Will Westchester Take a Sharp Left Turn With Latimer?

Phil Reisman looks into the campaign that found an unlikely challenger in a highly contested seat.

This month, George Latimer officially assumes Westchester’s top political job after surviving what was arguably the meanest election in county history.

When it was over, a couple of questions lingered: Is this the end of gentility in Westchester politics? Will Latimer, a liberal Democrat who decries “hyper-partisanship,” be able to govern effectively and heal the wounds of a divided county, or will the next four years be a dreary reprise of the contentious election?

Is the past prologue?

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There have been noxious county executive races before, but in the id-driven Age of Trump and Internet trolls, where anything goes and nothing is off-limits, this campaign set new lows for toxicity. Both Latimer and Republican incumbent Rob Astorino rabbit punched — and demeaned themselves in the process.

Gifted politicians with extraordinary communication skills, Astorino and Latimer were evenly matched, but they were barely able to speak of real issues amidst the sound and fury.

Both were heckled by an unruly audience during a televised debate — a coordinated harassment tactic that was unprecedented in Westchester’s political arena. The county’s daily newspaper, the Journal News, struggled to make an endorsement, eventually choosing Latimer but with faint praise so comically damning that Latimer might have been justified in demanding a retraction.

It is usually a bad thing when a local election attracts the attention of the New York City tabloid press — and this county executive race did just that. The New York Post took note of Latimer’s messy finances and personal life and broke a story about Astorino’s alleged acceptance of a $10,000 Rolex watch from a crooked campaign donor.

The prediction was for a close race, and internal polling showed that Latimer might defeat the popular incumbent, whose fiscal-conservative brand was burnished by shrinking county government and holding the line on property taxes.

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But no one expected Latimer, a state senator from Rye, to win in a landslide. He received 57 percent of the vote against the incumbent’s 43 percent, a complete reversal of fortune for Astorino, who was accustomed to winning by double-digit margins.

What changed? Mainly one thing: the emergence of Donald Trump, an epically unpopular president who got less than one-third of the Westchester vote in 2016. Democrats were out for revenge. They were determined to make Astorino pay for Trump’s sins, and they came out in numbers not seen in a county executive race since 1993.

An early Trump supporter, Astorino tried to distance himself from some of the president’s inflammatory pronouncements, but it made little or no difference. The fact was that anybody in Westchester with a GOP label was in for a rough ride. Fairly or unfairly, they all had a scarlet “T” on their backs. Consequently, a slew of incumbent Republican mayors, supervisors, and council members from Yorktown to Yonkers toppled like dominoes.

Three Republican county legislators lost their seats, a stunning turn of events that effectively replaced a bipartisan coalition with a new 12-to-5 super-majority of Democrats.

Nevertheless, some Republicans believe (and hope) they can recover if Latimer becomes a compliant tool of the ultra-progressive legislators and readily caves to their agenda. In order to make good on his promises, real or implied, there will also be pressure on Latimer to usher in a new era of government expansion and higher taxes.

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“If he doesn’t learn to say ‘no’ quickly, we could be the People’s Republic of Westchester in two or three short years, something akin to the New York City Council and the de Blasio administration,” says William F.B. O’Reilly, who served as Astorino’s campaign spokesman.

Latimer should not be underestimated. He is a shrewd observer who takes pride in his powers of persuasion and his ability to reach across the aisle in the spirit of bipartisanship. In a WVOX radio interview just a week after the bruising election, Latimer said he intends to have a “good working relationship with the Republicans…. I know them all. I don’t want to assume that every vote is going to be 12 of us and later for you.

“I want to see if we can find a place where we can all feel good.”

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 edit@westchestermagazine.com

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