Our New County Executive
How “the guy next door” rose from County Legislator to County Executive—second time’s a charm
By Elzy Kolb
Rob Astorino’s careers in broadcasting and politics have taken the lifetime Westchester County resident a long way from home. The Mount Vernon native has met a pope (Benedict XVI), a president (George W. Bush), and a prime minister (Britain’s Tony Blair), rubbed elbows with countless media and athletic icons, and attended more top-level sporting events than he can remember.
But regardless of who he knows or where he’s been, the new County Executive comes across as the guy next door, the neighbor you know you can count on to help when your car has a dead battery.
Like many of us, Astorino, who currently resides in Hawthorne, enjoyed watching It’s a Wonderful Life during the holidays, and the 42-year-old’s own story has kind of a Bedford Falls quality, in which early friendships, relationships, and interests remain permanent touchstones. There’s a continuity and connectedness in his life that seem rare in our increasingly mobile and electronically linked society.
“Some people take a long time to find out what their passion is and what they want to do,” says Laura Schwartz, whose friendship with Astorino began at Thornwood’s Westlake Middle School and High School. She recalls that by seventh grade, “Rob was so clear about what he loved: sports and politics. All his life he’s been involved with both.”
A bout with mono at age 15 sidelined him from playing the sports he so enjoyed (football, baseball, basketball, and soccer). “I was really upset. ‘What do you mean I can’t play sports?’” Astorino recalls asking. “But something really great happened out of something really bad.” A neighbor asked if he’d like to announce the Westlake football games for public access TV. From that moment, “I was hooked on broadcasting,” he says. “I started a weekly public access show with high school sports highlights and interviews.”
While home sick, he was asked by several friends to run for student council president—and agreed. Schwartz helped with her Republican friend’s campaign, the first of many times. The self-described “liberal from Connecticut” was Astorino’s treasurer on his County Legislator (2003 to 2005) and County Executive campaigns in 2005 and 2009.
Astorino went on to serve two terms as Westlake’s student council president—which sealed his love for politics. “I enjoyed being in a leadership role,” he says. One of Astorino’s initiatives at Westlake was organizing a safe-rides program to keep students from drinking and driving. His classmates sometimes teased Astorino, calling him Alex P. Keaton after the fictional young Republican, wonderfully played by Michael J. Fox on the 1980s TV sitcom, Family Ties. Former county legislator Sue Swanson, whose son was a pal of Astorino’s, says, “He is the ultimate politician. He was born into this profession. In politics, you need a thick skin and a sense of humor.”
While still in high school, Astorino worked with Swanson on the 1985 campaigns for Mount Pleasant town supervisor and town board. The candidates “won in a big upset,” Astorino says. During that campaign, Astorino met the man he recently appointed county attorney, Robert Meehan. “Rob stood out as the youngest person taking an interest in the local community,” Meehan says.
Astorino considered enrolling in an out-of-state college, but decided on Fordham for its “great communications department and great radio station,” and fell in love with radio at Fordham’s WFUV-FM. “Radio is more intimate than television. In many ways, you can be yourself in radio. Talk radio, sportscasting—I had a blast.” He majored in communications and minored in political science and Spanish. “I always loved Spanish,” he says. “One of my big regrets is not studying abroad. I would have loved studying in Spain or Mexico for a semester.”
While still at Fordham, Astorino was elected in 1988 to the Mount Pleasant School Board and, in 1989, he campaigned for Meehan when he successfully ran for town supervisor, and two years later made a victorious run for Town Board. “In those Town Board work sessions,” Meehan says, “Rob came up with some very innovative suggestions and was extremely dedicated.”
Astorino’s fondness for one-liners and elaborate pranks triggered a long-running friendship with Andrew Castellano, a colleague at radio station WFAS in Hartsdale, where Astorino worked as the AM program director after finishing college. Though Castellano is a Dallas Cowboys’ fan, for more than a decade his office window displayed a Miami Dolphins sticker as a result of a lost bet. The details of the bet are long forgotten, but Castellano recalls that his Dolphins-loving co-worker formalized the agreement with a detailed contract, specifying that the winner’s team sticker would remain on the loser’s window forever. Astorino even had the contract notarized.
