It has been 13 years since State Senator George Latimer left county government to serve in Albany. Latimer spent 13 years on the county’s Board of Legislators before his 2004 election to the New York State Assembly, including two terms as board chairman. Now the Democratic nominee for Westchester county executive, Latimer calls a return to White Plains, and to a leadership position, a “natural fit.”
“It is the opportunity of an executive job not just to, as legislators do, advocate for ideas and sponsor ideas,” Latimer tells the Inside Press. “But to actually administer a government and to try to shape it in a direction that you think is positive.”
Latimer, a Mount Vernon native who has lived in Rye for 30 years, worked as a marketing executive for companies including subsidiaries of Nestle and ITT before entering politics. He was elected to the Rye City Council in 1987, then to the Board of Legislators in 1991. After four terms in the Assembly, he was elected to the Senate in 2012.
Latimer announced his candidacy for county executive in April, winning the backing of the Democratic committee and in September, defeating county legislator Ken Jenkins in the party’s primary. Now, he looks to unseat County Executive Rob Astorino, a Republican who has convincingly won two elections in a Democrat-heavy county. While Astorino has highlighted his administration’s record of keeping the tax rate down, Latimer believes the incumbent’s overall fiscal record is flawed.
“What I am going to promise to do is to get an honest set of eyes to look at our fiscal situation,” Latimer says. He plans to ask the state comptroller to do a full audit of the county, he elaborates, and will then create a blue-ribbon commission comprising members of the business community, academia and others to chart a responsible path forward.
“If you think that we can run the county forever and never raise a tax because politically people don’t like taxes,” Latimer says, “then you are going to have to make some decisions about cutting everything and having no services.”
While the tax levy has held steady–even dropping slightly during Astorino’s term–Latimer claims the headline numbers do not paint a full picture. For example, the county has been too reliant on borrowing for recurring expenses, Latimer says, and may now be overestimating projected sales tax revenue in order to avoid a budget gap. Naturally, Astorino disagrees. “I think George has been in Albany so long he now has Albany math,” Astorino quips. (For a deeper look at Astorino’s policies and platforms, see the accompanying article about Astorino: https://www.theinsidepress.com/spotlight-on-republican-incumbent-rob-astorinos-final-bid-for-county-executive/)
Latimer says he will look to generate alternative revenue sources or to save money by consolidating services before raising property taxes.
He does not promise to keep taxes flat, saying that he will need to see the 2018 budget and get a deeper look into the county’s finances, but notes that he has no intention of breaking the tax cap. “If we can deliver another 0 [percent increase] that would be good, but I don’t marry myself to any commitment until I know the specifics,” he says.
Similarly, Latimer acknowledges that bringing back every position cut by Astorino is unrealistic.
“On merit, you probably need to restore a ton of it. But the money isn’t going to be there,” he says. His priorities, he adds, are to strengthen the Department of Public Works, police services and the planning department. “Some of the downsizing that [Astorino] has done is probably sensible,” Latimer admits. “The question when you [make cuts] across the board is, are you throwing out the bathwater and the baby?”
In November 2016, Astorino announced plans to enter into a public-private partnership for Westchester Airport. The deal would have seen Oaktree Capital Management pay the county $130 million upfront for a 40-year revenue-sharing lease. Though that plan was stopped by the legislature, the county is now considering several competing plans to privatize the airport, which is located partially in North Castle.
Latimer sees privatization of the airport as more or less a nonstarter. Giving up control of the airport not only cedes a source of revenue, Latimer explains, but gives the county less control over decisions with environmental and quality of life implications.
“I don’t want those decisions on that asset being made by a private sector entity unless there is a reason for it,” Latimer says. “And there is no reason for it except that [Astorino] wants to fill a budget gap.”
This race, Astorino tells Inside Press, will be his last run for the office he has held since shocking Andrew Spano in 2009. This means, in all likelihood, it will be the party’s last chance to knock off the incumbent, perhaps before he takes another shot at the governor’s mansion.
Democrats were optimistic four years ago when Astorino saw a challenge from New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson. Obama won the county by 25 points the previous year, and Bramson looked to keep Democratic voters engaged with a focus on national issues such as guns and abortion. Astorino, focusing on taxes, won with 56 percent of the vote.
