Cuomo’s GOP funder, defiantly, on Astorino

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Ken Langone greets Elaine Hughes, a Home Depot associate in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Louie Favorite, Pool)
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ALBANY—Ken Langone, the billionaire founder of Home Depot and head of a group of "Republicans for Cuomo," does not have a high opinion of Rob Astorino. 

“I’m not out there polling people about whether they’re going to help Astorino or not,” he told Capital in a phone interview Thursday. 

“I don't think much of him,” Langone added, of the Westchester county executive freshly nominated by the Republican Party to run against Governor Andrew Cuomo.

I asked him why.

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“Well about a month ago, I was interviewed by Politico,” he said, pausing to give someone in his office an order ("Print that up there!"), "and I was telling them how concerned I was by these efforts to divide Americans up by haves and have-nots, and I thought that that was not constructive and certainly not consistent with a unified nation.”

Langone was referring to an article by Ben White and Maggie Haberman in which he compared progressive talking points on income inequality to Adolph Hitler's talking points in 1930s Germany. 

“I hope it’s not working,” he said at the time. “Because if you go back to 1933, with different words, this is what Hitler was saying in Germany. You don’t survive as a society if you encourage and thrive on envy or jealousy."

He explained anew.

“I pointed to the election in Germany in 1933 that brought Hitler to power," he said. "He came to power through a totally democratic process. So I simply said that just because we’re a democracy that doesn’t mean we can’t do bad things!”

Langone was widely criticized for his remarks, and many politicians, including Astorino, called on Langone to apologize, which he did a day later.

But he doesn't think should have had to, and thinks his critics—and Astorino in particular—willfully misinterpreted his remarks.

“I was speaking about a democratic process which we have here," he said. "My connection was we never want to put ourselves in a position as a nation where we pit group against group. It had nothing to do with de Blasio or Cuomo or the president or anybody else. I only cited the election that took place in 1933. And I only said the product of that election was the election of an evil horrible human being!”

I asked him what Astorino had said that didn't reflect that. 

“Let me tell you what Mr. Astorino had to say about that,” he said, before reading verbatim Astorino’s remarks to reporters in which he called on Cuomo to repudiate Langone’s comments.

“I simply said just because we’re a democracy doesn’t mean you can’t have bad results,” Langone said. “That’s all! I stand on what I said.”

“Then Astorino said, Governor Cuomo should repudiate that statement from Ken Langone. What statement did I make? My statement was that a democratic process could have bad results. You want proof? Go back to 1933. It was horrible results! I was only saying that we are, thank God, a democracy, and when our leaders pit group against group, it’s not constructive.”

Langone went on.

“I wanted to make it clear—I said the next day I want to make it very clear, if anybody took my remarks to say I was comparing Hitler to somebody else, please accept my apologies, because that’s not what I was saying. He was a horrible evil human being. I hope he’s burning in hell for eternity for what he did. I wasn’t talking about Hitler. I was talking about an election in 1933 that had very horrible results. I hope that’s a noble statement.”

He turned back to the subject of Rob Astorino.

“In any event, we know how he feels about me. ‘I should issue an apology.’ An apology for what?”

I suggested that it wasn't just Astorino who objected to the remarks, and who took offense at the comparison. 

“However they want to interpret it, there is no way that what I said could be misinterpreted,” Langone replied. “Remember the expression ‘Whoever dares ignore history is doomed to repeat it?'”

He added, “If you have dirtiness in your mind, that's your problem, not mine."

Returning to the original topic of the interview, he said, “Anyway, the other day, guess who I got a call from?”

I asked who.

“Mr. Astorino,” Langone said.

“He wanted to know if I’d help him help him to beat Cuomo,” Langone said. “Would I raise money for him.

“I asked him, ‘Would you like me to raise money for you?'

“He said ‘Yes.’ And then I reminded him of the hypocrisy of his position. I told him I thought he was a hypocrite and I’d do nothing to help him. In fact, after that, I’d probably work harder for Cuomo."

Langone said Astorino told him during the phone conversation that “he was closing the gap with Cuomo."

I asked what that meant. 

“I don’t know what he was talking about, closing the gap," Langone said. "I assumed it was a tight race. The point is, ‘I’m a bad guy, why call me up? You said I was a bad guy!' He quoted, again, from Astorino’s response to his comments in Politico.

I asked how Astorino responded to his rebuke, and Langone said, “I think he was a little speechless.”

He asked a woman who was also on the phone, but had been silent up to that point, how she would characterize Astorino’s reaction.

The woman agreed with Langone: “I think he was speechless.”

“I think he forgot that he made the comments, which made it even more ridiculous,” she said.

Langone said he didn’t tell Cuomo that Astorino had called for money.

“What the hell do I want to tell Cuomo for?," he said. "It doesn’t mean anything to him. If I talk to Andrew it’ll be about more important things than this guy from Westchester."

“That call tells me one thing—he’s desperate for money,” Langone said.

An Astorino campaign spokesman confirmed that the candidate had reached out to Langone for help, and said Astorino is making many calls every day to potential donors like Langone.

An Astorino campaign official involved with his fund-raising efforts said the campaign had been flooded with dozens of requests to host fund-raising events for the candidate in the first 72 hours after the Republican state convention in Rye Brook last week. The campaign has also seen an uptick in online donations, mostly from donors giving smaller amounts, up to $250, the official said, and has scheduled 30 of those events, in Columbia, Washington, Warren, Monroe, Saratoga and Suffolk Counties, as well as in New York City, with each event expected to raise between $10,000 and $50,000.

Still, Langone’s position illustrates one of Astorino’s challenges in raising money as he prepares to face Cuomo. 

At the Republican state convention last week, Astorino sought to tamp down expectations about his fund-raising ability. “Money doesn't buy a win,” Astorino told reporters. “That's not a guarantee. [Cuomo]’s going to have to raise more money to try and defend his record. We're going to raise enough to get our message out, and that message is going to be hope, it's going to be turning this state around, and showing what we did in Westchester. I'm going to out-work him. I may not outspend him."

In the past four years, Cuomo has amassed a $33 million war chest for his re-election campaign, according to the most recently available campaign finance filings, thanks in part to Republicans like Langone and Paul Singer.

Astorino had, by contrast, raised roughly $1 million as of January. 

Langone is on friendly terms with the governor. He worked with Cuomo in 2012 and 2013 to lobby Washington lawmakers to pass a multibillion dollar aid package after Hurricane Sandy, and he has been a vocal supporter of Cuomo in the months since. He’s also spearheading a fundraising effort for his re-election.

Langone, a registered Republican, said he would not be voting for the top of the Republican ticket in this fall’s gubernatorial election, in case that was in doubt. 

“I think it’s been stated publicly that I’m heading up ‘Republicans for Cuomo.’” he told me.  “Could you imagine me raising money for a guy that I’m not voting for?” 

Langone said he was supporting Cuomo “because in this city I’m a one trick pony. It’s all about education. That’s all I care about."

“Andrew Cuomo in my opinion has demonstrated significant support certainly for charter schools, and that's my reason,” he said.

I pointed out that Astorino also supports charter schools.

Langone replied: “He’s not the governor.”

I asked whether, in addition to lining up support for Cuomo among fellow Republican donors, Langone might consider physically campaigning for him. 

He suggested that might not be a good idea.

“I’m not good on the campaign trail," he said. "Can you imagine somebody as blunt as me on the campaign trail?”

I told him I could.

“Well, I can’t," he said. "And it's what I think that matters."