Astorino’s ability to make her laugh is among the characteristics that impressed the former Sheila McCloskey, Astorino’s wife of eight years. The two met when she was a waitress at Pete’s Saloon in Elmsford, while she was working on her master’s degree in special education at Lehman College. By the second date, she knew he was the one. Her initial good feeling about him further was validated when her car broke down on the Saw Mill River Parkway. She called Astorino, who alerted the police and arranged to have the vehicle towed. Afterward, Sheila recalls her future husband telling her, “Even if you never marry me or see me again, you still have to let me help you buy a new car.” They went car shopping together and he helped her choose a new Jetta and make the down payment.
The couple became engaged after dating for a year, and, in 2001, got married in Ireland, then went on a a summer-long European honeymoon. In Barcelona, where they spent six weeks, Astorino took a three-hour Spanish-language immersion course each morning. With three little children—Sean, six; Kiley, four; and infant Ashlin—the Astorinos are sticking closer to home these days. Both are eager to resume their travels, with Iceland ranking high on her list, and South America and European cities on his.
Astorino continues to make time to play softball, full-court basketball, tennis, golf, and to make regular visits to the gym. “He has room for improvement, and you can quote me on that,” Castellano, his frequent golf buddy, says.
Astorino was elected to the County Board of Legislators in 2003 and, two years later, he made an unsuccessful run for County Executive. Last year, he decided to make a second run for the office. “Nobody was stepping forward,” he says. “It’s never good when there are uncontested elections. That’s how people get complacent.” Astorino earns $160,760 as County Executive.
Astorino has vowed to make it home in time for dinner and to get the kids ready for bed several nights a week. “I don’t want to look back in ten, fifteen, twenty years and have regrets that I missed so much.”
As County Executive, Astorino may not have as many opportunities to mingle with international figures as he did as a broadcaster—figures such as Pope Benedict. Until December 4, Astorino was program director for the Catholic Channel on Sirius-XM Satellite radio. He covered the Pope’s 2007 visit to the U.S. After the Pope recorded a 30-second message for the Catholic Channel, he turned to Astorino and asked if he had done an okay job. “What was I going to say?” he asks. “‘No, Holy Father. Please, take two, with a little more emotion!’”
The following year, he met the Pope again, this time in the Vatican for a conference on Catholic media. Astorino was glad to have a second chance because it gave him an opportunity for a better photo with the pontiff. The first time around, he says, “my eyes were closed.”
Elzy Kolb is a White Plains-based freelancer who’s using the long winter evenings to brush up on her woefully bad Spanish, improve her guitar chops, and peruse kitchen-remodeling magazines.
Andy Spano, Restaurateur?
The ex-county executive tells it like it is after three terms in office and a stinging defeat at the polls.
By Dave Donelson
Andy Spano, the 73-year-old Democrat who served as Westchester County Executive for 12 years, discusses his successor, his passions, and what he plans to do next.
Q: Why did you lose?
A: When people feel fear like they do now, that overcomes everything. The tax issue, Obama, Patterson and the state Senate, the economy, my being seventy-three years old, taxes—it was the perfect storm. But that’s not sour grapes; it’s part of the game. Most people did not vote for Astorino but against me. Or they just didn’t vote. He got about the same number of votes this time as in 2005, but I went from a sixteen percent win to a sixteen percent loss. People were either apathetic or said, ‘A curse on both your houses.’
My opponent ran a very good campaign. He tapped into the anger and frustration. We had the choice in the beginning to make people know of Rob Astorino’s record, which wasn’t much because he hadn’t done anything. He had served on the Town Board, where he raised taxes forty percent, and he had been on the County Board of Legislators, where he never showed up for work sessions. But we decided not to do that.
Some of the issues that came up were ridiculous. I have a security detail. Every County Executive since Michaelian has had a security detail. I’ve run in twelve elections and I’ve lost six times, so I can live with it.
Q: How did the affordable housing settlement affect the election?
A: The issue got totally confused. People thought we were going to be building high-rises. They thought we were going to bring low-income people into their towns. None of it was true. Scarsdale was the worst. You’d think people with that education level would know better.
Q: Your son, David Spano, made an abortive effort to run against you at the behest of provocative publisher Sam Zherka. How do you feel about that?