Latimer points to a handful of differences between his race and Bramson’s. Bramson, as the mayor of a city, was less well-known than Latimer, who represents a third of the county in Albany. And he notes, around 45 minutes into an hour-long interview, that so far in the conversation he’s spoken only about local issues. But, he continues, “there is the Donald Trump factor.”
Trump received just 31 percent of the vote, five points worse than Mitt Romney’s 2012 showing, in the county. Latimer has looked to tie Astorino to the president–a picture of the two Republicans together features on at least one of Latimer’s campaign mailers, while Astorino’s veto of a bill limiting the county’s cooperation with immigration enforcement was dubbed “Trump-like.”
“Donald Trump, as every day passes by, is giving more people doubt into what it is that he is all about,” Latimer continues. “I don’t know about Wisconsin, but he is definitely less popular in Westchester than he was a year ago, and I don’t see Rob distancing himself at all from Trump.”
Latimer does not seem to be going all-in on the Trump card. His campaign has centered on challenging the incumbent’s fiscal record. But he also does not hesitate to oppose, for example, the county executive’s decision to bring gun shows back to the Westchester County Center.
Latimer recognizes the challenge in taking on Astorino, whom he calls “a very sharp guy” and “a great communicator.” He points out, though, that he has been in tough races before. His 2012 election over Bob Cohen for the Senate seat vacated by Suzi Oppenheimer came two years after Cohen nearly knocked off Oppenheimer, a 14-term incumbent.
His contest in November will be his toughest yet.
On Election Day, Nov. 8, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton aren’t the only names on North Castle voters’ ballots.
State Sen. George Latimer (D) seeks a third term as the representative for District 37 and is being challenged by Rye City Councilwoman Julie Killian (R). The mother of five is serving her second term on the city council, and spent 13 years working in finance at Merrill Lynch and CitiBank.
Latimer spent 20 years in marketing and has worked at major corporate subsidiaries of Nestlé and ITT.
While the 32 Democrats outnumber the 31 Republicans in the state Senate, Republicans hold the majority because a group of five Democrats– the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) – have caucused with the Republicans the last three election cycles.
“The IDC is going to be the fulcrum,” says Latimer, who hopes Democrats can take the majority and replace the Republican leadership with Democrat Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who represents another Westchester district –District 35.
With the highest property taxes in the nation, Westchester voters always want to know what their elected officials plan to do about it.
Latimer, a former Rye City Council member himself, cited the middle class income-tax cut in the 2016-2017 state budget, for which he voted in favor. This lowers the rate taxpayers who earn $40,000-to-$300,000 will pay on income. When fully phased in by 2025, the rate will drop to 5.5 percent. The current rates are 6.45 percent for the $40,000-$150,000 income bracket, and 6.65 percent for the $150,000-$300,000 income bracket.
Killian says “any tax cut helps,” but added that more focus needs to be paid to making New York more welcoming to businesses, calling it one of the least business-friendly states in America.
“Making us competitive with taxes and streamlining regulation, making things simpler is a good answer,” she tells Inside Armonk, using the example of the boom in distillery businesses after the state introduced the Alcohol Production Credit to cut red tape and reduce their licensing costs.
She also takes issue with the minimum wage increase in this year’s budget, which will bring the wage floor up to $15 per hour in Westchester by 2021. While not opposed to an increase, she says $15 is too high and could cost the state jobs, especially small businesses.
“My answer would have been increase the earned income tax credit,” says Killian, whose coalition, RYE ACT, has secured more than $1 million in grants to address the opioid epidemic in her community.
When it comes to unfunded mandates, both candidates agree the state, which has promised it would offer relief, needs to live up to its word.
Latimer supports eliminating the MTA payroll tax on both counties and municipalities, and phasing out the Medicaid mandate placed on counties.
“In Westchester County, it’s a $220 million hit to the county budget,” he says, adding that he is a co-sponsor on a bill to address this mandate.
Killian wants to see relief for mandates “big and small.” As an example she cites the Wicks law, which she says is extremely costly for school districts. It requires New York districts to hire four separate contractors for school construction (a general contractor plus contractors for electrical, HVAC and plumbing).
“It just hamstrings how you can manage your construction projects,” she says.
Both candidates agree the biggest obstacle, if elected, will be accomplishing ethics reform. But, they have different strategies to address the subject, which has dominated headlines for more than a year–more than 30 current and former New York state office holders have been convicted, sanctioned or accused of wrongdoing in the last decade, according to the New York Times.
