In debate with Astorino, Cuomo shifts to attack

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Astorino and Cuomo. (AP Photo/Gary Wiepert)
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BUFFALO—On Wednesday night, Governor Andrew Cuomo used the only debate of this year's election cycle to attack his Republican opponent's positions and qualifications, criticizing Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino for his opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage and the Dream Act, which would give undocumented immigrants access to college tuition assistance programs.

In the four-way debate, the two major-party candidates repeatedly returned to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development's push to increase racial diversity on Astorino's home turf in Westchester, and HUD's statements that Astorino is not complying with a 2009 settlement requiring the construction of affordable housing and changes to local zoning codes.

Astorino performed as expected, needling Cuomo over his administration's interactions with the now-defunct Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption and claiming, as a taut-faced Cuomo scrawled on a legal pad, that the governor might be indicted by federal prosecutors. Cuomo, whose administration's handling of the commission is being investigated by the U.S. attorney, called the claim “outrageous.”

At one point, Cuomo held off on answering a question about whether the hometown Buffalo Bills should receive state support for a new stadium and instead went after Astorino for being singled out by HUD.

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There were substantive clashes over tax policy, the Common Core education plan and natural gas hydrofracking. But more than anything, the hour-long debate hosted by WNED-TV was a sharp tactical departure for Cuomo, who until now has avoided saying his opponent's name and left it to various Democratic allies to attack his opponent directly.

Cuomo said after the event that he chose to engage Astorino because he wanted to highlight the “contrast” in the race.

“These are very important issues and issues that I'm passionate about,” the governor told reporters. “Being against a woman's right to choose is a very serious issue. Being against marriage equality is a very serious issue. Being against the Dream Act for immigrants is a very serious issue, and these are stark night-and-day differences.”

Astorino was more tart in his assessment.

“We saw the very angry Andrew,” he said.

Cuomo entered the Wednesday night forum 21 points ahead of Astorino and with a vast fund-raising advantage. (Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins is polling at 9 percent which, as he noted from the stage, is a record.) As a result, even Cuomo's allies expected him to simply stick to his basic message of forward progress and government functionality, essentially ignoring Astorino's bait.

“He has created function where before there was dysfunction,” Assembly Majority leader Joe Morelle, a 24-year veteran of the Legislature, said before the debate began. “The governor has a clear case for four more years. Astorino hasn't done an effective job framing a narrative of why he should be governor.”

Bob Bellafiore, a former aide to Republican governor George Pataki, said he expected Cuomo to simply “show up.”

“What the governor had to do is get to 9 p.m.,” he said. “Rob Astorino doesn't even get a minute for every point he's behind. … It's very difficult, in one televised debate [for Cuomo] to make so many bad mistakes and a challenger to exploit each one of them in such magnificent ways that he can make up that ground.”

Still, the debate had some interesting moments.

Cuomo actually made news when he said a seemingly interminable state review of the health impacts of natural gas hydrofracking would be completed by the end of the year. The governor has long said science, not politics, should govern state policy on fracking.

Astorino said the state should move forward with the process while Hawkins said hydrofracking should be banned. People on both the left and right criticized Cuomo for stalling and manipulating the science. Hawkins specifically faulted Cuomo's administration for editing a federal study that would set the baseline for fracking's effects.

Polls show the electorate is split fairly evenly on the issue, and Cuomo jabbed Astorino for at one point signing a law to ban fracking fluid on Westchester County streets.

“I'm not a scientist. Let the scientists decide,” Cuomo said. “When he's upstate he's Sarah Palin: drill baby drill. When he goes back home, he's Mark Ruffalo.”

Astorino has spent the past several months sharpening his Moreland Commission criticisms and delivered them as though he's been practicing them in front of a mirror. Cuomo, leaning on public statements from former Moreland co-chair Bill Fitzpatrick, insisted his aides' input was proper and that the commission was properly disbanded in exchange for legislation that strengthened campaign finance disclosure and enforcement.

“Yes, people gave him advice, he had public hearings, my staff talked to him,” Cuomo said. “But he repeatedly said he made all decisions independently.”

“There was no abrupt stopping. I wanted the commission to get a law passed,” Cuomo said. “They passed the law. The law has an independent enforcement agent, new bribery language.”

Astorino said Cuomo was lying.

“There's only one person here who has a criminal defense team. It's not me, it's Andrew Cuomo,” Astorino said, turning to the governor. “Once again, would you like to tell the people of New York whether you've been subpoenaed, or if your staff has been subpoenaed?”

The governor demurred on stage and speaking to reporters later would say only that he was cooperating fully with federal prosecutors who are reviewing the matter.

Cuomo said Astorino was “disrespecting” racial minorities on the HUD issue; Astorino accused Cuomo of playing the “race card.” Astorino has cast the issue in terms of federal encroachment on homeowners' rights in the suburbs, and warned that “they're coming into your community next.”

Cuomo replied: "The Civil War was fought. The federal government has authority over the states."

Hawkins did not make many waves, but calmly reiterated the points of his platform. Libertarian candidate Michael McDermott projected an everyman sensibility, casting himself as distinct from the major party candidates.

Both Hawkins and McDermott said they supported legalizing marijuana for recreational use. Cuomo and Astorino said no. McDermott repeatedly referred to his 9-year-old daughter when answering questions about the Common Core.

It was his first broad exposure to the electorate, and will likely be his last. He closed with a simple pitch:

“Just vote Libertarian. One time. What have you got to lose?”