Fresh from his victory in the three-way race for the Democratic nomination for Westchester County executive, New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson pledged Thursday morning to run a positive campaign against incumbent Republican Rob Astorino, even as his critics took off the gloves and slugged away on taxes.
"Their records on tax issues are like night and day," said Westchester County Legislator Jim Maisano (R-New Rochelle). "Since taking office, Astorino has held the line on property taxes in the county, while Bramson has a long history of raising taxes."
In an interview with Newsday, Bramson declined to discuss his record on taxes in depth.
He said he will focus on the fact that he and Astorino have "fundamentally different views" on a broad range of issues, from gun control to women's reproductive rights. Astorino's views are "too far to the right" of mainstream Westchester County voters, Bramson said.
"Im confident that the mainstream values that my candidacy represents will present a positive contrast with a record of neglect and right-wing ideology," Bramson told Newsday. "This isn't a question of personal character -- I actually like Rob very much, but this is a matter of the character of our leadership, and priorities and values."
In a brief statement issued mere moments after Bramson captured the nomination early Thursday morning -- the timing indicated the statement had been prepared in advance -- Astorino's campaign took dead aim at the tax issue.
"County Executive Astorino has delivered on the promises he made to Westchester voters four years ago -- like his no tax increase pledge -- and he is laying the groundwork for a healthy and economically vibrant Westchester going forward," campaign spokeswoman Jessica Proud said. "It is a record anyone would be proud to discuss."
The criticism over taxes on day one of Bramson's ascendancy to the Democratic nomination recalled a warning issued by the campaign staff of Westchester Board of Legislators chairman Ken Jenkins (D-Yonkers) -- one of Bramson's rivals for the nomination -- in the days leading up to the Democratic convention.
"To win the general election, the Democratic candidate cannot be on the wrong side of the taxes debate," wrote David Alpert, a former county Democratic Party chairman. "Ken Jenkins is the only candidate who is not vulnerable on this issue. Make no mistake, we cannot win if we lose the tax argument, and Ken is the only one who can't be smeared as a 'Tax and Spend' Democrat."
During Bramson's tenure as mayor of New Rochelle, the town's property tax rate has risen substantially -- about 50 percent during the period -- while Astorino has cut county taxes by 2%. During the campaign, Bramson's staff parried jabs over taxes with the explanation that New Rochelle's property tax rate is low, by Westchester standards, and that part of the responsibility for tax increases in New Rochelle lay with Astorino, as his cuts to county services had shifted burdens to the towns.
On Thursday morning, Bramson seemed intent on emphasizing his own compatibility with "mainstream" thinking in Westchester, describing himself as "focused on a forward-looking plan of action for growing our economy, creating jobs, cutting waste and duplication through shared services and upholding our commitment to middle class families, seniors and children."
Bramson will start his campaign against Astorino at a big financial disadvantage.
The last campaign finance reports to be made public showed that Astorino had accumulated more than $2 million in his campaign war chest, while Bramson had a little more than $500,000. Experienced political strategists expect Astorino to spend at least $3 million on the fall campaign.
Experts point out that Astorino will need to outspend Bramson by a wide margin if he is to overcome the Republican Party's enrollment disadvantage in Westchester. Of the county's 600,000 or so registered voters, almost half are Democrats, while fewer than 25 percent are registered Republicans. Pundits in the Hudson Valley take it as gospel that when Westchester Democrats are motivated to turn out and vote, the county goes solidly Democratic.
While Astorino has not been actively campaigning, his State of the County speech on Tuesday night made his direction clear.
Astorino took full credit for cutting county taxes in Westchester by 2 percent during his three-year tenure, and again promised that he will not allow taxes to rise, a vow the campaign hammers at. He mentioned economic growth and job growth as top priorities. Finally, he accused HUD officials of meddling with county zoning, telling an audience of about 250 at the county courthouse in White Plains that HUD's plans for affordable housing in Westchester would "turn the American dream upside down."
Bramson has served as New Rochelle mayor since January 2006. In 2011, he was re-elected in a landslide, receiving 79 percent of the vote. Previously, Bramson served on the New Rochelle City Council for 10 years. He lives in New Rochelle with his wife Catherine ("Catie") Stern, a clinical pediatric neuropsychologist, and their two children, who attend public schools in the city.
Bramson is closely aligned with Rep. Nita Lowey(D-Harrison), whose decades of experience in Washington and people-friendly manner have brought her great popularity, power, and prestige among Democrats.
"Noam Bramson talks about getting value out of our dollars," said Eve Weinstein, a Scarsdale Democrat who has been active in Bramson's campaign. "I think that's a key ingredient. He talks about shared services for all the communities. He has a number of interesting prospects."