A: That hurt me more than anything. Not politically, but personally. It was something I could not talk about during the campaign because it was something between me and my son. It took me by surprise. We didn’t have an antagonistic relationship. Now, we don’t talk. I’ve reached out a number of times, but I don’t hear back. He doesn’t really talk to his siblings, either. He’s going to be fifty years old; what are you going to do?
Q: Does the county spend money on things it doesn’t have to?
A: You have to deal with short-term problems, but if you don’t take care of long-term problems, you’re defeating your whole purpose. Take our jail. We have a whole floor devoted to programs where we work with inmates before they leave on where they’re going and how they’re going to get there. What has that done? Our recidivism is one of the lowest in the state, probably in the country. I could send an inmate to Harvard for what it costs to keep someone in jail for a year. If you can decrease the number of inmates, you save money. Plus, if you can get these people back into society, get them jobs, that lowers crime in the community.
We pay more than two hundred million dollars in Medicaid benefits, so why wouldn’t the county work on obesity? This isn’t some soft liberal concept. It’s very pragmatic. On the other hand, it also helps human beings.
When I came into office, we used to pay the Westchester County Association three hundred thousand dollars a year to do economic development. They hired three people. For that same money, I can bring those people in here, combine them with the Industrial Development Agency, and have a powerful force. When I came to office, the vacancy rate was thirty percent in commercial real estate; today it’s down to seventeen percent.
Q: What about the movement to abolish county government?
A: It’s legally impossible. County governments are being added to all over the country. You can’t ask the towns to do emergency services for the county. What are they going to do—work by committee?
Somebody asked me during the campaign, ‘What do you do for me?’ I asked him, ‘Do you flush your toilet?’ He said ‘yes,’ so I asked him where he thinks that goes, into heaven? ‘But the town picks up my garbage,’ he said, so I asked him, ‘Where do you think the town brings it? They bring it to me! I get rid of the garbage.’
Q: What advice do you have for Rob Astorino?
A: If he can do some of the things he says he’s going to do, I’ll be the first one to cheer for him. But even if he can do the things he wants with county government, it won’t affect people’s tax bills. Seventy-five percent of the budget is mandated. Medicaid is two hundred million dollars. Next year, it’s six million more. That’s automatic. Pensions are going up fifty percent. That’s another fourteen-and-a-half million dollars. Medical benefits are up twenty-four million dollars. The sales tax decrease is forty-three million. Next year, if sales tax revenues don’t go up, he’s going to have a tough time. If you cut county taxes by twenty percent, that means closing the parks some times, it means no senior services. It’s a big impact on county government, but it doesn’t mean much on the tax bill. The average house in the county pays two thousand dollars in county taxes, so even if you could cut it twenty percent, that’s only four hundred dollars.
Q: You’ve pushed the county to be green, yet you are opposed to Indian Point. Why?
A: The plant is too old. I’m not against nuclear energy, just that plant. It’s in an area of the highest density of population in the entire United States. It scares me when they spend twenty million dollars on sirens and they can’t get them to work. If someone told you on 9/10 that a bunch of guys with plastic knives would do all the damage they did on 9/11, you’d laugh at him. And that was in Manhattan. Any problem at Indian Point, forget about it.
Q: What can you tell us about your life as a public official?
A: I really enjoyed it, or I wouldn’t have run again. The job was a joy. The politics were the problem.
Q: Any regrets?
A: I’ve done everything and more than I ever wanted in my life except for one thing. I wanted to throw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium. When Harry Truman left office, his approval rating was only twenty-eight percent. That’s why he’s a hero to me. I don’t worry about my evaluation. I’ve given strict orders to never name anything after me. What makes me happy is if some guy or gal walks along the Riverwalk and enjoys it even if they don’t know who built it.
Q: So what’s next for Andy Spano?
A: After I lost, my son, Andy, said that, with the economy and everything, four more years in office at my age would be like ten years in a dog’s life. I have a lot of interests. I like golf, but the last thing I want in my life is to be a retiree golfer. It takes too much time. I have a passion about cooking. I think about opening a small restaurant. I’ve ruled out running for office, but doing something in politics hasn’t been eliminated. On the other hand, I haven’t worked for someone else for thirty years.
Dave Donelson has voted in every election since Richard Nixon defeated George McGovern, but he refuses to reveal for whom.