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New York Governor's Race Highlights an Old Feud

07/07/2014 | 10:26pm US/Eastern
By Erica Orden 

Rob Astorino is running for governor of New York in hopes of defeating a powerful player in state politics, a figure the Republican challenger mentions in many public appearances and has accused of a litany of personal and professional offenses.

His name isn't Andrew Cuomo. It's Larry Schwartz.

Mr. Schwartz is the governor's top aide in Albany and a forceful presence in the halls of the Capitol who often plays the lead role in negotiations over the state budget or on other major pieces of legislation.

But his work in state government isn't the primary source of Mr. Astorino's ire.

The little-known but potent bad blood between Mr. Astorino, the Westchester County executive, and Mr. Schwartz stretches back nearly a decade. At the time, Mr. Schwartz served as chief adviser to then-Westchester County Executive Andy Spano and helped Mr. Spano win re-election in 2005 by defeating Mr. Astorino in his first bid for the office.

The race was less than cordial.

"Rob Astorino should be considered public enemy No. 1 by the people of Westchester" based on his record on tax issues, Mr. Schwartz said a month before the election, according to the Journal News, after Mr. Astorino had accused the Spano administration of "unprecedented negligence."

And when an email exchange surfaced that suggested Mr. Astorino had received talking points from an executive at an energy company, Entergy Corp., Mr. Schwartz pounced.

"Geppetto had Pinocchio, and Entergy has Rob Astorino," he said, according to the paper. "I have never seen an elected official being so far over the line of being in bed with a special interest." Entergy declined to comment.

Mr. Astorino, in turn, filed formal complaints with the county Board of Ethics and Westchester's Fair Campaign Practices Committee. He argued that Mr. Schwartz and another Spano aide were breaching the public officers law by engaging in campaign activity while they were government employees. The committee ruled the actions didn't violate the local ethics code.

"There was no love lost" between the men, recalled Richard Brodsky, who at the time served as a Democratic state assemblyman representing parts of Westchester. "It was a particularly personal set of actions and interactions."

By the time Mr. Astorino ran again for county executive's job--in 2009, beating Mr. Spano--Mr. Schwartz had left Westchester to work for then-Gov. David A. Paterson.

Still, five years later, the acrimony lingers, according to people familiar with their relationship.

And over the first few months of Mr. Astorino's gubernatorial bid, he has publicly lashed Mr. Schwartz for everything from a kerfuffle over assigned seating at a press event to his involvement in a flap over building permits at Mr. Cuomo's home.

Just last week, Mr. Astorino released a Web video that featured a campaign operative expressing mock-terror as he realizes the Cuomo administration has discovered a prank he just pulled: "The witness protection program," he exclaims breathlessly as the camera fades to black. "Larry Schwartz is onto us!"

"Sometimes the best way to deal with a bully is to tease him," said Mr. Astorino's spokeswoman, Jessica Proud, "and anyone who has crossed paths with Larry Schwartz is cheering for us."

For his part, Mr. Schwartz generally operates behind the scenes these days, not offering much of a public opinion on Mr. Astorino or on any other matter.

When asked about his prominence in the county executive's gubernatorial campaign, however, Mr. Schwartz's retort hinted at the enduring hostility.

"I know the real Rob Astorino," Mr. Schwartz said, "and for some reason, that appears to drive him crazy."

In May, at an event with President Barack Obama and Mr. Cuomo at the Tappan Zee Bridge, Mr. Astorino had a seat in the back row; the county executive's aides claimed that Mr. Schwartz, who was present, had intervened to force Mr. Astorino to sit where he did. A spokesman for Mr. Cuomo, Matt Wing, said at the time that Mr. Schwartz "did not speak to the White House at all about this event, and certainly not about seating."

Around the same time, Mr. Astorino questioned why Mr. Schwartz had been involved in helping Mr. Cuomo's girlfriend, Sandra Lee, deal with building inspectors who said she hadn't obtained the proper permits for renovations at the home she shares with the governor. Mr. Cuomo's office said Mr. Schwartz's role was a result of security concerns.

On May 13, the day Mr. Astorino was poised to name his running mate, his campaign strategist, Bill O'Reilly, tweeted: "Hint: It's not Larry Schwartz."

The Astorino campaign does, however, appear to have a sense of humor about the friction. In a video created by Mr. Astorino's team and played last month at an annual dinner attended by Albany reporters and elected officials, Mr. Schwartz was portrayed as a tow-haired, adolescent boy. In a live song-and-dance performance at the dinner, Mr. Astorino referred to him as "scary Larry" in lyrics set to the tune of "Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard."

"Andy looked down and spit on the ground at the thought of losing the election," Mr. Astorino sang. "Larry said, 'Oy, we can get that boy, we'll have Obama crash his convention.' "

Write to Erica Orden at erica.orden@wsj.com

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