Hey Scarsdale! You’ve been gerrymandered out of the hottest political contest in Westchester this November: the gladiator showdown between former Scarsdalian Bob Cohen and Rye Assemblyman George Latimer for the New York State Senate seat that’s open due to the Suzi Oppenheimer’s retirement. Scarsdale has two non-races for the state legislature: State Senator Andrea Stewart Cousins has no opposition -- and Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, likewise faces no opposition. Your congressional race pits Riverdale’s Eliot Engel versus nobody. Remember, you lost Congresswoman Nita Lowey to the northern hinterlands. Scarsdale probably has more in common with Riverdale than Rockland anyway...
Two years ago, Bob Cohen came within a hair’s breath of defeating long-time incumbent Suzi Oppenheimer. In 2010 Cohen positioned himself as a fresh alternative to the long time incumbent and therefore symbol of Albany dysfunction that permeated the electoral landscape. Cohen ran as a moderate, nonpartisan businessman with the mission to fix Albany. That 2010 campaign came on the heels of a slew of scandals and corruption and the hijacking of the State Senate by the Gang of Four (who are now gone from the scene with some serving jail time) and on the heels of Governor Spitzer’s ignominious departure as Governor -- replaced by the hapless David Paterson. Cohen’s campaign of a fresh start resonated against the 26-year veteran Oppenheimer -- causing the result to be a nail biter at the end -- with Oppenheimer eeking out a squeaker of a win.
Since then, Bob Cohen has moved out of Scarsdale to New Rochelle -- and the GOP controlled State Senate re-arranged the lines of the 37th senate district to get rid of Democratic leaning Scarsdale and Ossining and replace them with Republican strongholds of East Yonkers, Tuckahoe and Eastchester (as well as to loop into a section of New Rochelle where Cohen now resides) in an effort to craft a district more hospitable to Cohen. While the registration advantage of the new district still belongs with the Democrats, most political observers view the district as a tossup.
Yet before securing the Republican nomination for the race, Cohen did first have to deal with one nuisance, a somewhat bizarre challenge from the right by Diane Roth-Didonato of Armonk and a member of the North Castle Town Board. She garnered the endorsement of the failed and wacky candidate for Governor Carl Paladino. Roth ended up being bounced from her primary challenge by the Cohen campaign for her inability to obtain enough legitimate signatures to get on the primary ballot -- but not before lodging a nutty attack on Cohen -- lambasting him for being the object of an assassination attempt in 1991.
On the Democratic side, once Oppenheimer announced her retirement, George Latimer, a popular former Rye City Councilman, County Legislator (with a stint as Chairman of the Board), and Assemblyman George Latimer stepped up to run for the seat. Latimer is viewed by many politicos as a much stronger candidate than Oppenheimer would have been. Throughout Latimer’s career he has been viewed as a bipartisan, hardworking, and thoughtful policymaker, who actually thinks about a bill’s impact on the real world before he votes.
In 2012 the Albany political landscape has changed with the ascension of Governor Andrew Cuomo -- and his perceived manhandling of the legislative process. It becomes much harder to run on an Albany-needs-fixing-platform. So with the Cohen campaign not likely to gain traction on that theme again -- they have chosen to mount a one-issue campaign: define George Latimer as a tax and spender.
And if you’re a registered voter but unaffiliated with the Democratic party in the district -- you have been deluged with 2 or 3 mailers per day for weeks -- from the Cohen campaign, from the New York Republican Campaign Committee -- and from some anonymous Teaparty/Superpac from Virginia -- all smearing Latimer as the worst, most evil, pernicious tax hiker the world has ever seen. Find out more about the mysterious originis of the PAC in the Journal News and The New York Times .
The problem with this generic dumbed down tea party line of attack -- is that while property taxes are a huge issue here-- Westchester residents are typically a little savvier and a little more sophisticated to swallow whole what the Cohen campaign is selling. Latimer has not been in a position to directly raise or lower property taxes since he left the County Board of Legislators nearly 10 years ago when he was elected to the State Assembly. The Cohen attacks have latched onto three of Latimer’s votes on which the Assemblyman actually put good policy ahead of good politics:
- 2% property tax cap: Latimer voted against the 2% tax cap -- because it was not coupled with any kind of mandate relief -- mandates that require municipalities, counties and school districts to provide programs and services but without any funding -- i.e., Albany mandates must be paid by those governmental entities that are funded predominantly by the property tax. A tax cap without mandate relief is a ticking time bomb for our schools, towns and counties. One of the most egregious unfunded mandates is requiring counties to pay for a major portion of Medicaid costs. New York is one of two states in the entire country where these costs --mandated from the State -- are pushed down to the county level for payment. On the education front, New York has a much more intensive level of mandated services for special education than is required by Federal law. And as well intentioned as these programs and requirements are -- Albany fails to provide any funding for these requirements-- further burdening the property tax payer. So George Latimer bravely voted no on the tax cap -- not because he’s for higher taxes (as the Cohen campaign has been relentlessly pushing) but due to the lack of concurrent mandate relief -- which still is not on the table in Albany yet. The result -- school districts like Port Chester had to make a decision to either end full-day kindergarten -- or an elementary school literacy program. They chose to end the literacy program.........this year. The tax cap has already adversely affected poorer school districts -- and more and wealthier school districts will get hit with layoffs, larger class sizes, and program eliminations.
- MTA Tax: While Latimer has sponsored bill to eliminate the MTA payroll tax -- he felt compelled to vote for the its implementation when the MTA was on the brink of insolvency in 2009 -- and the only option on the table for Latimer was to vote for the MTA payroll tax -- or watch commuter fares more than quadruple. That was the Hobson’s Choice that Latimer faced -- and seeing the need to maintain a viable mass transit system in the New York metropolitan area -- held his nose and voted for the tax -- and ever since has been working for repeal and a viable long range plan for the MTA’s sustainability.
- Tier Six Pension Plan -- in the arcane world of public sector pension policy (or lack thereof), a proposed Tier 6 was proposed which would lessen the pension benefits of public employees hired in the future. This was buried in an avalanche of bills at the very end of the legislative session earlier this year-- and seeing that there was no immediate or even near-term relief from skyrocketing pension costs and how the bill was delivered to legislators -- with no time to read it and/or amend it -- Latimer -- acting on sound policy principles (and again, perhaps unsound politics) -- abstained on the measure.
So basically, these three votes -- taken on principle -- not politics -- is being used by the well-funded Cohen campaign as a cudgel against Latimer -- with a mail drop volume and Cable TV buy that has never been seen for a state legislative race in Westchester.
With alot less in the bank than Cohen, Latimer is now pushing back -- stating that he has a real record of lowering taxes and has the experience and clout to fight for Westchester residents. In addition, the Latimer campaign has recycled an attack Oppenheimer used in 2010 -- labeling Cohen a slumlord. Cohen’s business is owning and operating apartment buildings in predominantly lower income areas of Manhattan. In fact the Daily News just ran a piece on Cohen’s real estate business this past week.
A Sienna College poll released two weeks ago had Latimer ahead of Cohen by about 3 points -- well within the margin of error. So all eyes are on this race -- and all expect the fur and mud to fly. A series of debates are slated to be held over the next couple of weeks. These should be interesting.
Folks in Scarsdale will have to just be passive observers in this slugfest.David A. Singer is a former political consultant/campaign professional and political junkie currently toiling as a lawyer in Westchester and managing real estate and media investments.