One New York state senate race in the Hudson Valley features a challenger who is no stranger to politics. Former Westchester County executive and 2014 gubernatorial candidate Republican Rob Astorino is challenging first-term Democrat Pete Harckham in the 40th District, which includes a large piece of Westchester.
Astorino, who in 2017 lost his bid for a third term as county executive to Democrat George Latimer, had won his first two terms handily in a 2-to-1 Democratic county. Some blamed his loss on a blue wave in response to President Trump’s election the year prior. Now, Astorino, of Mount Pleasant, is back with one of the same refrains — residents are leaving New York and something needs to be done.
“I’m running because there’s been a complete breakdown in the legislature, in our government and in society right now. We’re seeing it play out in New York City, that is creeping up into the suburbs, the crime, and that is a direct consequence of Peter Harckham’s no-cash bail law that he wrote and sponsored, and there’s a direct link between the two,” says Astorino. “Then you look at the taxes and the business climate and the lockdowns and the antagonistic display of Albany to anyone and everyone who dares to even question what they’re saying is just literally loading up the moving vans as people move out not just of New York City to other parts of the state but out of the state permanently.”
He refers to the elimination of most forms of cash bail for nonviolent offenders as part of criminal justice reforms enacted last year, a measure Harckham co-sponsored. Despite Astorino’s criticism, Senator Harckham, of South Salem, says his focus lies elsewhere.
“Well, primarily, I’m focusing on my job. During the coronavirus pandemic, we were concerned with our constituents who were unable to get unemployment benefits that they earned and deserve. We’ve been consistently worried about food security, we’ve been doing food drives. Now we’re helping constituents get return to power. We’ve got a budget deficit that we’ve got to deal with,” says Harckham. “So, I’m doing my job. Other people are engaging in politics, I’m not going to get into the tit-for-tat with them because it’s not productive. I was hired to do a job, I’m doing the job. And there will be time for the politics but, right now, during the midst of a pandemic and during a hurricane when close to 90 percent of my district was out of power, that’s where my focus needs to be is on my constituents.”
Astorino, who as county executive served with a Democratic majority in the Legislature, says he has the experience to coalition build in the Senate.
“And, by the way, I do not buy into the assumption that it’s going to be a Democratic majority in the Senate. I think this is one of those years where there is a lot happening below the surface, where there is a very big silent majority, including Democrats, who have told me they’re very concerned and uneasy about what’s happening in their party, this lawlessness, this anti-cop rhetoric, all this stuff, and they might vote for Biden on the national ticket, but they’re going to vote Republican locally. And I think that makes a lot of sense, and I think you’re going to see a lot of that,” says Astorino. “And my seat is very similar to the other Hudson Valley seats and to the Long Island seats where we lost the majority two years ago. So people aren’t stupid, they see how out of control things are, and there’s only one direction to blame, and that’s the Democrats in the Senate and the Assembly. So I do think this is one of those years where you could have a political earthquake.”
Harckham served as the Democratic majority leader in the Westchester County legislature when Astorino was county executive.
“Historically, it’s been a Republican district. I was the first Democrat in a hundred years to win this race and was proud to. The numbers are fairly close, although it’s trending more Democratic, but the Republicans seem to think this is their last stand in the suburb," Harckham says. "And the suburbs have changed. It is not the 1970s, it’s not even 2000. And the suburbs that Donald Trump and Rob Astorino think exist are changing. In the suburbs today, people value diversity, they cherish diversity, they want diversity, and I don’t think the kind of fearmongering that they’re offering is a winning argument in the suburbs anymore.”
Astorino says name recognition is on his side during a campaign season that COVID-19 pushed onto virtual platforms.
“Maybe I’m fortunate in that I am very well known in not only Westchester, which is 70 percent of the district, but also in Putnam and Dutchess because, having been county executive, there was a lot of media attention and I dealt with the other counties. And so, I am pretty well known,” says Astorino. “We do have money in the bank and we are fundraising very well. So I have an ability of running a very, very strong campaign and reaching the voters.”
Harckham has his eye to next year if re-elected.
“So I’m going to be proposing a $100 million bond fund for things like sewer, septic repair, stormwater runoff catchment, for those communities that cannot afford these costly mandates to reduce phosphorous in watershed basins,” Harckham says. “The other thing has to do with my committee — Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, and behavioral health, in general, has not been getting, I think, full attention at the state level. So my desire next year is to propose legislation to combine OASIS and OMH into a cabinet-level agency called the Department of Behavioral Health.”
OASIS is the Office of Addiction Services and Supports, and OMH is the Office of Mental Health. The 40th state Senate district includes portions of Westchester, Putnam and Dutchess Counties. Democrats currently control the state Senate.