Residents of Lewisboro and Pound Ridge will be tasked with deciding a contested race for New York’s 40th District in the general election Nov. 3. Incumbent Sen. Peter Harckham, a Democrat, is defending his seat against Republican challenger Rob Astorino. Mr. Harckham, a Lewisboro resident, took office when he defeated Republican incumbent Terrence Murphy in November 2018. Among his endorsements are the New York State United Teachers union and presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Mr. Astorino, who lives in Mount Pleasant, ran unsuccessfully for governor against Andrew Cuomo in 2014. He was elected Westchester County Executive in November 2009 and served until 2017. Among his endorsements are the New York City Police Benevolent Association and the New York chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business.
The Record-Review earlier this week interviewed both candidates via conference call for a discussion on their views, policy priorities and plans if elected. Topics addressed by the candidates included the pandemic response, taxes and affordability, criminal justice reform and environmental legislation.
Below is an edited transcript of this conversation. Responses have been modified for space and clarity.
Record-Review: What makes you the best candidate for New York Senate District 40 residents?
Pete Harckham: I’m running on my record. Two years ago, the people of this district wanted change. They were tired of a Republican majority that had blocked progress and opportunity for 46 of the last 48 years, and so I was elected to bring change and change we did. Things like the Reproductive Health Act, the Child Victims Act, common sense gun safety, election reform, the toughest climate protection legislation in the country. My own personal legislation, protecting the jobs, the livelihoods and the tax revenue around Indian Point during the decommissioning, environmental legislation that we passed, protecting over 44,000 miles of streams in New York state that has been deregulated by the Trump administration, penalty forgiveness for Mahopac schools, and all of the hard work we’ve done with the individual municipalities to get them the grant money that they need. We’ve also been on the ground during COVID, getting close to 800 families the unemployment benefits that they deserve and that they earned. Having food drives in order to address food insecurity, helping small businesses with loans again on the ground during storm outages. So we have been active in all three phases — the legislative phase, working with municipalities, and working with constituents. We have been there, we’ve delivered, and I feel confident running on that record.
Rob Astorino: I think I’m uniquely qualified because of the problems that New York faces right now. Both pre-pandemic and what we’re going through health-wise as a state. I ran in 2009 for county executive in a very difficult financial time as well, with the market collapse, and voters in a very democratic county took a chance on me to fix our problems — and that’s exactly what I did. And I was rewarded by being reelected in 2013. And I worked in a very bipartisan way when I was county executive because the county board was democratic. So, we worked as adults, we had a reasonable, balanced approach to the problems that we faced and dealt with them in a realistic way and we were able to tackle them.
The biggest issue that residents face are their tax bills, and I’m constantly reminded how painful they are. So I really worked on three things as county executive: I focused like a laser on protecting taxpayers, preserving essential services and promoting economic growth. And we were successful. We never raised the tax levy, in all eight of my budgets. We also preserved essential services. We ended up spending more on social services for people truly in need than when I came in the door. And we also helped work with the private sector and created 44,000 new jobs, including Regeneron (a biotech company), keeping them in Westchester helping them expand.
Record-Review: The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated food insecurity, increased unemployment and worsened the mental health of residents. What do you feel is a state senator’s role in COVID-19 relief and response?
Rob Astorino: I think Peter Harckham has completely abdicated his responsibility in giving Gov. Cuomo carte blanche and absolute power until next April. And this is something that I can understand and would agree with, to give the governor extraordinary power during a crisis. That was the case in March, and in April, and maybe even May, but for the legislature to completely walk away from its responsibilities and allow the governor to unilaterally create laws, suspend laws, reinterpret laws, and just through the stroke of a pen, literally condemn 12,000 people to death in nursing homes and shut down businesses at will — that’s not the kind of balanced government that we need in New York. The legislature should be meeting in an oversight role in addition to helping constituents. As county executive, I’m very proud of what we did with regard to helping people. We built affordable housing not part of the settlement as well; we did it on our own. We increased child care slots. We did a lot of things for those in need. I’m on a leave of absence, but my current job is working with the Archdiocese as Cardinal Dolan's delegate to the Mother Cabrini Foundation. And so, I work with religious organizations, nonprofits to help those who are homeless and dealing with food insecurity issues, immigration services, veteran services — these are the kind of things that I’ve been working on the last several years. And there certainly is a big need in our area that has to be met.
