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Westchester politicians face whirlwind of pivotal moments this week

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino announces the 2013

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino announces the 2013 county budget during a news conference in White Plains. (Nov. 14, 2012) Photo Credit: Faye Murman

It's going to be a busy week fraught with peril and promise for Westchester County politicians.

On Tuesday, County Executive Rob Astorino will deliver his State of the County address.

On Wednesday, county Democrats will stage their party convention to determine whom to nominate to challenge Astorino, a Republican who is running for re-election in November.

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is slated to cut $7.4 million in funding for the county unless Astorino complies with HUD's interpretation of a controversial 2009 court settlement -- or unless county officials prevent the federal agency from acting.

All three events are related, said independent political consultant Michael Edelman.

For Astorino, the State of the County address is a chance to frame the debate for the coming election as well as the HUD controversy.

Democrats commonly label Astorino a Tea Party Republican who has laid off county workers, cut spending on social services and sought to privatize Rye Playland, the county-owned amusement park, by handing over its management to a local nonprofit organization.

Astorino can face those criticisms head-on in his Tuesday speech, forcing Democrats to react to him at their Wednesday convention.

"You never want the other side to define you. You want to define yourself," Edelman said. "If he doesn't do that, he opens the door to letting it become a Democratic week."

The State of the County speech is also a chance for Astorino to publicly strike a new path on the HUD issue. He won office in 2009 in part because of his opposition to the HUD settlement, which was reached by his Democratic predecessor, Andy Spano.

But Astorino has said he'll comply with a recent federal appellate court order to promote legislation that would prohibit landlords from discriminating against tenants on the basis of their income, including federal government housing subsidies such as Section 8 vouchers.

The State of the County speech is a chance to articulate that position more clearly, Edelman said.

Besides the source-of-income legislation, HUD also has demanded the county formulate a plan to address and rectify local zoning that excludes minorities from 31 of the county's affluent, mostly white municipalities. Astorino claims that none of the municipalities has exclusionary zoning.

Astorino and county legislators have asked HUD for an extension on the agency's Thursday deadline to withhold the $7.4 million in funding.

Both Astorino and legislators say they need time to pass the source-of-income legislation and that the court-appointed monitor for the settlement, attorney James Johnson, was planning to issue a study of county zoning in mid-May that could shed light on whether Astorino's claims about zoning are correct.

One Democratic county executive candidate, New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson, isn't directly involved in the HUD issue. But Board of Legislators chairman Ken Jenkins (D-Yonkers) and Legis. Bill Ryan (D-White Plains) also are seeking their party's nomination to challenge Astorino.

Given how they are on the same page with Astorino in seeking an extension of time from HUD, the county executive has a chance to paint himself as a moderate who is seeking a bipartisan solution to a county problem, Edelman said.

"Rob should be thinking about defining himself as someone who fought the good fight, but once the court rendered its verdict, he'll comply with the law and not allow the Democrats to make it an issue of it," Edelman said.

HUD hasn't responded to the county officials' request.

For Democrats, the week is a chance to whip up the enthusiasm of party workers and volunteers who'll campaign against Astorino in the coming months. It's just a matter of how they do it, Edelman said.

If Astorino fails to capitalize on his State of the County speech, the Democrats can level their traditional criticisms against him. If he fails to preserve the $7.4 million in HUD money, they can blame him for it.

If Astorino makes news in his speech, then Democrats should deal with it and move on, Edelman said. Ultimately, regardless of wins the Democratic nomination for county executive, Democrats central the campaign strategy will be to get out the vote. After all, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a ratio of 2 to 1 in Westchester County.

"They go back to plan B, nominate their candidate and try to win the election based on the demographics of the county," Edelman said.

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