The Marginal Party: Republicans ponder a crazy gesture for governor
BUFFALO—It was the day after Easter, an ethnic holiday up here, and I was sitting on Carl Paladino’s bus.
The jolly, outspoken and currently very angry developer had just kicked off his gubernatorial campaign with a party at the Ellicott Square Building, an architectural treasure that is the flagship of Paladino’s real estate holdings. The crowd had contained pissed-off blue-collar guys convinced the system was screwing them, and that Paladino had the guts to give it right back. They’d cheered at the “I’m mad as hell” clip of faux-newscaster Howard Beale, which Paladino has used as his campaign slogan and anthem ever since. There were also some bankers and Buffalo businesspeople who know Paladino as a public-spirited, if not controversial, fixture on the local scene, and came to wish him well over white wine in plastic cups. They crowded in a small V.I.P. area, chatting with the famously trouble-making conservative operative Roger Stone as he hung out in the corner.
Now we were heading east, to Albany. There were several stops to be made to dance polka, eat pierogies and otherwise celebrate Dyngus Day. In between, Paladino was explaining to me an idea for secondary education reform: since they are often raised by parents “who are products of the same dysfunction,” poor kids should be forced into boarding schools.
“Take ‘em out of the home, put ’em in a boarding school and you can start to condition them to learn,” he said. Given the outrageous per-pupil costs in some public classrooms—Paladino claimed the number is $25,000 (the reported number for 2007-2008 is just over $17,000)—the economics works out, he said.
“It’s fucking ridiculous,” he told me, before guiding the entourage into a tent and buying us all a round of Polish lager.
Four months ago, many New York Republicans were saying the same thing under their breath about Paladino. Almost immediately after he announced publicly that he wished to be a politician, specifically a governor of New York State, Paladino was the subject of other stories, ones that went well beyond the usual species of new-candidate “gaffe”: stories about the e-mails he forwarded showing a woman having sex with a horse, and his out-of-wedlock daughter, and his public claim that David Paterson is a “drug addict.”
This had all come out as the state party was in a state of war between supporters of Rick Lazio, a nice-guy former congressman from Long Island who would do well even to make Attorney General Cuomo break a sweat in a general election, and Steve Levy, the Suffolk County executive and former Democrat, who was at least thought to have had the means and disposition to give Cuomo an unpleasant time of it.
Now, Levy’s gone, and the Paladino candidacy is looking frighteningly real. He filed the required signatures to earn a spot on the Sept. 14 ballot, and a poll last week showed him trailing Lazio by 16 points, down from 29 points in June. He has said he will spend up to $10 million of his own money on the race, and he’s working to create a third-party line. (Lazio has a sad $688,000 on hand, and took a $200,000 loan from himself. Last week he replaced his campaign manager.)
Granted, this is something of a fool’s errand. Both men are getting trounced in the polls by Cuomo, whose war chest is a record $23.6 million.
Even so, it is a remarkable thing that Paladino is a possibility—that this is what the party has to offer—when the governor’s seat is open, when incumbent Democrats are in trouble everywhere, and when public revulsion with the dysfunction and rot in Albany is, somehow, even higher than usual. (So many Democratic-held House seats are in play this year that the National Republican Congressional Committee has assigned New York a dedicated political director.)
This is the party of Nelson Rockefeller, Jacob Javits and Theodore Roosevelt, and of George Pataki, even. And now, of Paladino and Lazio.
“As far as I’m concerned, Andrew Cuomo’s the next governor,” said Bill Nojay, a conservative Republican talk show host from Rochester. “I’m watching Paladino and Lazio sort of an observer, saying, ‘I can’t believe this has happened.’”
Cuomo has cast a formidable shadow for months, and several Republicans who might have made more credible candidates—Rudy Giuliani, Erie County Executive Chris Collins—opted against a run.
Asked about Paladino’s rising fortunes, state party chair Ed Cox paused for a moment then gave me this response: “Let me, uh—Rick Lazio is—on the issues, he and Carl agree. They’re both, with respect to the most important issues to the state, but Rick has been out there for a much longer time, is going to be as much more effective in acting on those issues and is going to be in the general election a more effective candidate than Carl Paladino. That’s why the open convention that we had, in its wisdom, designated Rick Lazio as the candidate of the party.”
This rings especially hollow when you read the letter Cox wrote to delegates just before the party convention lauding Lazio’s rival Levy as “the right gubernatorial candidate for our Party and, more importantly, for New York.”
Lazio has been ignoring Paladino, and it clearly hasn’t been working. Announcing the change in his campaign team in a press release titled “Lazio Equipped to Sprint to the Finish,” the designated candidate said of adding Matt Walter as a campaign manager that "the energy all of this talent brings to our campaign to fix Albany is not only gratifying to me, but should put Andrew Cuomo and the Albany crowd on notice that their days are numbered."
The same day, Paladino went on the radio and called on Lazio “to just lay down and go home.” Then he began raging about his signature issue, opposition to a proposed mosque and cultural center located several blocks from the World Trade Center site. Paladino is running a radio ad around the state and is working to turn around a television spot on the same theme. He said on the radio—and in another interview with NY1—that the mosque is an “affront to the American people” and claimed “it's about the Islamists wanting to illustrate that they have conquered America by taking down the World Trade Center.”
In an attempt to preempt Paladino, Lazio early on called a press conference to call for an investigation of the mosque, and will today ask the Landmarks Preservation Commission to landmark the current site, a grandstanding maneuver that won’t actually prevent the mosque’s construction.
But Lazio is quickly learning you can’t out-crazy a crazy. Paladino promised he would use gubernatorial eminent domain powers to condemn most of Lower Manhattan and set it aside as a war memorial. Lazio challenged Cuomo —who said the mosque is permissible under local land-use regulations and is acceptable free religious practice—to a debate on the topic. Paladino said on live television that we have to start teaching our children to be wary of Muslims, because their stated goal, after all, is world conquest.
All of this is calculated. Nojay notes that it’s a good way to get Paladino noticed in the New York City media market, where he is barely known, and it will generate a strong response among Tea Party activists who are now believed to be a large chunk of the primary electorate.
But of course there’s a cause-and-effect thing. The sad state of Lazio’s candidacy, combined with the appeal of a Paladino candidacy as a gesture of outrage, almost guarantees that the electorate will skew angry and right, away from the moderate center of political gravity in New York.
This is worrying to party officials, for whom statewide relevance is not yet such a distant memory.
“I think both of them should re-focus their efforts on winning the primary and the mosque issue is something that’s distracting,” said Albany County Republican Chairman John Graziano Sr. “It’s passionate for people in New York City and maybe somebody could make a point on principle, but it’s not the overriding issue in order to straighten out New York.”
Weighing the two candidates, Graziano (a supporter of Levy and before him, Collins) added: “I feel we have a lot of work to do within the party to make sure that we put forward the best candidates. I’m not convinced that we did everything that we could. Rick Lazio was a reasonable candidate to the Republicans ten years ago and he’s a reasonable candidate for the Republicans now.”
“Carl seems like a patriot and an excellent businessman,” said Jay Savino, the Bronx County G.O.P. chairman, who thinks raising the mosque issue was “inappropriate.” “I congratulate him on getting on the ballot, and I want to see a spirited primary.”
He also said, “The Bronx County G.O.P. is with the Republican designee who came out of the convention, and that’s Rick Lazio. At this time. But if there is a primary and Carl Paladino is the victor, then we will support him. I think that anything can happen.”