Pete Harckham: One, is to be an advocate. We’ve been a very loud voice for federal assistance. The federal government these last several months has really abdicated its responsibility — not just to the states and local governments, although that’s critically needed — but to our small businesses and to our folks who are struggling on unemployment benefits. That $600 supplemental unemployment benefit that ended, that money was being spent in local stores and with local merchants, so that money was going back into the economy. And that’s why we’re seeing a rise in unemployment, we’re seeing more merchants and small businesses having challenges. So, we need to be an advocate. Two, we work with the governor during this process on a number of things. The New York Forward Loan Program for small business and nonprofits was based on my legislation. We worked with the governor to lift the retirement ceiling on part-time police officers and nurses coming back into the workforce, very important for police forces like Lewisboro and Pound Ridge that are part time. In terms of opening the economy, we’ve got to keep people safe. Consumers aren’t going to feel safe or consumers aren’t going to go back to malls and to shopping centers the way they used to, until they feel safe. So, first and foremost, we continue to remind people of the basics: masks and washing, and of course, social distancing. Number two, we keep taxes low. We’ve already done that, we passed a middle-class tax cut this last year, so 4.7 million taxpayers have $1.8 billion in their pocket now. We passed a property tax cap, which will keep an even keel on people’s property taxes from rising. And then finally, we’ve got to continue to invest in our municipalities to make them attractive places for people to live, work and shop. Whether that’s infrastructure, whether that’s their parks — we’ve been doing that to the tune of over $6 million in my first two years. In direct assistance, we increased education aid by a billion dollars to help keep property taxes down. We gave every library in the district over $13,000 to help with their projects. So, keeping our communities desirable places to live and our downtowns more accessible and competitive places to shop.
Record-Review: Mr. Harckham’s campaign released a press release that claims some of your actions as county executive actually worked against fair and affordable housing — specifically that you missed out on $25 million in community development block grant funds and did not pursue Department of Housing and Urban Development contracts. How would you respond to that?
Rob Astorino: Well, this is the housing settlement that he was the tie-breaking vote, if you will, and that it needed 12 votes for this settlement with HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] back in 2009. Pete Harckham was a deciding vote to give the federal government complete power over Westchester, or at least what they thought was complete power. And I was the one that was pushing back and protecting our communities and protecting our neighborhoods from a very overreaching and aggressive federal government. The question that you bring up, we were in complete compliance. In fact, we built more affordable housing under that settlement than what was required. But I was not going to sign off without any evidence whatsoever that Westchester is a discriminatory and segregated and prejudiced community. So, we didn’t get the $25 million, it went to the state to distribute, so the money still went to the communities — it just went in a different way.
Record-Review: What would be your top three priorities if reelected to office this November?
Pete Harckham: One of them has to do with the committee I chair, which is the Alcohol and Substance Abuse Council, and I also co-chair of the statewide task force on opioids. It’s the siloed funding between OASAS [Office of Addiction Services and Supports] and the Office of Mental Health. And we know through substance use disorder, the model of treatment now is to treat co-occurring disorders; essentially people are self-medicating mental or emotional distress. But yet, the funding is siloed, and it makes it very hard to treat the person holistically, oftentimes needing to see separate therapists, separate billing for insurance. So we’re going to be working very closely on possibly merging those two agencies next year into one cabinet level position, called the Office of Behavioral Health, which to me, will have more attention, more priority, and will make it easier to streamline the funding that is so troubling as we try to navigate through the pandemic.
The second thing would be dealing with the water quality protection issues. The entire district essentially is in the East of Hudson watershed and we have enormous environmental regulations placed upon us in terms of phosphorus reduction. Phosphorus causes the blue green algae, it causes eutrophication, which pollutes the water — you can’t drink it, you can’t swim in it — very expensive to clean up. And it’s much less expensive to prevent phosphorous from going into the water supply in the first place. But things like stormwater retrofits, because we’ve already ruined our wetlands, are inordinately expensive. So, I’m looking at creating a capital fund for smaller municipalities that often are given the bill, so it can be for failing septics, for sewers, for stormwater — and this would also be a statewide thing, not only for municipalities under phosphorus regulations.
The third point is we need to really begin to tackle the creation of green jobs and deal with climate change. Prior to the pandemic, the fastest growing job category was that of clean jobs, clean energy jobs — they are high paying. And it’s exactly the right direction we need to go. Both the private sector and the public sector funding have now aligned. The last two years, private sector funding has invested more in clean energy projects than carbon-based energy projects. Even now, Wall Street has recognized that a kilowatt of clean energy is less expensive. So, we did things like last year, I passed legislation to allow municipalities to create community solar as canopies over parking lots in their parks without having to come to the legislature for alienation. That could save years on the project time. I’ve also just introduced legislation this year, which we’ll get to work on in January, which mirrors the executive orders in California, on vehicles that would phaseout gas-powered vehicles by 2035 and heavy-duty vehicles by 2045. We need to take very aggressive action to meet our carbon goals in New York state. Because if you combine New York and California, you’re really beginning to create a powerful market force that will incentivize automakers to go in the direction of full electric or zero emission fleets.
