Westchester WAG. 12/16
Robert Astorino craves normalcy. The Westchester County executive did not say so explicitly in an recent interview, but the conversation kept coming back to the idea of balancing the harshness of politics and governing with the simple pleasures of home and family.
His office in White Plains offers clues to his priorities. Elected officials typically display political party memorabilia and photographs of themselves with high-ranking politicians and dignitaries. Every wall in Astorino’s office is covered with family photos and artwork from his son and two daughters. Here and there are Miami Dolphins mementos, a Crucifix, a Westchester-Putnam Right to Life award that reproduces in statuary the Guido Reni painting of St. Michael and a small bookshelf with titles such as “Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms” and “Graveside Politics.”
His office is a gallery first and foremost to family and then to sports, religion and politics.
“I wish I could be home every night at 6 o’clock,” he said. “It’s impossible. But I clearly try to get balance, where I’m home enough times during the week to read a story to my little one or to help with homework or just to be home.”
Astorino traces his career ambitions back to Westlake High School in Thornwood. He said he was active in sports, but a case of mononucleosis sidelined him for six weeks. Two opportunities shaped his life. Both drew him to the spotlight.
A neighbor asked if he wanted to announce high school football games on public access TV. Classmates asked him to run for class president.
“I won, and I started doing the TV, and those were quickly my passions.”
He said his parents, Robert, a police officer and Theresa, a nurse, had no idea where his aptitude for media and politics came from. But he said they encouraged him.
They called him Alex P. Keaton, the young Republican portrayed by Michael J. Fox on the 1980s sitcom “Family Ties.”
Some days Astorino wore a suit to school, and, as he remembers it, classmates were delighted because they knew that meant there would be an assembly that would get them out of class.
He began to get an inkling that he could play a leadership role.
“What I liked was I was able to do things,” he said. “I was actually able to take an idea, work with people and get something done.”
He went on to study broadcasting at Fordham University. He was asked during his senior year to run for the Mount Pleasant school board, and he won.
He continued juggling his dual interests.
He worked for WFAS radio in White Plains. He helped launch ESPN Radio in New York – producing “The Michael Kay Show” and securing broadcasting rights for the Knicks and the Rangers. He became program director of the Catholic Channel on Sirius Satellite Radio and hosted a weekly program with Cardinal Edward Egan. (He also anchored MSG Network’s “Talk of Our Town.”)
Astorino weaved in politics, winning a seat on the Westchester County Board of Legislators, running unsuccessfully for county executive and coming back four years later to win. He was reelected in 2013 but turned his attention to running for governor against incumbent Andrew Cuomo. He lost, 54 to 40 percent.
In the early days, when he first discussed his ambitions with his wife, Sheila, he wasn’t sure which path he would take, media or politics.
“Whatever you want to do, I’ll back you 100 percent,” he recalls her saying. “Just don’t make me speak publicly.”
Political life does not mesh easily with home life.
Running for county executive can cost from $2 million to $5 million. The fundraising is never-ending.
Campaigning is exhausting. When he was in the thick of his 2009 contest for county executive, his youngest daughter, now 7, was born 30 days before the election.
Adversaries make harsh allegations, and children hear what’s being said.
Cuomo ran TV ads that said Astorino was being sued for racketeering and election fraud, on the basis of a lawsuit by a political foe. A judge eventually dismissed the case, but the allegations did their damage.
“Look, campaigns are not fun when your opponent and others are literally lying about you,” he said. “Now, I’m used to it. I know how to deal with it. For my wife, it’s a lot harder, and we try to shield the kids.”
His children are accustomed to seeing him on TV. But when campaigns turn nasty, “all of a sudden they’re seeing this monster being portrayed on television, and like, ‘Who is that guy they’re talking about?’ So we’d sit them down at the beginning of campaigns and just tell them what to expect.”
Another TV ad, showing a photo of Astorino at a Miami Dolphins game, was aired in western New York when the Buffalo Bills were playing the Dolphins.
“This is the absurdity of politics,” he said. “I swear, I dealt with it for three days. Dolphins-gate. Three days. Are you effing kidding me?”
He laughs now, but political ambition takes a toll.
He does not want to be consumed by politics. He wants to be grounded, to come home and take out the garbage and load the dishwasher and take the kids to their events.
From October to February, he blocks off his calendar for Friday nights and Saturday mornings to coach the children’s basketball teams.
“I’m getting in shorts and getting a whistle and going to Holy Rosary gym to coach. And I love it.”
When he campaigned for governor he worked in trips with the kids to Niagara Falls, the Finger Lakes and the state fair in Syracuse.
Had he won, he said, the family would not have moved into the governor’s mansion in Albany. His house in Hawthorne is “as normal as should be.” He loves his neighborhood and he doesn’t want to uproot his children.
“This is where their friends are. This is their community. This is their school. Our church is right down the road.”
Astorino is 49. His term as county executive ends next year and term limits allow him to run one more time.
He still feels the tug of both paths – politics and communications.
Politics has a big downside, he said, and it has become worse than ever. It’s so personal now and so negative.
“There’s a part that says, ‘Just get out of this nonsense. Who needs this junk?’”
But he enjoys the challenges. He likes running a large government that is well-known nationally, because it is home to many titans of media, law, banking and entertainment.
“You know, this is not something I’m going to do forever. At some point, I’ll definitely go back to my career in broadcasting, or something else,” he said.
“I’m not there yet. As long as I can find a balance, I’m OK.”