With the hotly contested election season and his surprisingly decisive victory behind him, former state senator George Latimer is ready to get down to the business of being county executive. The Rye Democrat, who was born and raised in Mount Vernon, seems eager to fill the big shoes left behind by his popular two-term predecessor. Before taking office in January, Latimer made several key staff decisions (including appointing Ken Jenkins, his challenger in the Democratic primary, to serve as deputy county executive) and appeared before both the Business Council of Westchester (BCW) and the Westchester County Association (WCA) to outline his leadership vision. In a sit-down chat with us in December, Latimer shared his thoughts on the campaign, why he won the election, and how he plans to help enhance the county’s business scene.
We don’t need to rehash everything that happened during the campaign, but it wasn’t pretty. Do you think this is how all elections are going to be from now on?
Politics has become a blood sport, and I’m afraid I don’t see the trend turning around. There is a multiplicity of ways to reach voters now, and people who are getting turned off to politics just shut down…. Unfortunately, it means that in order to break through [and reach people], some of the messages become more shrill and more negative. It’s not how I
function, but at some point, when you realize you’re being attacked, and you think unfairly, then you fire back. When [Republican incumbent Rob Astorino and I] disagreed over the airport, when we disagreed over the gun show, those were legitimate public-policy issues, and if I have to defend my position with a certain degree of aggressiveness, I will.
Did you think you were going to win?
I was very surprised by the end result. When I started the race, I didn’t expect to win. I expected to run a tough race. I’m not arrogant enough to think that I wasn’t lucky in certain ways, but I also think, particularly as a Democrat, I showed toughness. I showed I was not going to be pushed around.
How much of your win was thanks to the “Trump effect”?
That was a big factor. It’s hard to put percentage numbers onto it, but I think it’s pretty clear that the voter turnout — and frankly the additional Democrats who came out — was directly proportionate to the Trump factor. I think Rob [Astorino] was connected by public policy to Trump…and if you can make an argument like I did in this race — that his philosophy of spending, housing, immigration, was consistent with the Trump philosophy — that’s why there is a connection. But I worked hard, I think I made a strong case, and remained basically the same George I’ve always been, and I think that combination was successful.
You’ve made it clear that pragmatism will be your guiding philosophy. How will that impact the way you govern and interact with the business community?
I think for the business community’s sake, what pragmatism means is that we’re going to try to look at each issue as dispassionately as we can. We’ll look at the issues of Westchester County Airport, how to deal with Playland, the contract on the Liberty Lines bus system, the North 60 agreement, et cetera, and think: What are we trying to accomplish, and what is the most efficient way to accomplish it? We’re going to listen. We’re going to absorb things, and then we’ll make a decision; we’re not going to automatically do it or not do it because we have a specific worldview. Also, we’re going to interact with all members of the Board of Legislators. The Republican members are not going to be shut out of having influence. I may have a disagreement with somebody, but it doesn’t mean I’m not going to listen to [them], and it doesn’t mean [they’re] not going to have access to try to influence me on something that’s important.
You just mentioned several hot-button topics. Do you have specific plans yet for addressing these issues?
We’re going to look at them individually, without linking them to a philosophy that says we spend or we don’t spend. We will ask: “Is [this policy] in the best interests of the county as we define it?” So, we’ll look at things like: What is the public-policy impact of letting the airport be run with a for-profit model in mind? Will it generate more traffic? What will the impact of that traffic be? What you can’t do is put this decision in front of somebody [to be made] in 30 days.
There is always the assumption when a Democrat is elected that they will raise taxes. What’s your take on that?
I have no intent to raise taxes. I do not walk in the door, saying, “You know what? We’re under-taxed; we need X amount of revenue.” The decisions of the need of the county will drive whether we ask for more revenue or not, and if so, there will be a rational reason why…. Also, I think the correlation between perception and reality is completely skewed on the tax issue. The counties around us have raised taxes by 1% or 2%, but Rob created this argument that it could be 0% [in Westchester] every year. Now, 0% every year has gotten us deteriorating public infrastructure; stripped-down offices of county government, which, in my judgment, are not functioning properly; and a host of other [problem] areas. I just want a rational discussion of taxation policy, not an emotional one.
How do you plan to work with the business community to spur continued business growth?
We are going to rely on our two major business associations [the BCW and WCA], and we’re going to look at other entities within the business community…to give us a better idea of what we have to do to grow business. We can’t always do the things that industry wants. But I think if we determine whether there are policies or things we can do that would be helpful [to various industries], that we try to pursue that as a way of showing we care about their bottom line.
What about economic-development efforts?
I want to move to a direct-sales approach, where we go into a decision-maker’s office with a team of people that includes your business-community people and your governmental people and say, “Here is the menu of what we can do to help you move [your business to Westchester] or to help you stay here.” There’s also a second piece [to economic development] that’s much harder: How do we deal with the abandoned, old blue-collar facilities in places likes Yonkers and Mount Vernon? That may be where we show creativity, find businesses in the Bronx or in Brooklyn that want to grow but can’t where they are, and we’ll be there, saying, “We can put together a combination of land and incentives to help you move to Mount Vernon.” But we have to be sure when we incentivize that we are getting jobs out of it and obviously the taxation that comes with it. I come from a marketing background, and I know I’m not “marketer in chief” as the county executive, but I want to try to take some of those marketing principles and make them part of the way we approach this. It’s going to be a work in progress, so we’ll see.