Rob Astorino: First and foremost, not just reopening our state, but rebuilding it. It is an absolute fiscal mess. They’re already pushing for higher taxes, the democratic conferences, and Pete Harckham admitted the other day he would approve a temporary additional tax. There is no such thing as a temporary tax, let’s just be honest about that. And the last thing that we need here in Westchester is additional tax increases. Nobody can afford what we already have to pay. So, dealing with the fiscal mess and putting our state on the right track. Then, opening up businesses, helping them thrive. Our small businesses have been battered and beaten, and they’re ready to close up and throw in the towel. And Pete Harckham stands on the sidelines and says it’s not his responsibility. It certainly is. And the first thing you can do is take back your oversight role and your voice as a legislator from what you gave the governor. Also working on reducing taxes. We’re the highest taxed state in America and we live in the highest taxed county in America. That’s a one-two punch that few people can afford and is the reason why you see so many U-Hauls heading south. So that is a priority.
Repealing his “no cash bail” law is a priority because we have public safety at risk. More and more people are saying that they’re completely uncomfortable with what’s happening. And it’s not just in New York City. I mean, it might be emphasized on the news in New York City. But crime is creeping up all over — you ask any police officer or sheriff and they will tell you that crime is happening all over. And it is sometimes violent, it is sometimes non-violent. I unfortunately spoke to a woman in northern Westchester who was the victim of domestic violence repeatedly. Her husband was arrested and did not qualify for bail. And so, he was released, and he did it again. She not only fears for her life, but also her daughter, who thankfully is away college, has also been dealing with this issue. This is a perfect example of the upside down world that some like Peter Harckham see, where apparently, criminals are more respected than law abiding citizens.
Record-Review to Rob Astorino: New York has one of the most ambitious plans to fight climate change, with a goal to become carbon neutral by 2050. Where do you stand on environmental issues in the state?
Rob Astorino: There are right ways and wrong ways to do it. Peter Harckham just submitted legislation that would outlaw all gas vehicles in New York state in a very short period of time. That’s exactly the last thing that we should be doing. You cannot oppose nuclear energy, which has no carbon emissions, natural gas — which has helped bring our CO2 levels down throughout the United States, and we have an abundant supply and it’s a cheap source of energy for businesses and homes — and block gas pipelines and then not expect utility bills to go through the roof, which is, of course, what we have. People complain about NYSEG, and they should because I think they’ve not really done a good job in their storm response and their maintenance. But if we’re going to keep energy from flowing, and have a moratorium on natural gas, like Con Edison has, because they’re blocked by the state from bringing new sources in, then the consequences are real. And that means gas prices, utility costs go up. I was proud to have the League of Conservation Voters endorsements in my past elections because we did a lot of environmental and conservation initiatives here in Westchester that I’m very proud of.
Record-Review: The national Black Lives Matter movement has sparked discussions of racial justice and police reform across the country. Briefly explain your views on these issues.
Pete Harckham: The Black Lives Matter protests and vigils in the 40th Senate District have been entirely peaceful, and they have been organized primarily by students, high school and college-age students. And as an elected official, I have a responsibility to be there to hear the pain of my constituents. And, you know, my opponent has called them anarchists — I call them our neighbor’s kid. We are in a period where history is watching us and not everybody has had equal opportunity in this country. And it’s time that we need to recognize that, and we need to act on it. Now at the same time, we can be supportive of law and order, and we can be supportive of our local police. And we can still acknowledge that injustice exists toward our black and brown communities. They’re not mutually exclusive. So, my job as an elected official is to bridge the gap. How do we work together? And how do we have these conversations? Versus demonizing one side versus the other.
Rob Astorino: Do I think criminal justice reform is necessary, or we should have a discussion about it? Yes. In fact, one of the things that I did when I became county executive is, I opened up a dialogue with groups that had been basically ignored. And every quarter, I would meet with the United Black Clergy of Westchester and we would have frank discussions. From that, really good things came about, including changes to our community policing, outreach to get more minorities into our law enforcement. We also met with the Hispanic clergy, the LGBT community. Having an honest and frank discussion is how that happens. Screaming and yelling and accusing people of being racist and “cancel culture,” that’s not how we move the ball and get things done. So again, I think, sitting down at a table, respecting each other, and having open dialogue is how you can make some positive changes.
