. He didn’t go to an Ivy League school, like the three chief executives who preceded Cuomo.
Marc Molinaro grew up on food stamps, went to public schools and earned an associates’ degree from a community college. And if he wins in November, he’d be the first New York chief executive since Al Smith in the 1920s to not have a bachelor’s degree.
He calls himself an “ordinary New Yorker,” which is a “badge of honor” because “I know what it means to struggle.”
“I offer it because I get it,” the 43-year-old Republican says after going from table to table to greet voters at a downtown diner here. “We struggle to pay our mortgage. I pay my property taxes. I’m not special . . . But I think there is something valuable about having someone in office who really lives the life of most people he serves.”
And he hopes this “everyman” back story will appeal to voters in his uphill battle to upset Cuomo and overcome deficits in name recognition and campaign cash, as well as a 2-1 Democratic voter enrollment advantage statewide.
"How often does someone like me get to stand up for people who don't have a voice?" he said.
At 19, Molinaro was the nation’s youngest mayor, elected to lead Tivoli, his home village. He’s been an elected official ever since, serving as Dutchess County executive since 2012. The Red Hook resident has two children from a first marriage, and one child and another on the way with his wife, Corinne. His 14-year-old daughter Abigail is on the autism spectrum and Molinaro, as a candidate and as a county executive, launched a program in 2015 called "Think Differently," which encourages businesses, organizations and communities be more inclusive to "our neighbors with special needs." The program provides guidance for entities seeking to expand inclusiveness.
Allies say Molinaro is a moderate policy wonk with common sense ideas to fix the state’s problems.
Cuomo and Democrats paint a different picture. They call him an acolyte of President Donald Trump and seek to tag Molinaro with some of the same labels that makes Trump unpopular in New York: Anti-abortion rights, anti-gay and lesbian rights, anti-gun control and anti-union; supporter of tax and health care policies that hurt the needy.
“Do you support Donald Trump?” Cuomo asked accusingly at their only debate, repeating the question six times and adding, when Molinaro tried to change topics: “You can’t answer that,” then, after a pause, “but you already have.”
New York Republicans say Cuomo’s description doesn’t fit the Molinaro they know.
“I can’t think of a lesser apt claim about Marc,” said Assemblyman Will Barclay (R-Pulaski), who was close to Molinaro when he served in the State Assembly from 2007-11. “He’s not on the phone texting” all the time, Barclay said. “He certainly doesn’t have a big ego” and has command of the issues.
“I don’t want to call him a wonk, but he does know policy,” Barclay said. “He distinguished himself fairly quickly on policy issues and, as a result, rose quickly to assistant floor leader . . . He was respected because he wasn’t over the top.”
Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb elevated him to assistant floor leader because of his policy expertise.
“Marc was very articulate. He always did his homework,” Kolb (R-Canandaigua) said. “He used that little chuckle of his to say to his opponent, ‘I’m not making this personal, but I’m shooting holes in your argument.’”
Eight days before Election Day, Molinaro was at his wonkiest. He took a morning off the campaign to present his proposed 2019 budget to the Dutchess County Legislature in downtown Poughkeepsie. The hourlong presentation had little flash.
Instead, it was filled with talk about “continued annualized expenses,” “asset management,” bond ratings and type “D” and “E” fund balances. He appeared most passionate when talking about continued funding for a “stabilization center” to treat those with drug and alcohol dependencies.
“I’ve often said I’m a government geek,” he said with a smile afterward. “I know the way government is supposed to function. I know the way we are supposed to deliver services.”
Molinaro has built his campaign around three central themes: Reducing property taxes and state mandates; fixing mass transit; and restoring credibility in state government after a series of corruption scandals.
His financial plan calls for eliminating billions of dollars in direct grants to corporations, a strategy that, he said, factored into the corruption convictions of some of the governor’s campaign contributors as well as two of the governor's former aides.
He calls for things backed by other Republicans: a spending cap, a state takeover of counties’ share of Medicaid costs, and a “supermajority” (60 percent) vote of the State Legislature to raise any tax, and a spending cap. Molinaro says the initiatives would save enough money to spark a huge — 30 percent — reduction in local property taxes.
He throws in some ideas backed by liberals, such as expanding income and child tax credits for the working poor, taking over the counties’ share of the cost of indigent legal services and eliminating the sales tax exemption for clothing and footwear (which began under a Republican governor).
On good-government issues, the Republican wants independent drawing of legislative election districts (redistricting) and a “database of deals” to track contractors and campaign contributions.
The Cuomo camp says Molinaro is trying to “pull a fast one” with a financial plan that doesn’t add up.
“Maybe he doesn't want to admit that, instead of providing relief to hardworking New Yorkers, his 'plan' would slash spending on vital services like education, health care, and public safety. New Yorkers won't be fooled by this latest gimmick," Cuomo campaign spokeswoman Abbey Collins said.
Besides trying to separate from Trump, raising money has been an issue for Molinaro. He’s raised just $1.5 million and was down to just $210,000 with 30 days before Election Day. That’s just not much to compete with in New York — where Cuomo spent $25 million to win a Democratic primary and still had $9.2 million left to battle Molinaro.
By comparison, Rob Astorino, the GOP’s 2014 candidate, raised nearly $7 million.
One Republican consultant said Molinaro started with a relatively small political donor base and has been hurt by national Republican donors focusing on protecting GOP congressmen and governors elsewhere. Without outside help, it’s been hard for Molinaro to counter Cuomo’s criticisms that he's a far-right, Trump clone, the consultant said.
And that's been frustrating for Molinaro. He said he's someone who wants to "fix the system," not "blow it up." He's a Republican who believes government "can truly make a difference" as long as it remains limited. He said if that doesn't fit a political label, that's fine.
“Listen, I’ve been around longer than Andrew Cuomo’s been in office. I’ve been around longer than Donald Trump’s been a Republican or a Democrat and whichever it is,” Molinaro said. “I know who I am and who I am is somebody who believes that a limited, effective government that focuses on outcomes can help people achieve success. What that looks like in the national vitriol or how that reflects on the national party, I could not care less.”