Can a Republican, pro-life Catholic get elected to the top office in a majority Democratic area in New York?
For Rob Astorino, who defeated the pro-abortion incumbent for the Westchester County chief executive seat, the answer is a resounding “yes.”
Astorino, 42, gave up his job as program director for The Catholic Channel on Sirius XM satellite radio to take the reins of Westchester County on Jan. 3. He lives in Hawthorne, N.Y., with his wife, Sheila, and their three children. He spoke with Register correspondent Stephen Vincent.
You defeated the incumbent with 57% of the vote. How did you get involved in politics?
I’ve always thought it was an obligation for people to be involved in public service. It’s something from my Catholic upbringing. When I was 21, I was elected to the Mount Pleasant School District Board of Education [in Westchester], and then served on the town board for 12 years, and a term on the Westchester County Legislature. Four years ago, I ran for county executive and lost. So when I was considering running again this year against the same incumbent [Democrat Andrew Spano], I was uncertain for various reasons.
When I was wavering, I met with Archbishop [Charles] Chaput of Denver, whom I knew pretty well through my job at The Catholic Channel. I had lunch with him in April [the day after Archbishop Timothy Dolan was installed in New York] and told him my thoughts, and he put me over the edge. He was an inspiration to me, saying that Catholics should be involved in public life. There were others who encouraged me, as well, but that was a key moment.
How did the pro-life issue play out in this election?
People know I am pro-life, and the life issues were discussed in debates. I’ve made no bones about who I am and what I stand for. I was proud to work for The Catholic Channel for many years. So, while I didn’t shy away from the life issues and being pro-life in this past election, it was not really an issue I ran on, though I had strong support from the pro-life community.
I should mention that when I ran four years ago, I was told at the beginning of the campaign by a Republican staffer that I couldn’t say I was pro-life. “You have to be pro-choice in a Democratic county,” he said. I put my foot down. I was not going to compromise my principles to get elected.
What were the main issues this time around?
Taxes and jobs. Westchester County has the highest taxes of any county in America. That to me is a matter of social justice. It is increasingly difficult for people here to have any type of quality of life. Families suffer if the parents are working all day into the night just to earn enough to continue living here and kids don’t get to see their parents. It tears families apart, and there’s nothing good about that. My wife, Sheila, and I were living through the same problems as everybody else. There needs to be a change in the way government is run in Westchester, otherwise we will lose more people, and the tax base will go down.
In New York state, the counties and towns are very dependent on the state in terms of budget and services, and the state government determines what they do. We’ve got to start scaling back because the taxpayer is paying three or four times for the same things, between his local and state taxes. It’s a matter of getting rid of the waste.
How were your years at The Catholic Channel?
I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of being a part of The Catholic Channel. The people were terrific. What we did was groundbreaking, beginning under Cardinal [Edward] Egan. We put on good, solid Catholic programming with a popular radio format. If someone switches stations and comes upon us, the first thing they hear is interesting discussion and lively back-and-forth, and only after a few moments would it become clear that it was all from a Catholic perspective. That’s the way we planned it, and I think it’s the kind of format that’s a winner.
I also have to thank Cardinal Egan and Archbishop Dolan for allowing me to run for public office. I took a leave of absence from my job in September and October to campaign full-time. I needed their permission, and they granted it. They, too, thought it was important for Catholics to be in politics.
What advice would you give other faithful Catholics who are thinking about politics?
You don’t have to compromise your principles to win. But you also have to highlight the issues that are important to everyone. I should point out that I would not have won without the support of Democrats, and I intend to serve in office as the representative of all people in Westchester. Hopefully, my election will tell other people that they shouldn’t be afraid to step into the arena.
Stephen Vincent writes from Wallingford, Connecticut.