If you are politically ambitious, it is generally assumed that being a Republican is a poor career strategy in blue Westchester. But is that necessarily the case?
Lately, it is true that the Republican Party has been getting its teeth knocked out, owing largely to the Trump Effect and the insurgent activism of left-leaning Indivisible Westchester. Locally, the GOP was trounced in the November elections — most notably in the county executive’s race, where two-term Republican Rob Astorino was defeated by progressive Democrat George Latimer by a wide margin.
A Democratic litmus test came in April, when a special election was held to fill the legislative seat vacated by Republican Jim Maisano, who had seen the handwriting on the wall.
When Maisano was first elected to the Board of Legislators in 1998, the Westchester GOP was already in decline. That year, the Democrats had 211,105 active voters against a Republican count of 162,274. Two decades later, the enrollment gap has only widened. Republican ranks have shrunk 21 percent, while the number of Democrats has increased by 31 percent.
The dramatic change in political power in Westchester spawned the contrarian book I Can’t Believe I’m Sitting Next to a Republican, written by conservative author Harry Stein in the pre-Trumpian days of 2009. Stein savaged the “angry, smug, and terminally self-righteous,” a liberal coterie that included his former neighbors in Hastings-on-Hudson, a village so heavily Democratic that he likened it to a “suburban version of Manhattan’s Upper West Side.” He’ll never be invited to dinner there again.
Since the book came out, the county’s leftward shift has accelerated.
Maisano’s replacement in the aforementioned special election was Jim Freeman, an attorney and lifelong New Rochelle resident whose credentials included heading a group that built affordable housing for seniors. He stood for sane tax policies, the environmental protection of Long Island Sound, and governmental accountability. He stuck to local issues. He never pandered to the Trump base yet was engulfed by a blue wave, losing to New Rochelle schoolteacher Terry Clements.
For qualified Republican candidates the lesson was obvious: In a blue county, the principle of vote-the-person-and-not-the-party was all but dead.
In next month’s election, this presents a special challenge to judicial candidates like Michael Martinelli,* the longtime Republican Yonkers city judge who is running for the state Supreme Court in the 9th Judicial District. He is competing against a slew of Democrats.
Most voters know next to nothing about the county’s jurists, a state of ignorance that is compounded by rules that restrict judicial candidates from actively campaigning. When it comes to judges, voters usually follow the party line. This is a conundrum for Martinelli and his adviser, Mike Edelman, who, as it happens, was so disgusted by the Trump brand of politics that he left the Republican Party to become an Independent.
Edelman told me that Martinelli’s candidacy transcends petty — and party — politics.
“He is a highly respected chief administrative judge who decides cases on the facts and law,” Edelman said. “He is admired by members of the bar and members of both parties as a fair jurist.”
There is hope for Republicans, some of which is supplied by the establishment wing of the Democratic Party that has swerved so far left in response to progressive pressure that it runs the risk of caricature.
The backlash has already started. Over the summer, when the Board of Legislators passed a silly law about county park signs that was made yet sillier because it was accompanied by a publicity blitz that far exceeded its importance, Mike Kaplowitz, a Democrat, had seen enough. His fellow legislators, he said, “had gone off the rails with an ultra-extreme social agenda.”
He told the Journal News that the focus should be on “taxes, money, fiscal integrity, the whole financial stability of the county.”
Kaplowitz was sounding a warning. The Blue Wave may be strong now, but it won’t last forever. In politics, the tide comes in… and it goes out.
*Martinelli is a brother to the principal owners of Today Media, the parent company of Westchester Magazine.
The opinions and beliefs expressed by Phil Reisman are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Westchester Magazine’s editors and publishers. Tell us what you think: email firstname.lastname@example.org