A campaign as chaotic as its candidate

Caputo and Paladino on the campaign trail. (Photo by Azi Paybarah.)
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ALBANY—It has ceased to be a surprise when Carl Paladino does and says things that don't make any obvious strategic sense for a major-party candidate in New York.

This weekend, for example, he appeared before an Orthodox Jewish group in Williamsburg and, with reporters present, expressed the opinion that being gay is less "valid" than not being gay.

Last week, even for his most highly anticipated, expensive announcement of the campaign, he seemed to be winging it. He had paid for three minutes of airtime in the middle of the Thursday evening news, and the result was sort of a hodge-podge, with the media take-away being a recap of Paladino's confrontation with a New York Post reporter and his comment about Andrew Cuomo's "prowess" with women.

This pattern is even less surprising when you take into account the Paladino campaign organization, a hastily assembled machine with a diverse set of parts and an unclear relationship with the man who put it together.

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“He’s keeping his own counsel,” one person familiar with the campaign said Thursday. “He and [his dog] Duke are in the den with the door closed.”

Paladino’s most prominent assistant is Michael Caputo, a protégé of Roger Stone, who has managed the effort from the start.

“Anybody who wants to suggest that the Paladino campaign is split doesn’t understand Carl Paladino or his campaign,” he said in an interview. “Carl takes counsel from a lot of different people and calls his own shots. It’s not that I always agree with him, or we always agree. He enjoys diverse support and diverse advice and he makes his own calls in the end.”

Caputo falls into the “just make the check out to” group, along with John Haggerty, a seasoned New York Republican operative who was considered toxic by many mainstream Republicans this election cycle because of a recent indictment for felony grand larceny. (Haggerty pleaded not guilty and has denied the allegation he stole $1.1 million of Michael Bloomberg’s money.)

This year, Caputo’s public relations firm has been paid $448,000 by Paladino, who is largely funding his own campaign.

Haggerty, a veteran of the campaigns of George Pataki and Dennis Vacco who has not received any apparent payment from Paladino so far, has occupied himself with the “nuts and bolts” of the campaign. Caputo has focused on the message, injecting it with as much mischief as possible through his advice to the principal and his conversations with the press. The basic plan is to needle Andrew Cuomo until he blows up, kind of like an annoying little brother would. In reality, though, Caputo has had to focus on spinning away Paladino’s gaffes. You can hear him in the background of this video, almost sighing, after Paladino called Gov. David Paterson a “drug addict” during a campaign event near Watertown this summer. When Paladino was attacked by Gov. Eliot Spitzer, Caputo called Spitzer a “whoremonger” on the record.

Caputo is fond of boasting about his colorful resume—he worked as a consultant to Boris Yeltsin—but his approach here is clearly ripped from the pages of his mentor, Roger Stone.

Stone, a renowned “dirty trickster," has acknowledged only an advisory role with Paladino’s effort, but sources indicate a much deeper relationship. In April, Stone tried to broker the exit of rival Redlich from the race, and he was there, watching from above, when Paladino gave his victory speech on the night of the Republican primary.

In 2008, Stone shared some pages of his playbook with Jeffrey Toobin. “Attack, attack, attack—never defend” and “admit nothing, deny everything, launch counterattack.”

This philosophy has dovetailed neatly with the disposition of some of the groups that fueled Paladino’s successful primary effort, like the Tea Party-affiliated groups around the state who have devoured the red meat he's thrown them and clamored for more. Paladino has been only too happy to oblige: from the start, he had Jennifer Bernstone on staff to coordinate outreach to Tea Party groups. Another coordinator, Michael Johns, was brought in later.

It has been somewhat less easy for the people in charge of the Paladino campaign's outreach to traditional Republicans. Nancy Naples, the former Erie County comptroller and an aide to former governor George Pataki,  is now coordinating the campaign's fund-raising, which has not gone particularly well. And Erie County Republican Chairman Nick Langworthy has been involved, tangentially, coordinating with local candidates like Assemblyman Jack Quinn, who’s running for the State Senate. Since Paladino won the primary, Langworthy has been the uneasy bridge between state-level Republicans and the Paladino camp. These people are hoping Paladino will tone down the rhetoric.

“The plain-speaking Paladino hits a nerve with people, and they want to see someone who understands their concerns," Quinn said in an interview last week. "There’s frustration in upstate New York, and he hears that frustration. People want to see someone who not just hears their frustration, but has a solution. That’s the next step. Over the next 23 days, he has to make the case that he has a solution to that frustration. That’s what his goal has to be. He can’t simply say I’m frustrated and mad as hell—I think everybody is.”

This opinion is at odds with the Tea Party contingent, which regards any attempt to rein Paladino in as a mistake.

“He said Shelly Silver was a crook—that plays well up here,” said Mark Barie, head of the Upstate New York Tea Party. “It was refreshing not just for that question but for other questions. Some people call that harsh or blunt, I call that clarity. It’s refreshing.”

Barie recalled that Paladino was asked during a visit to Plattsburgh over the summer for his thoughts on abortion, and that Paladino prompted a standing ovation from the crowd with a simple reply: "It's murder."

Paladino’s campaign has struggled to find that sort of resonance since the primary, and it seems to be reflected in a behavoir pattern by the campaign that is getting more, not less, chaotic. When Paladino made a claim, without offering proof, that Cuomo cheated on his ex-wife, the campaign followed up by denying the comment, then appearing to back off, then effectively doubling down on the original claim, with the "prowess" speech. And Sunday, after his "homosexual" speech, the Paladino campaign responded to a predictable critique from the Cuomo campaign (which said that Paladino was "unfit" to govern) by accusing Cuomo aides of “illegal assault, and likely a hate crime” when they allegedly accosted a costumed chicken at the Wyoming County Fair. Caputo explained the thinking behind Paladino's televised message as follows: “What Carl Paladino did Thursday was to smoke Andrew Cuomo out. He was so intent and stepping on our message that he went ahead and agreed to that debate. We won that round.”

The only problem with this is, best as I can tell, it’s not true: a source of mine emailed Thursday morning to say that Cuomo had committed to the debate hours before Paladino recorded the ad.

Time for another of Stone’s rules: “Lay low, play dumb, keep moving.”