Current GOP Westchester County Executive Rob Asterino, who is contemplating running against Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, could learn a lot from the late former Republican Westchester County Executive Andrew O’Rourke.
In 1986, when no one else would step forward, he took up the challenge as the Republican/Conservative Party candidate to run against then-Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo. With overwhelming voter registration numbers, favorable polling numbers and a huge campaign budget with many more millions than O’Rouke, Cuomo was the odds on favorite to easily win a second term. O’Rourke had no money to run a media campaign. His only hope was to engage Cuomo in a series of debates around the state. Even with all of his advantages, Cuomo would not debate O’Rouke.
Too many incumbent elected officials at all levels of government, including Cuomo, followed the infamous Rose Garden strategy of ignoring their respective challengers, by refusing to participate in any public debates until the last minute. Cuomo ended up agreeing to only one knowing full well that their election is already preordained.
As an incumbent elected official, Cuomo started out with many advantages not available to challengers such as O’Rourke. During Cuomo’s first term of public office, incumbents have daily television, radio and newspaper exposure, press conferences, newsletters, guest columns in newspapers, letters to the editor and speaking engagements on a regular basis. Don’t forget the perks of public office, including announcements of member items (many of which taxpayers consider local pork-barrel projects), which are used to raise name recognition and assist in greasing the wheels of re-election.
Up until the 80s, both Democratic and Republican primary candidates participated in numerous television and newspaper editorial board debates. Voters could look beyond the 30- or 60-second TV commercial sound bites to learn about real views and issues among the candidates.
Those candidates who refused to participate in these debates would be subject to critical newspaper editorials. They ended up losing any chance of newspaper endorsements and usually went down to defeat in either the primary or general election.
In the 1980s, a new Rose Garden strategy emerged embraced by Cuomo. Incumbents or officially designated incumbent candidates of both parties refused to debate lesser-known, under-funded opponents in either the primary or general election. They had no interest in providing a free forum for challengers to get their message directly out to voters. Too many newspapers and good government groups failed to speak up and shame these incumbents into participating in open forums and debates. Daily and local community newspapers were the only opportunity for underdog candidates to communicate their views to voters.
Things were so bad for O’Rourke that he took to taking a giant cardboard cutout of Governor Cuomo around New York. It was the only way to debate Cuomo. Never let it be said that O’Rourke did not have a sense of humor.
Would Asterino suffer the same fate as O’Rourke if he runs against son Andrew Cuomo who has already raised $36 million for another term? The apple (Andrew) doesn’t fall far from the tree (Mario).