Election Day is just a month away. In the New York State Senate race, Assemblyman George Latimer (D) and Bob Cohen (R) are in a competitive bid for the seat long held by Suzi Oppenheimer, who is retiring.
By Jon Craig and Robin Jovanovich
Election Day is just a month away. In the New York State Senate race, Assemblyman George Latimer (D) and Bob Cohen (R) are in a competitive bid for the seat long held by Suzi Oppenheimer, who is retiring. The Rye Record sat down with the candidates to discuss the challenges ahead for the 37th District, which includes 300,000 people living in Rye, Harrison, Mamaroneck, Port Chester, Scarsdale, Bedford, and parts of Yonkers and White Plains.
While the opponents don’t agree on the particulars of tax reform, they both have high praise for the progress Gov. Andrew Cuomo has made in cutting the state budget.
Latimer didn’t vote for the property tax cap, but, like Cohen, he is in favor of capping pension costs and shifting the County’s Medicaid burden to the State.
“Forty-nine other states already have,” he said in an interview in his campaign headquarters in Harrison. “The $210 million the County had to pay the State last year is equal to 40% of total property tax receipts.”
Cohen said, “When you look nationally, we’re seeing middle ground pension reform, — even in ‘blue’ cities. More and more realize that it’s not better to raise taxes and drive people out.”
What Cohen would like to see is more decisions made locally. “The closer the voter is to the decision, the better the decision. One size doesn’t fit all; Albany doesn’t know what’s best for every community.”
Latimer, who is serving his fourth term in the State Assembly, said, “A legislator is an advocate. The next Senator has to know how to organize the suburban voice. The names of both Republicans and Democrats are on bills.” He added with a smile, “I can work with Republicans.”
One bill that Latimer is the lone sponsor of is A85-05, which caps pension costs for local governments. What’s not in the bill is how the State will pay for it.
As long as the property tax cap is in place — “some group will always be opposed to it” — the next step is mandate relief, Cohen continued. “When I’m in the State Senate, I will make sure the State is paying for the mandated programs. Without State aid, these programs are unaffordable.”
Cohen is in favor of reforming the Triborough Amendment, the 30-year-old amendment to the Taylor Law, which prohibits a public employer from altering provisions of an expired labor agreement until a new one is signed. He also believes Gov. Cuomo’s proposed Tier 6 pension reform plan is the first step towards mandate relief.
Latimer said that repealing the Triborough Amendment is not the solution, noting that there are about ten issues to fix related to union contracts.
“I’m not a believer in ‘bullet point’ governance,” said Latimer. “We need to restructure benefit plans and come up with a combination that will cost us less. And the stick is a late state budget. . . . You’ve got to have labor at the table. The Governor did that with Con Ed.”
While both candidates say they would vote to repeal the MTA tax, Latimer voted for it the first time.
No one represented the county and local governments when former Governor David Paterson had to close a $2.5 billion budget gap, explained Latimer. “We had a gun to our head” when legislators approved the MTA payroll tax, he said.
“To say I had a gun to my head,’ I don’t buy that,’’ Cohen said. “A legislator has to stand up.”
Cohen said he opposes the MTA payroll tax because “it’s job killing. There are other ways to fund the MTA, such as increasing tolls on East River bridges and conducting a forensic audit on the massive state agency’s spending.”
As far as MTA funding, Latimer suggested legislators “go back to the drawing board.”
Nothing is based on geography or the size of a business, Latimer said. Rates could be changed so that Manhattan-based businesses and employers whose workers use trains and subways pay higher MTA tax rates.
Latimer favors an eight-year phase out of the County paying Medicaid, noting that that could reduce property taxes by 40 percent.
In addition to shifting the Medicaid costs from counties back to the state, Cohen said he wants to rein in Medicaid spending in general, including funding “extras” not offered by most other states.
Latimer conceded “progress is slow in New York state.’’ But there have been two consecutive on-time budgets that have been “properly balanced’’ and which included “real-world cuts in spending. I give all the credit in the world to Cuomo. In the last two years you’ve seen the first signs of progress. The corner has been turned.’’
Cohen expressed concern about the loss of population to southern and western states because of the cost of living in New York and rising taxes. “We’re losing a generation of our students,’’ he said.
More needs to be done for new businesses, startup ventures, and manufacturing, he emphasized.
Latimer agreed that the level of cost is more onerous here than Connecticut and that New York had to do a better job of being competitive with its neighboring state.
Cohen also said he favors more aid to education to Westchester. “We send the most money to Albany. We get the least back.”
In essence, Latimer’s plan is to cap pension costs, repeal the MTA tax, reduce unfunded mandates, and shift Medicaid to the State.
“Are we going to cut taxes?” Latimer said. “Yes, comprehensively, but I might cut a different deal on tenure. You can’t get hung up on one labor component.”
“My argument is that I listen,” said Latimer, pointing to the hundreds of District hours he’s been available for over the years, “and can build coalition over substantive issues.”
“I’m going to bring my own style,’’ said Cohen. “I worked my way through high school, college and grad school, started my business and grew it…. I want my children to be able to live here.”
Cohen said that if elected, Day 1 he would be working on relief for taxpayers, more school aid for Westchester, and job growth. “Showing up for public events isn’t what the job entails. My campaign is about issues.”
Latimer said Cohen has distorted his record when it comes to spending and taxes. “I just voted for two budgets that lowered spending.” He added, “Five weeks out, I’ve avoided partisan inflammatory.”
Cohen dodged Latimer’s complaints about negative campaign mailings, saying some of them are financed by third parties. “The numbers speak for themselves,” Cohen said. “County property taxes increased by 46 percent from 1993 to 2005 and County spending by 63 percent during the years Latimer served on the County Board of Legislators.”
Both candidates have knocked on thousands of doors and in the debates ahead will give voters more insight into their agendas and who will do the best job.
Candidate Bios in Brief
Bob Cohen, a 58-year-old Republican, narrowly lost a 2010 challenge for the 37th Senate District seat to incumbent Suzi Oppenheimer.
Cohen was born and raised on Long Island. After graduating from Syracuse University and Emory Law School in Atlanta, he moved back to New York to pursue his career and start a family. He owns and operates a real estate and construction company in Manhattan.
Cohen and his wife, Barbara, moved to Westchester County in 1989. He was a member of the Scarsdale Volunteer Fire Department for 17 years, serving as a Lieutenant for six years. He is a member of the non-partisan Town and Village Civic Club Education Forum, serves on the Judicial Advisory Committee.
The Cohens have been members of the Beth El Synagogue in New Rochelle for the past 20 years. They have three children, whose sports teams Bob coached.
George Latimer, a 58-year-old Democrat, is serving in his fourth two-year term as a state Assemblyman. He represents the communities of Larchmont, Mamaroneck, Rye, Port Chester, Rye Brook, and part of New Rochelle.
The third-generation Westchester native was born and raised in Mount Vernon, where he attended public schools. He received a Bachelor’s degree from Fordham University and a Master’s degree in Public Administration from New York University. He has lived in Rye since 1982.
As a marketing executive for over 20 years, he worked with such major corporations as Nestle, AT&T, ITT, and IBM, and the former Shearson Lehman.
Latimer began his political career when he was elected to the Rye City Council. He served a four-year term before serving on the County Board of Legislators for 13 years, four as Chairman. He and his wife, Robin, have a grown daughter.