Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino accepted the state Republican Party’s nomination to challenge Gov. Andrew Cuomo in May. But despite his pro-business platform and push to cut property taxes, real estate insiders said Astorino’s campaign is still not on their radar.
Elected to his current post in 2009, the 47-year-old Mount Pleasant resident was formerly a host and producer for the Catholic Channel on SiriusXM radio. He also was a co-founder of ESPN Radio in New York City.
But the industry is, not surprisingly, hesitant to support a long-shot challenger to Cuomo. The concern, of course, is getting sent out to political pasture after the November election and seeing state support dry up for their projects in the all-but-inevitable event that Cuomo is reelected.
Still, Astorino is billing himself as integral to improving the local economy and spurring real estate development — both statewide and in New York City. “There are pockets of rebirth in the outer boroughs, but it’s not spreading far and wide,” he told The Real Deal.
His campaign is facing an uphill battle. Even after reports that Cuomo interfered with the state anti-corruption panel known as the Moreland Commission, a Siena College poll found that 58 percent of those surveyed supported Cuomo, while only 28 percent backed Astorino.
Some say, however, that the ethics scandal is providing an opening, albeit a small one, for Astorino. “Astorino is keeping a spotlight on it,” said Republican strategist Leticia Remauro, a former chair of the Staten Island GOP Party.
To date, the biggest real estate battle Astorino has picked is with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, refusing to use $5.2 million the agency allocated to help him fulfill a federal mandate to build 750 affordable units in more affluent Westchester areas by 2016. Astorino has argued against doing so. “[HUD is] of the preposterous position that the zoning laws need to be watered down or in some cases dismantled,” Astorino said.
Holly Leicht, regional administrator at HUD, said the agency is “doing everything possible to provide funding to Westchester County.”
“However, in order to be eligible for federal funds, the county must comply with the terms of the settlement to which it agreed more than five years ago,” she said.
In terms of other real estate initiatives, Astorino formed the Local Development Corporation, which issues tax-free bonds on behalf of nonprofits. He said it’s spurred over $500 million in financing for capital projects. In addition, Astorino is targeting a handful of real estate-related state laws. He said he’d seek to reform the Scaffold Law, which holds landlords and contractors liable for “gravity-related” accidents in which they are at least partially to blame, and the Wicks Law, which requires separately bid contracts for some government-funded projects. He argues that the laws drive up the costs. “We’ve worked … to nibble away at some of the onerous rules and regulations that make it difficult to do business,” Astorino said.
Astorino said his core supporters on real estate issues are “average, everyday New Yorkers,” not the deep-pocketed donors backing his opponent. And his war chest was a tiny $2.4 million in July, compared to Cuomo’s $35 million, according to state filings.
Astorino’s campaign does count a few real estate players as donors. His biggest donor was the Rent Stabilization Association’s PAC and Neighborhood Preservation Political Action Fund, which shelled out $82,000 for him, according to the New York Public Interest Research Group.
“We share the same philosophical beliefs as Mr. Astorino,” said Joseph Strasburg, president of the RSA. “Mr. Astorino understands that small building owners collectively constitute an important economic engine.”
Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf had a more skeptical take. “Nobody knows him and they don’t want to know him,” Sheinkopf said.
Astorino, however, sees it differently. “A Republican governor is going to be very important as a check and balance on runaway taxes and spending and anti-business policies in City Hall,” he said.