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Democratic Hopefuls For Westchester County Executive Take Part In A Forum

Eight area groups sponsored a forum Sunday with the Democratic contenders for Westchester County executive. And depending on the outcome of the county Democratic convention May 10, there could be a September primary to see who faces off against incumbent Republican Rob Astorino.

In general, Ken Jenkins and George Latimer are philosophically aligned, but when it comes to whether to unite behind one candidate after the Democratic convention, their views diverge. Jenkins of Yonkers, who serves on the Westchester County Board of Legislators, remains steadfast in saying that if he does not have the support of convention delegates, he will run in a primary.

“The people need to have their voices heard and that’s the primary voters. It is not the district leaders. It’s not the party elite. It’s not those folks at all,” Jenkins says. “And we in the Democratic Party have almost a responsibility during this time to make sure that those voices are getting heard so we can increase voter turnout, so we increase voter participation. And, again, having choice and competition is a good thing; it’s not a bad thing.”

Latimer, on the other hand, says he will end his campaign if he loses at the convention.

“Whatever happens on May 10, it’s going to take a unified Democratic Party to have a clear message for Westchester voters. And it’s… I realize that Rob Astorino is a very persuasive politician. He’s very good, great communicator. He’s got a lot of money. And to offer an alternate vision it’s going to take as much resources and as much coordination as we can muster. That’s why I think the sooner we come together with unity the better we are,” Latimer says. “My unilateral statement of being willing to endorse Ken stands without reciprocity. Whether he does or doesn’t do the same thing for me, I know that that is the right thing to do and I’m prepared to help him if I’m not elected, if I’m not selected that night.”

Jenkins had entered the 2013 county executive race, but the convention supported New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson. Jenkins did not go to on to a primary. He says there is a difference this time in that Democratic voters have been energized since Republican Donald Trump was elected president. Plus, says Jenkins.

“Rob Astorino is trying to map out a strategy to run for governor again and he’s trying to re-litigate his case against Governor [Andrew] Cuomo. And I think that the Democrats would be making a mistake if we put a state legislator up to allow them to be a foil for that particular thing,” Jenkins says. “My case is that Rob Astorino cannot do that. I’ve been focused in Westchester County. I’m giving up my county legislator seat to make this run.”

Latimer, who represents the 37th Senate District, believes serving on the state level is an asset.

“What I bring to the table because of my experience is I’ve served in the municipal government as a city councilman. I’ve served in both houses of the state legislature. I have relationships in Albany that are important to have if you wind up being county executive to try to advance issues and so forth,” Latimer says. “And I think my political experience in running for office over a larger portion of the county, a more diverse part of the county, gives me the ability to understand what a county-wide race is going to be like when we get to the general election. It will be tough. I’ve been through the fire.”

Latimer, of Rye, says he has won his Republican-leaning district three times despite being outspent. Democratic Assemblyman Tom Abinanti of Greenburgh has decided not to run. Erika Pierce is with Action Together Northern Westchester, which began as a pantsuit group supporting Hillary Clinton for president.

“Well, we are first off trying to educate our members on the importance of county government, on the major issues that have been part of our county for the last eight years of things that Astorino has done, what we anticipate he will continue to do and what the alternatives would like in the hopes, to be honest, that we can have an alternative in the next election cycle,” Pierce says.

County Executive Astorino, who is seeking a third term, says he is ready to compare and contrast records with his opponent.

“I’m just going to run on my record. Nothing’s changing no matter who they put up. And I’m proud of not having raised taxes, and cutting them, for the last seven years, and strengthening our social safety net, protecting the environment and working with people across party lines. I mean, that’s how we’ve gotten things done in the county,” says Astorino. “So, I’m ready, I’m ready whoever it is.”

Astorino, who ran for governor in 2014, has won decisively in a county where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans 2-to-1. While not ruling out another gubernatorial run in 2018, Astorino says he is focused only on the race for county executive.

Bruce Campbell moderated the forum in Croton-on-Hudson at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation Church. In addition to serving as vice chair of the Mount Pleasant Democratic Committee, he leads the Up & Up Action Initiative.

“I think it would be a shame if the movement became divided in any way, and I think primary elections sometimes have a tendency to do that, to be divisive. There’s also a theory that primary elections raise the visibility of the candidates and bring out more energy in the electorate so that that may be a good thing,” Campbell says. “I hope there’s not a primary. I hope that we can come together and unite early on so that we can go to victory in November.”

Both Jenkins and Latimer say no matter who ends up the candidate, he will have to work to get Democrats out to the polls in an off-year election. Latimer says that means using a field approach, going door to door. 

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