Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, a Republican, believes he can do the same thing he has done twice in his home county: Win a race in which Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by a wide margin.
Astorino announced Wednesday that he is seeking the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo. His official campaign announcement came in a video posted on his website, robastorino.com.
In the days since entering the race, Astorino has traveled the state, including a stop in Syracuse. Along the way, he said he's asking voters one question: Is New York winning or losing under Cuomo's leadership?
On Friday, Astorino talked to The Citizen about his campaign for governor and some key issues, including the state's economy, taxes, the controversial gun control law — the NY SAFE Act — and Common Core.
Here's the Q&A with Astorino:
QUESTION: What kind of response have you received since announcing your candidacy Wednesday?
ASTORINO: The response has been terrific and I've been asking everybody a very simple question: Is New York winning or is New York losing? Most of the responses, the overwhelming response, is that New York is losing. It's pretty simple. By any objective standard, we are losing more people than any other state — 400,000 have left New York in the last three years. We have the highest taxes in America and it's not even close. We have the most corruption in the state Capitol and it's getting worse. Businesses are fleeing New York. Just look at Remington's decision to expand not in Herkimer (County), but in Huntsville, Alabama. That's 2,000 jobs.
So, the population is fleeing New York state and they're chasing all those jobs. When you add it all up along with the second-highest electricity rates in the nation, New York is losing badly and it's not gotten much better at all with Andrew Cuomo. In fact, it's gotten worse. On a good day, he's managing the state's decline. On a bad day, he's accelerating it to its demise.
QUESTION: In your announcement video, you cited the Tax Foundation's findings that New York has the highest taxes in the country and the worst business climate. As governor, how would you approach addressing the state's reputation in those two areas?
ASTORINO: First and foremost, the Start-Up NY ads have proven to be nothing more than a political commercial for the governor and he should reimburse the state out of his political campaign for that gimmick. No one's starting up New York. At best, Start-Up NY is an admission that we're idle and you look at what's happening, he just started up Alabama because Remington decided to go to Huntsville, Alabama and that continues. He's got plants, manufacturers and businesses closing up all throughout New York. We have higher unemployment than the nation and more unemployed today. What we should do is not these gimmicks because Start-Up NY only permits the types of business that the governor accepts in particular areas on SUNY properties and then they still have to go through a number of hoops just to potentially qualify. That's not what we need. That's not how the business world works. If we take our foot off their necks, reduce taxes in a meaningful way and be business friendly in this state as opposed to hostile to business, then we'll see the entrepreneurs set up shop here and have that next great idea happen in New York or just have companies decide to expand here. But it's not going to happen given the climate we have here and the taxes and the cost of living and the electrical rates.
QUESTION: To tie this in with the last question, upstate New York has faced economic challenges for decades now. What do you think needs to be done to address upstate's economic woes?
ASTORINO: It's the same thing. You can't just keep throwing government dollars at it because that's not sustainable and new administrations come in and make different decisions. We really have to expand the business climate, make it really good for anyone to come into New York and they will. There's no reason why New Yorkers should settle for second place let alone last place and that's where we're at today. If we're going to put this state back in the winning column, and we can do it, we've got to reduce taxes and spending in a real, meaningful way and the governor has not done that. In fact, he's made it worse because the unfunded mandates continue to pile up on our local municipalities, our schools, our counties and that's why property taxes keep going up because of all these state mandates. It's now a state property tax for all intents and purposes.
QUESTION: This year, Gov. Cuomo proposed a property tax freeze. Residents would be eligible for the freeze if their municipality stays within the property tax cap in the first year - 2014-15 - and again in 2015-16 if their municipality stays within the cap and develops a plan to consolidate or share services. As a county executive and local government leader, what's your opinion of the governor's plan?
ASTORINO: It's a convoluted plan that is set up for failure. Again, all these gimmicks, all these boxes that need to be checked, it's never going to happen and he knows it because it can't with all the state mandates. Unless the state begins to reduce spending and live within its means and allow schools and local municipalities to really control their own costs, this will just continue to happen. We cut the county property tax levy in Westchester more than any county in New York and we cut spending and yet, taxes keep going up. It's all because of state mandates and Andrew Cuomo.
QUESTION: Also in the video, you mentioned Gov. Cuomo's failure to make a decision on whether to allow natural gas exploration in the Southern Tier. You touted the benefits, but opponents say the environmental costs outweigh any benefits of drilling. With the pros and cons on the table, why should we allow hydrofracking in the Southern Tier?
