Rob Astorino
Rob Astorino
Rob Astorino

We have turned the corner on the summer, and the political races here in New York are beginning to heat up. In this enigmatic and unusual political year, once again the Jewish communities here on Long Island and in the city are perceived to play a pivotal role in some of the races.

One of the sleepy, almost predictable, races–that is, until last week–has been the race for governor of New York. Until a week or so ago, Andrew Cuomo seemed to be not only unbeatable but also untouchable. Now, as a result of a U.S. Attorney investigation into Cuomo’s termination of an effort to investigate corruption in Albany, his challenger Rob Astorino, the Westchester county executive, has seen new life breathed into his candidacy.

Sitting with Mr. Astorino in the 5TJT offices last week, one gets a sense that possibilities exist. Make no mistake, Governor Cuomo to this point is the closest political thing New York has to an immovable object, but there seems to be something going on, and Mr. Astorino likes it and seems invigorated. He was 30% behind Mr. Cuomo in the polls a few weeks ago, but that margin is now decreasing.

Cuomo’s problems are connected to an effort he made to investigate corruption in office through a newly created Moreland Commission. According to reporting in the usually pro-Democratic New York Times, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has his sights set on Mr. Cuomo for dissolving the commission with the work only half-done. According to the Times, the investigations were beginning to get uncomfortably close to Mr. Cuomo. So Mr. Bharara picked up where the commission left off, and now Mr. Cuomo has hired a criminal-defense attorney to represent him in the investigation.

That is the short version of what is going on in Albany today. The flip side of this is the newly energized Mr. Astorino. While we briefly discussed this issue the other day, we really focused on the support in the New York Jewish community for Rob Astorino.

For Rob Astorino, like many others seeking elected office, the Jewish vote is vitally important. Jews vote on the issues, for the most part, but there is also the matter of the images that have the power to sway voters in this or that direction. And those all-important issues, positions, and yes, photos, include a candidate’s visits to Israel.

The funny thing, which I enjoy most, about New York elected officials is that they all need a foreign policy even though the policies they legislate have little to do with any foreign countries. Now, not every candidate for every elected office in New York scurries over to Israel for a photographic opportunity at certain locations and with specific personalities. But for those who want to genuinely demonstrate their concern and interest in Israel and at the same time perhaps want to promote a positive image for themselves in communities that solidly support Israel, the trip is apparently worthwhile.

In Rob Astorino’s case, he happened to have been in Israel less than two years ago, so his jaunt is still kind of fresh and he is able to speak about his impressions and the importance of the Jewish state in current terms. Sitting in the 5TJT offices as the heat of the battle raged two weeks ago in Gaza, Astorino recalled visiting the city of S’derot in southern Israel about a mile from the Gaza border. “I met with and spoke with families in S’derot that live under constant threat of having missiles land on their homes,” he said. He visited an Air Force base and the Golan Heights, and spent time walking the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

As for the ongoing and hopefully just-ended fighting in Gaza, Astorino says, “There is absolutely no moral equivalency between Hamas and Israel, and the U.S. needs to make it clear that we stand with Israel.”

In terms of the upcoming November vote against Mr. Cuomo, Astorino feels confident that he can achieve what would be a come-from-behind victory as the current situation evolves. He says it was done before when a relatively unknown from Peekskill, George Pataki, defeated then-governor Mario Cuomo in 1995. Prior to being elected governor, Pataki was a member of the New York State Assembly and then the State Senate.

Westchester County is home to the eighth-largest Jewish community in the United States. In addition, the county executive adds, support for his candidacy in Jewish communities on Long Island and those communities around the state are vital. He calculates that regardless of the circumstances, the race with Cuomo will be close, but with the governor dealing with some of the distractions enumerated above, he feels that his candidacy is gaining traction.

On the bread-and-butter issues that are important to everyone, Astorino says his plan is to cut taxes so as to stimulate growth in a stagnant New York economy. “People are leaving the state because of high taxes and lack of opportunities,” he says and adds that he intends to reverse that course.

From the outside, one senses that in the current political climate and with the way big or boldface names like Andrew Cuomo are recognized, officials like the governor can remain in office as long as they please. But every now and then someone comes along and demonstrates the will to fight and effectuate change, and as the campaign lingers on and we set our sights on Labor Day–the official beginning of the last leg of these campaigns–well, stranger things have happened, and you just never know.

Also looking to advance her campaign in Long Island’s Jewish communities is Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, who is running for the congressional seat vacated by the retiring Carolyn McCarthy. Rice recently returned from a whirlwind three-day trip to Israel. For DA Kathleen Rice, this was an important trip to Israel but not her first such journey. She explains that as a law student at Touro College, she participated in an exchange program with Bar Ilan University and spent several weeks in Israel as a law student.

This was a tough time for any candidate to go to Israel, and I’m sure there were those who counseled the DA to postpone the trip until there was a cease-fire and things calmed down. But that is not Ms. Rice’s way. After her trip last week, she sounds more connected to and concerned about Israel than ever before.

“I met with families from Nassau County that currently live in Israel,” Rice said, adding that she found them living good-quality, average lives and yearning for peace. She says that she spoke with political leaders in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and came away encouraged about the good days that lie ahead for Israel.

As she was there during the heart of the fighting in Gaza, she contrasted that with what she observed about Arabs and Israelis living and working together on so many levels. Rice said that outside of the terror war, it was refreshing to see how the two populations can live and work side-by-side, something that she hopes to be able to contribute to as a possible future member of Congress.

On the distorted way in which Israel is covered in the mainstream press, Rice said that the media is “always imbalanced; these are no longer the days of Walter Cronkite.” She talked a great deal about the important connection between Israel and the Five Towns in particular, as so many families have children studying and living in Israel.

Kathleen Rice will be facing off against Republican candidate Bruce Blakeman in the November election that will replace Ms. McCarthy, who has represented the 4th District here on Long Island since 1997. Mr. Blakeman is reportedly planning a trip to Israel at the end of this month and the 5TJT is looking forward to accompanying him and reporting on the event. Ï–

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