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Dan Branda formalized his candidacy for Westchester County executive on Aug. 13, getting a jump on a race that is more than a year away.
Branda, a Somers resident and a former advisor to Rob Astorino, will seek the Republican nomination on a familiar party platform of reducing property taxes; he says he’d also form a bipartisan government while investing in county infrastructure to help rebuild the economy, if elected. And he’s willing to take on a primary challenge if one were to materialize.
“I am running for Westchester County Executive because I want to raise my children here,” Branda, 40, said. “However, Westchester is simply unaffordable for too many—including us.”
The Republican would also look to achieve success on a wider scale by creating a larger sales tax base to pare down the county’s reliance on property taxes; build a state public-private partnership and push to halt unfunded mandates handed down from the New York state.
But his most ambitious proposal of all would be a project to relocate utility power lines underground. This comes as Westchester recovers from Tropical Storm Isaias, which knocked out power to approximately 300,000 Con Edison customers in the region. But Branda said he couldn’t do it alone, that it would take a large coalition of support from Westchester communities, utility companies and the state.
“I’m absolutely committed to doing that,” he said. “We have to come off this idea that it costs $1 million per mile to bury utility lines. It costs about $100,000 to pave a mile of roadway. I would expect to bury lines would be closer to that cost than $1 million.”
Interest in the seat grew over the last few years for Branda as, at times, he has bristled at the way County Executive George Latimer, a Democrat who took office in January 2018, has conducted his administration. “He was very condemning of the way finances were handled in the Astorino administration, “ he said. “I found what he was saying about finances to be disingenuous.”
So Branda kept encouraging high-profile people in Westchester to speak out; he didn’t get much traction.
But ultimately, the tipping point for his candidacy came this March when Branda’s son was born. At the time, the coronavirus public health crisis was starting to spread through the state and Branda didn’t think Latimer handled it too well, including the initial outbreak of the virus in New Rochelle where Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, ordered a containment zone closing a stretch of the community off from holding large gatherings.
“I thought Latimer dragged his feet on closing schools and closing public venues,” he said. “I tried to encourage people to speak out about that.”
Branda also found himself “incredibly restricted” from seeing his newborn in the hospital. While in the waiting room one day, News12 was on the TV and Latimer was defending keeping golf courses open.
“It struck me as having a certain level of hypocrisy,” he said. “I can’t see my son in the hospital in a controlled environment but you’re bringing county workers in to maintain golf courses.”
As a result of the economic impacts of COVID-19—Cuomo shutdown the economy on March 22—and what Branda called Latimer’s mentality of “kicking the can down the road,” the county is now facing a severe shortfall this year as it enters its annual budget season. “I don’t trust the Latimer administration to help the county get out of the COVID pandemic,” he said. “We have a $250 million deficit of his making.”
According to the candidate, that deficit will likely be made whole by a massive tax increase or massive service reduction, at a time, as of Aug. 15, when there is a 431% increase over last year in unemployment claims for the Mid-Hudson Region; Westchester makes up about 40% of the region.
But a property tax increase could also pose a problem politically after Latimer pledged to not raise property taxes for two years in exchange for reaching an agreement in 2019 to increase sales tax rates by 1%.
“Nobody could have seen this coming when he made that promise,” Branda said. “But if that was his true intention to make that promise he should have banked that sales taxes revenue so he could keep his promise. If he had done that we wouldn’t have the $250 million deficit we have right now.”
Instead, he used the new found revenue.
Latimer also gave senior level administration officials 25% raises after just two years on the job. But when everything closed due to COVID-19, Branda said that was an opportunity for Latimer to roll back those increases.
As coronavirus concerns linger amid fears of a second surge this winter, Branda, who just launched his own digital marketing and web development business, is bracing for what is expected to be an unorthodox campaign season.
But that’s not the only obstacle he’ll face.
The Republican will also combat nearly insurmountable odds in trying to unseat a popular incumbent in a county that has swung decidedly blue in recent years. Since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, Westchester Democrats have added to their registration numbers by more than 35,000 voters to an overall advantage of nearly 175,000.
Further, Latimer, who is expected to seek re-election next year, has never lost an election in a political career spanning 33 years.
Branda plans to counter that streak with a strategy of looking at promises Latimer makes and breaks. “In an odd year, voters who come out are more willing to look past party,” he said. “I think candidates who go out and network, and don’t dismiss certain coalitions of voters, they have the opportunity to build a comprehensive inclusive agenda that has mass appeal and that’s my intention.”
Although he’s never run for political office, the Republican spent four years in the Astorino administration, advising on policy and serving in the communications department of the former Republican county executive; Astorino left office in 2017 after losing re-election to Latimer.
Branda said he consulted with Astorino before making his decision to run. “He’s generally always been supportive of what I’ve wanted to do,” he said. “I would say in my 20 years of professional work, Rob is easily the best boss I’ve ever had.”
The general election is scheduled for Nov. 2, 2021. The county executive position serves a four-year term at an annual salary of approximately $160,000.