Astorino, Latimer Take Off the Gloves at First Debate
John Jordan | October 2017
WHITE PLAINS—While the contest was nowhere near an all out brawl, Republican incumbent Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino and Democratic challenger New York State Senator George Latimer did take some verbal jabs at one another in a fiery first debate held on Tuesday evening at SL Green Realty’s Reckson Metro Center at 360 Hamilton Ave. in White Plains.
Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, moderated the debate, staged by The Business Council of Westchester. The first debate between Astorino and Latimer soon turned contentious over claims and counterclaims concerning county finances, their past voting records and particularly on Astorino’s charge that there is approximately $46,000 in unpaid taxes on Latimer’s deceased mother-in-law’s home in Rye that is currently owned by the State Senator’s wife.
Astorino stressed that the residence was listed in the State Senator’s ethics disclosure forms in Albany and that the taxes therefore should be paid. Latimer countered that all taxes are paid on his primary residence and that there are no probate proceedings on his mother-in-law’s home, but that the house is part of a “family dispute” over an inherited property that he has no part in.
“If we want to get personal, it is really a sad day,” Latimer said. “I didn’t realize that the path to the governorship goes through the gutter.” Latimer charged that Astorino, if elected, would once again make a run for governor. Astorino, when asked in a post-debate session with reporters, expected a host of candidates to challenge incumbent Gov. Andrew Cuomo, but did not rule out a possible run for that office.
Astorino and Latimer traded barbs concerning county finances with the sitting County Executive noting that when he first took office he was charged with “stopping the tax madness.” He recalled that he had to plug a $166-million budget deficit and since that time has reduced the county tax levy from $560 million to $540 million. Latimer charged that the county “is at a crossroads.” He said that Astorino has mismanaged county government and decimated some departments, including the department of planning and that “county government is facing a day of reckoning very soon.”
Astorino attempted to label his opponent as someone who if elected would raise county taxes. Latimer responded that he would take a hard look at county operations, but noted he had never said he would raise taxes and criticized the County Executive for engaging in one-shot revenue enhancers, such as the Westchester County Airport privatization, which the State Senator noted was front-loaded with a $15-million payment to help plug the county deficit. The County Executive defended the deal, noting that it was not a one-shot transaction since the county would be receiving revenue over a 40-year term.
Latimer tried to portray Astorino as an ally of President Donald Trump. The County Executive said that while he has supported some of the positions of the president, he has criticized Trump for some “dopey comments” as well as for some of his proposals, including his opposition to the proposed elimination of the state and local tax exemption under Trump’s tax reform plan. “I am not Donald Trump, I am Rob Astorino,” he added.
Another heated moment came during the discussion of the Astorino administration’s battle with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development over the terms of the $51.6-million fair housing court settlement. Astorino said that in the end the county won its battle with HUD over its attempt to circumvent home-rule and local zoning. Latimer countered that the win came only when the Republican Trump administration came into office. He also charged that the county’s defiance led to the loss of approximately $35 million in federal fair housing funding.
Latimer said that Astorino “stood in the schoolhouse door” instead of working with HUD and New York State Congressional representatives to try and resolve the dispute. While he said Astorino’s stance got him engagements on FOX NEWS, Latimer added, “The principle you stood on was a dog whistle to certain people in the base that support him.”
Astorino immediately countered, “Sir, you should apologize to everyone in Westcehster County who defended the county, who did not want the federal government having control of local zoning, which is exactly what this was about. That is why Democratic administrators, supervisors and elected officials stood with me. But for you to sit there and throw out George Wallace (reference to the former Alabama Governor standing in defiance at the front of a door at the University of Alabama over desegregation) and the dog whistle thing is truly the low of the low.”
On the Indian Point closure, Sen. Latimer said he would meet with affected local officials and work with federal and state lawmakers in an attempt to get the needed funding to help offset the economic impact of the nuclear plants closure in 2021. He also criticized Astorino’s stance and the filing of a lawsuit against New York State and Entergy Corp. seeking that they conduct an environmental and economic study under the State Environmental and Quality Review Act of the plant closure.
Astorino countered that the state has no workable plan to replace Indian Point’s energy and that energy rates will skyrocket. He noted that while his lawsuit will likely not result in Indian Point remaining open, it would force the state to conduct environmental impacts on the property. Astorino also characterized the Indian Point Task Force established by Gov. Cuomo as “meaningless.”