“The day that I decided to run was Jan. 22 of 2015,” Killian says. “And I woke up and saw on my iPhone that Shelly Silver was arrested, and I said to myself, ‘I should think about running for state Senate.’”
Silver, the former Democratic speaker of the state Assembly and one of the most high-profile corruption cases, was convicted of fraud, money laundering and extortion.
Latimer – who also served on the Rye City Council for four years – cites three core problems that have allowed this culture of corruption to fester: the concentration of power in too few hands; the flow of money –both public and private campaign money –that goes to those most powerful legislators; and the excessive partisanship.
“I run again because I believe I can be part of a team of people that will change the equation,” he says. “We’ve done it before in the [Westchester] County legislature. I saw what reform looked like and it was a positive.”
Latimer served 13 years on the county legislature and in 1998 became the first Democrat to serve as its chairman.
Julie Killian says terms limits, and has made this her flagship issue.
“I believe in citizen legislators,” she says, referring to politicians who continue working while holding public office. “I’m not looking to go up to Albany and spend the rest of my life there.” Killian says she will draft legislation imposing term limits of eight to 12 years–terms run two years for state Senators, who are paid an annual base salary of $79,500 a year. “I will vote for it, it has a value, but it is not the panacea and if it isn’t accompanied by other things you won’t have real reform,” Latimer says, adding that he’s never seen a term limits bill come up because leadership in the state legislature doesn’t want it.
The former four-term state Assemblyman
argued that many caught in corruption cases have served just one or two terms.
To that, Killian asks, “Why can’t we be simple?”
“Let’s have a bill on one thing and one thing only, something really important,” she suggests. “They’re always throwing in this stuff so [the Republicans and Democrats] can mess with each other…It’s a lot of games and I’m personally tired of it.”
Latimer maintained that, to address term limits, campaign contributions must also be addressed. The maximum is $10,000 for a Senate candidate and $4,000 for an Assembly candidate.
“That means you’re going to have to interact with everyday people more regularly, as opposed to going to a handful of people who can give you $10,000 a pop,” he said, suggesting $2,000 as a cap.
Then there’s the LLC loophole, which allows limited liability corporations (LLCs), which are subsets of a larger corporation, to each donate the maximum amount to a candidate. This, Latimer says, allows corporations to contribute unlimited amounts of money. “Now, you might say, well, what’s that got to do with corruption?’” Latimer said. “[Former Senate Majority Leader Dean] Skelos and the Silver trials were for corruption, and in both cases they shook down real estate entities, who had multiple LLCs, for money.”
State aid to schools increased by 6.5 percent to $24.8 billion in the 2016-17 budget.
“I have advocated for and we’ve been able to see some significant funding for school districts that I represent,” Latimer said. “And particularly in the eliminations, or the ending of reduction in school aid that was created back in 2010–Gap Elimination Adjustments.”
Killian also supports eliminating the policy, which was enacted in 2010 to make up for the state’s shortfall by reallocating state aid already designated in the budget for schools. But she said Westchester still isn’t getting its fair share because of the formula for cost of living – the regional cost index – which the state uses to determine where school aid goes.
“That’s just a calculation and right away that would get us more money,” Killian said.
“The cost index is representative of Kingston and Poughkeepsie.”
Killian said she doesn’t hear anyone, including her opponent, talking about this.
“I’ve fought this issue for years,” Latimer
countered. “Westchester is treated like an upstate community because the Long Island and New York City leadership [in the state legislature] doesn’t choose to understand what makes us unique,” he said.
“We get real change when we change who is in charge.”
Regardless of who is in the majority, Killian said she will make her voice heard.
“I feel confident that I can work with anybody up there,” Killian said. “But, I’m not afraid to speak out.”
In addition to North Castle, District 37 includes the cities of New Rochelle, Rye, White Plains and Yonkers, and the towns of Harrison, Mamaroneck, Rye, Bedford and Eastchester.
Killian is running on the Republican, Conservative, Independence and Reform party lines. Latimer is running on the Democrat, Working Families and Women’s Equality party lines.
Brian Donnelly was born and raised in Westchester. He is a freelance reporter, videographer and social media specialist, whose hobbies include riding bicycles, waves and rooftop hammocks.
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