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/)
Favors Consolidating Services
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.”
Optimism in the Last Stretch
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.