In one of the races that will determine whether or not the GOP retakes control of the New York State Senate this November, Scarsdale resident Bob Cohen, 55, has been chosen by the GOP to challenge 25-year Democratic veteran State Senator Suzi Oppenheimer to represent the 37th district. On Monday May 3rd, the Westchester County Republican Committee nominated Mr. Cohen, a political newcomer. A primary for the GOP nomination appears unlikely.
When asked about his rationale for running, Mr. Cohen told me: “It’s time for new direction in Albany. For too long there’s been no focus on what’s important throughout the state – the most important issue being taxes. The tax burden on individuals and business throughout the county and state is excessive. This burden is playing out with companies such as Starwood Hotel leaving White Plains and taking 500 jobs out of Westchester and New York. Precision Valve in Yonkers is moving and taking jobs out of the state. And now Pepsico, headquartered in Purchase, is suggesting that they may leave the state due to the soda tax threat. What we have in Albany is an insatiable institutional appetite for revenue that’s driving out so many of our individuals, families and businesses from New York State.”
Mr. Cohen acknowledges that one of the primary drivers of the local tax burden is the myriad of unfunded mandates that get pushed down to the county, local, and school jurisdictions. “Unfunded mandates have a huge adverse impact on local communities. If Albany mandates something, they should send a check to cover the cost along with the mandate.”
When asked if he supports funding for public schools, Mr. Cohen referred to his own experience in Scarsdale. “I have three children who went through the public schools. We have excellent schools, and they are critical to the success of our communities. To that end we need to fund our schools adequately. But we can do things more wisely — for example the Wicks law needs to be abolished. As I understand it, the Wick’s law requirement of mandating multiple prime contractors on public construction projects – including schools — increases the cost of construction by upwards of 30%. In addition districts need to provide an additional level of bureaucracy to oversee multiple prime contractors. Construction projects in the private sector are not hamstrung by this burden — so private sector projects are completed quicker and more cost effectively. The Wick’s Law is just not necessary and it hurts every project affected by it. So when people talk about waste, fraud and corruption — here’s something that we can do to change something and literally overnight. Get rid of the Wicks Law and we can save money for our state and communities immediately.”
Regarding education funding, I asked Mr. Cohen what his position was on the State Senate Republican leadership proposal to cap school taxes at the lesser of the CPI rate or 2.5% over the prior year’s budget (modeled on Massachusetts Prop 2 ½ passed in 1982). Mr. Cohen responded, “I’m supporting it. If you look to Massachusetts, 20 years ago — Massachusetts was called ‘Taxachusetts’ and New York and Massachusetts were trading as either #1 or # 2 as having the highest tax burden in the country. Massachusetts passed that tax cap, and their schools have not declined. Their students still do as well as ours. But New York State is still #1 in the tax burden ranking and Massachusetts is somewhere in the middle ranking for hierarchy as to who’s paying the highest taxes. The way it was done there and the way this would be done in New York — is that a community could override the 2.5% tax cap if they chose to — they would have a vote to override.”
Mr. Cohen criticized Senator Oppenheimer’s proposal to have school district contingency budget CPI cap formulations be based on a 5-year rolling average. Mr. Cohen believes this would contravene a community’s school budget vote rejection and garner a larger tax increase than approved by the school district. “Issues need to be addressed and dealt with — the problem we’ve had in Albany is they’re not sitting down and trying to address these issues – one side is saying this and the other side is saying absolutely not – they’re not having the give and take that you and I would have to be able to address them. How do we make this work for the average citizen? We want great schools and education for our children but we also want our taxes to be reasonable and sustainable. How do we accomplish this in this world? You have to knock heads a little bit to come to terms – and that’s where Albany and the power structure that’s been there for the last decade — for the last 25-30 years is unable to cross the line and meet each other. We all know the result we want –we just don’t have the means to get there in the –through discussion, negotiation and compromise.”
When queried about how he would be able to work in what is universally characterized as one of the most dysfunctional legislatures in the country, Mr. Cohen responded: “Democrats and Republicans need to be able to meet and work towards the middle ground to solve problems. I’m a member of our nonpartisan system in Scarsdale. There are state government issues that we don’t have to be partisan about. Finding ways to save money for our schools has got to be a nonpartisan issue. Getting the right funding for our schools has to be nonpartisan. We can’t continue to let everything denigrate into partisan politics. We need to reach across the aisle. I’m pragmatic and realistic. If the Democrats come up with a better way to deal with an issue, I will not stand in the way simply because of party affiliation. Through discussion, negotiation, and compromise we can reach sensible solutions to difficult problems. We all want a better society, good schools, clean air, and sometimes it’s how we achieve those goals that’s difficult. If you’re willing to meet half way, I’m willing to go over to the other side and work to solve our problems. We need to move away from partisanship. There’s a culture of pettiness in Albany. If a member puts forth a good idea, leadership won’t accept it without some sort of a quid pro quo — getting something in return. It’s the Albany shuffle. The machine is ingrained in Albany and it’s not about what’s the best policy but what can I get in return. The special interests poison the well for the moderates – the ones who are willing to meet in the middle, cross party lines and get things done. That’s what I envision bringing to the table.”
