Borrowing from the playbook of New York’s last Republican governor, Rob Astorino met with leading ministers from Buffalo’s black community Wednesday as he tries to duplicate his noteworthy success in attracting minority votes as the Westchester County executive.
Astorino, the GOP candidate for governor, recorded an “ethnic” day in Erie and Wyoming counties as he sampled Polish pastries at the Chrusicki Bakery in Lancaster, downed kielbasa at the Polish Villa in Cheektowaga, and later met with black leaders at Mount Olive Baptist Church on the city’s East Side.
He also found himself addressing criticism of the Republican-controlled State Senate by his top communications aide, repudiating the exact terminology of William F.B. O’Reilly, who referred earlier in the week in a tweet to Senate Republican Leader Dean G. Skelos as the “prison punk” of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. But he implicitly endorsed O’Reilly’s barbs aimed at Skelos and leadership in Albany.
“Inside the granite walls of the Capitol, sometimes they forget we have people who are struggling all over,” he said. “I don’t agree with the analogy, but most New Yorkers feel our state is going in the wrong direction.”
But his main thrust was to introduce himself to the region’s minority community. And he arrived armed with impressive credentials: 25 percent of Westchester’s African-American vote and a majority of its Hispanic vote when he last ran for election in 2013. Astorino knows it remains a tough assignment for him to replicate such results statewide, but says he brings the numbers to at least make his case.
“I’m not writing it off; I’m making a concerted effort to earn it,” he said during his stop in Lancaster, “because we’ve done it.”
Astorino said he was always advised to forget the minority vote during his past campaigns in Westchester, but instead found voters open to his message.
“I think with the so-called minority communities, they’ve been hearing one side for so long that they don’t even know a second side exists,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important for Republicans and certainly for my candidacy to be in every neighborhood, to hear every dialect, to hear every accent.”
He also said his message of managing state government in a way as to make taxes more affordable resonates with all ethnicities.
“I tell Republican audiences, especially, not to leave any vote on the table,” he added.
Astorino’s effort is not unprecedented. During former Gov. George E. Pataki’s last campaign in 2002, the Republican picked up the support of 10 prominent African-American ministers just prior to Election Day, prompting critics to complain the endorsements were “for sale” in return for state funding of church programs.
In the end, Pataki lost the city’s black vote 10 to 1 in the 2002 election against Comptroller H. Carl McCall – the first African-American candidate for governor – despite the backing of the influential clergy. Astorino said he believes he can do better this time because of his track record.
“The message will resonate, but you’ve got to put the time and the effort in,” he said. “On a macro level for the party, it may not pay off for this election or the next election, but eventually it will.”
That was the idea advanced by Warren K. Galloway, a prominent black Republican who took part in Wednesday’s meeting. He said he remains unsure if Cuomo’s popularity has reached the black community.
“He’s done things to affect the region but not a lot has filtered down into the community,” he said. “All the things about the Medical Campus sound good, but if kids don’t graduate from high school, how do they get jobs at the Medical Campus?”
Galloway said the Wednesday meeting would begin to gauge Astorino’s views on such topics.
Meanwhile, the county executive distanced himself from O’Reilly’s exact comments, which followed Skelos’ remarks earlier in the week in a press release praising the upgrade of the state’s credit rating.
Wednesday, Astorino said his aide had gone too far. “I don’t think Bill’s comments were appropriate and I told him so,” he said, quickly adding the state has to change its way of doing business or the population exodus from Western New York will continue.
He also did not back off from the gist of O’Reilly’s comments, which were later amplified minus any “prison punk” references in a column for Newsday.
“Nobody in Albany should be celebrating,” Astorino said of the O’Reilly criticism.
Skelos has been the frequent target of 2010 gubernatorial candidate Carl P. Paladino, who was initially lukewarm in his support of Astorino because of the county executive’s failure to call for the ouster of Skelos and Assembly Minority Leader Brian M. Kolb. But Paladino changed his tune at last month’s Republican State Convention, promising full support for Astorino and slating a fund raiser for him in Buffalo that was later canceled.
Wednesday, Paladino called Astorino’s comments a “watershed” moment.
“I think this is the beginning of the cleansing of the Republican Party,” he said. “(Astorino) could not do anything better in getting his name out there in the state than taking on these entrenched Albany parasites. I fully support him.”
In other campaign news, Fordham Law School Professor Zephyr Teachout also visited Buffalo on Wednesday as she launches her Democratic primary candidacy against Cuomo. She was in town to make contacts in an effort spawned by her unsuccessful attempt to win the Working Families nomination for governor last month.