Record-Review to Pete Harckham: Your opponent has raised concerns about a “no cash bail” law you co-sponsored, alleging it’s responsible for a state spike in crime. What is your response to this criticism?
Pete Harckham: He’s wrong on the substance, he’s wrong on the facts. Number one, I did not sponsor the bill. The bill was in the budget. What I did was I co-sponsored the bill that fixed it, that added more crimes back in. I was the one who brought law enforcement and the DAs in to meet with the bill’s sponsors to fix it, to address certain crimes that had been left out and also deal with repeat offenders to deal with giving judges and DAs more discretion. So he’s just wrong on the mechanics. Secondly, the New York Post, which is no liberal bastion, analyzed NYPD data and came to the conclusion that there was zero correlation between bail and the spike in crime in New York City — zero. New Jersey did this, and they have three years’ worth of data, and violent crime went down 7% in New Jersey.
What he’s not talking about is the systemic injustice of the old bail system. What it was doing was criminalizing poverty. It was just not fair that two people could be accused of the same crime — accused not convicted — and simply because one person had the means to bail themselves out, they got out while the poorer person was staying in. Is the wealthier person any less of a risk to society? So, we were criminalizing poverty. And what was happening was that somebody for a relatively minor offense, who couldn’t even make a $500 bail payment, would lose their job or lose their access to education, they would then lose housing, they could lose access to their children. And this was decimating our minority communities. So, for him to want to double down on a failed system that disproportionately impacted our Black and brown communities, that’s the very definition of systemic racism. This is part of Donald Trump’s effort to try and scare suburban voters and quite frankly, it’s shameful.
Record-Review to Rob Astorino: Mr. Harckham said he was running on his record “working on the ground in a bipartisan way, with local municipalities that are run by Republicans.” He countered that while he was doing so, you “spent the last three years on Fox Television, defending Donald Trump” and his “indefensible policy.” How do you respond to this criticism?
Rob Astorino: He knows I work at CNN. I never worked at Fox. And the reason why he says Fox is because he thinks there’s a link to Trump. I worked at CNN, I was hired right after I left as county executive, and just stepped down in June of this year when I announced that I was running. But I was hired by CNN to give a different perspective, to give the Republican Party perspective, and to give comments on what the president was doing and not doing. And quite frankly, I disagreed with the president plenty of times on national TV. On some of the policy issues, many people will agree. Pete Harckham actually got caught in a lie and had to change his TV ad because he said that I was paid by Donald Trump.
Record-Review to Pete Harckham: Our reporters have been writing about the governor’s new Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative, which requires municipalities to form their own police reform committees to examine their local policing policies. How do you see the local municipal committees that are being formed and how do you see the added value that they will bring to these issues?
Pete Harckham: Policing is a public service and just like so many other public services, people have a right to have a say in what kind of police service they have in their community. And because policing is paid for locally, that’s why these conversations are so important. Now you also have to look at the specifics and the longer term. You know, this notion of defunding the police is kind of a weird term because there are structural things you look at. The number one thing that the police does is emergency service response, because we have volunteer ambulances. It takes a long time to get there, so there’s a heart attack and overdose, who’s the first on the scene, and it’s a police officer. So, if you said you didn’t want the police to do that, then you would have to, in my estimation, create an EMS service in these areas. So, it’s not as easy as people say. If people want the kinds of training that some of the activists are talking about — implicit bias training, de-escalation training, non-lethality use of force training — that costs more money, not less money. It’s a complex issue, and I think it is best decided at the local level. I don't think you want a state senator imposing on communities the type of policing they should have; they should have those discussions, and then it's my job to be helpful with the process. And if there are things that come out of that, that I can be helpful with on the state level, either through legislation or through grant funding, then that's where I step in.
Record-Review: Politics, especially at the national level, can seem inherently divisive. So I’d like you to talk about something you think your opponent has done right, or something you admire about him.
Rob Astorino: I do think Pete is genuinely a decent guy. We worked together when I was county executive, he was the majority leader, so his was a very partisan position to kind of obstruct the things I did for the Democratic Party. But all in all, he and I got along well, we still do. We just have very different philosophies and views of how to fix this state.
Pete Harckham: You know, I went to Israel with Rob many years ago. And he’s a likable guy. I like him, I like his wife. You know, they’re really likable people. The problem is I disagree with him on almost everything.