ASTORINO: Because there are far more pros than cons with this argument. President (Barack) Obama absolutely favors natural gas exploration and is encouraging it. The Interior Department, the energy secretary have all said we should be exploring natural gas. Thirty states permit it, including many Democratic governors. There are those in the environmental community that feel very strongly that if there are proper regulations, as we should have, then we should do it. The economic boom that would be unleashed for the Southern Tier, Central New York and all of New York would be incredible. Literally tens of thousands of people would go back to work with all different skill sets. It could change families for generations. We could use all that billions of dollars in revenue that comes into the state and local municipalities to lower taxes or to help education. And it's clean for the environment and it would help lower our energy costs. It's nonsensical that it's politically paralyzed by the Bobby Kennedy Jrs. of the world. Leaders lead and (Cuomo) has sat on his hands.
QUESTION: What's your take on the NY SAFE Act? If you're elected governor, will you attempt to repeal the law?
ASTORINO: I would. I would absolutely move to repeal the law because it's a law that will not do anything to make us safer. Part of the law was found unconstitutional by a federal judge. If you really want to make our communities safer, then we should be treating violence as a disease. We should be really scrutinizing and strengthening the mental health system. That's what we did in Westchester County. We have identified through the mental health experts, religious organizations and nonprofits, law enforcement and educators, that absenteeism is one of the major crises that we face and it's one of the major reasons why children eventually end up committing violent acts and have no chance in life because most likely, they will end up behind bars or with a lack of a formal education. We're attacking chronic absenteeism as a root cause and we're working with our inner-city schools and our educators. That's what we should be doing. Demonizing law-abiding citizens is not the answer to gun violence. It's going after the root causes and clearly there's a breakdown in the mental health system that needs to be fixed.
QUESTION: On education, you mentioned in your video that you support dismantling or getting rid of the controversial Common Core learning standards. Why do you feel that's necessary and what would you replace it with?
ASTORINO: I think we unquestionably have to raise the standards in New York. We are falling behind, so I agree with that. However, I do not agree with taking away local control of curriculum and that's really what Common Core is about. It's a centralization of the education system based out of bureaucrats in Washington D.C. and I think we need to have it more local as opposed to D.C. and even Albany-based. That's one of my biggest concerns and criticisms. I'm dealing with Common Core as a parent. We have three kids, two of them are in elementary school. Our fifth-grader and third-grader are dealing with Common Core and they were just not ready for it. The implementation is disastrous — worse than Obamacare — and these kids are paying the price for it.
QUESTION: If you listen to school administrators, they say school aid is an issue, mainly due to the Gap Elimination Adjustment which has reduced school aid for some districts by millions of dollars. But Gov. Cuomo says it's not about the money, it's about how you spend it and results. What's your stance on the debate over school aid?
ASTORINO: This is exactly what we're talking about. The governor pretends to have a surplus when the comptroller says he doesn't and he has taken money away from school districts without giving them the tools that they need to make up the difference. Again, through these massive mandates and less aid, these school districts are going to start laying off teachers and cut into programs just to stay above water. If you're going to take away aid, then you have to give these schools the tools to better perform and to run more efficiently. He has not done that. He promised in the property tax cap that mandate relief would be significant and would come. It hasn't. So, he broke his promise and now kids are paying the price.
QUESTION: You're not the only Republican who could end up entering this race. Donald Trump has also been mentioned as a possible candidate. Why do you think you would make a better candidate for the Republican Party than Trump?
ASTORINO: Because I've won in a deep Democratic county twice. Westchester has a million people. It has 49 percent registered Democrats, 24 percent registered Republicans and yet, I won on a platform of fiscal conservatism and getting back to basics and cutting the property taxes and cutting spending and not turning our back on those in need, and we haven't. In fact, we've increased some aid to the poor and to those families who need assistance. But we're just doing it through smarter government. I won the first time by 14 points, the second time by 13 points and we can do that statewide. There's not a question about it. I'm not going to need anywhere near the money that Andrew Cuomo has. He's going to need all the money he can get to defend his poor record. We're going to offer a very different choice and when people hear it, they're going to have to make a real decision whether or not we keep on the path of our demise and losing our families to other states and our neighbors, or whether we really do something different to put us back in the winning column just like we did in Westchester.
QUESTION: What's your plan over the next several weeks and months to build support for your campaign?
ASTORINO: Just keep doing what we're doing, introducing myself to every voter. We kicked off our campaign in the Bronx and that was more than symbolism. That was an honest outreach — and only the first step — to our minority communities and those that feel like they've been left behind. In Westchester, I won 30 percent of the Democratic vote, 25 percent of the African-American vote and a majority of the Hispanic vote. We did that because I went to every neighborhood and I asked for people's support. We didn't turn our backs governmentally on anyone. That's the same thing we're going to do throughout this campaign. I'm going to go where Republicans tend to not go, but I'm going to ask everyone for their support and I'm proud of that. That's how we will win New York state.