Since the race Oppenheimer-Cohen race will be closely watched for its potential impact on party control of the State Senate, I questioned Mr. Cohen about the comparative integrity of the Democratic and Republican leadership in the State Senate – and what he thoughtof both parties’ behavior in dealing with the notorious, ethically challenged “Gang of Four,” who hijacked the State Senate last year and enabled convicted former Senator Hiram Monserrate and accused majority leader Pedro Espada to wield ultimate power in the State Senate.
Mr. Cohen suggested that the strength of the political machine prevents state senators from coming out against someone like Senator Espada, and suggested that I ask Senator Oppenheimer about her reluctance to demand the ouster of Senator Espada from the majority leader post. Yet I pointed out that Republican Senate leader Dean Skelos was more than willing to get into bed with Senators Monserrate and Espada before they jumped back to the Democrats. Mr. Cohen admitted to being disgusted and embarrassed by the Republican Party’s leadership role in that chain of events. “The whole state has been embarrassed. When these gentlemen decided they wanted to be Republicans – they really didn’t want to be Republicans – they just wanted power for the sake of power. I thought it was wrong when the Republican leadership took them in and were willing to accept them. I thought it was outrageous. And then when they switched back to the Democratic Party – and Pedro Espada was named majority leader – he got the vote of every single Democratic senator – I was likewise appalled by that. It showed everyone the raw power politics that was going on in Albany – no state business occurred for over 6 weeks while that fiasco took place. Senator Oppenheimer has been in the State Senate for 26 years, and it is surprising that she’s not been able to deliver more and have more influence on what’s going on in Albany.”
Two years ago, former Larchmont mayor Liz Feld ran a spirited campaign against Senator Oppenheimer, but was easily defeated, in part due to Barack Obama’s coat tails and a 2:1 voter registration advantage for Democrats over Republicans. A few months ago it appeared possible that Ms. Feld would take another run at the seat given the name recognition she garnered and the anti-incumbency sentiment prevailing in the political landscape this year. Ms. Feld briefly considered a run against US Senator Gillibrand but abandoned the notion and chose not to re-run against Senator Oppenheimer. Earlier this week, the http://nyti.ms/9tSYfw”>New York Times wrote a piece about the dimming hopes of the GOP statewide this year, and Liz Feld was reported to have declined the race in part because she lost faith in the Republican Party leadership and its flirtation with Senators Monserrate and Espada – she was quoted as saying, “I think that every one of those incumbents should be thrown out of office — Republicans and Democrats.”
I asked Mr. Cohen about how he plans to overcome the GOP registration disadvantage in the 37th Senate district. He said that he was working to obtain additional party lines for the election, and moreover, “there’s no Democratic or Republican way to pick up the garbage. Senator Oppenheimer is a very nice person, but she’s been our state senator for 26 years. My plan is to talk to the voters and let them know that I’m the type of individual who will meet and work with Democrats and Republicans. I’ll cross over to make good policy for the entire state – that will trump political registration. We have the same goals — I will achieve those goals – I will do what’s necessary to reach out and make one side for all of us – the New York Side.”
Professionally, Bob Cohen is an attorney and runs a real estate construction company. He grew up in Elmont, Long Island, attained his undergraduate degree at Syracuse University and a law degree from Emory University. He has lived in Scarsdale for the past 20 years with his wife, Barbara, and three children, all of whom attended Scarsdale schools. Mr. Cohen has been a member of the volunteer fire department of Scarsdale for 17 years and is a member of the nonpartisan Town and Village Civic Club Education Forum. This is his first race for public office. His campaign web site is here: http://www.bobcohen2010.com/.
The 37th Senatorial district is comprised of Harrison, Mamaroneck, Rye, the Town of Rye, Larchmont, New Rochelle, Scarsdale, White Plains, North Castle, New Castle, and Ossining.
David A. Singer is a former political consultant/campaign professional and political junkie currently toiling as a lawyer in Westchester and managing real estate and media investments.