12:10 pm Dec. 16, 2011
While the vast majority of New York Republicans rally around Mitt Romney, the party's proudly and somewhat wildly anti-establishment candidate for governor last year, Carl Paladino, will be backing Newt Gingrich.
"Newt Gingrich has a long history of doing the right thing," Paladino said in a phone interview. "Yeah, we all make some mistakes. Yeah, we're not flawless, we all have our flaws. We have to pick and choose the qualities we're looking for in a good person. And I think he's illustrated enough good qualities for me to buy into him. So I'm a Newt Gingrich guy."
Paladino, a Buffalo-area businessman, stunned the Republican establishment last year when he won a landslide victory over former congressman Rick Lazio in the state's gubernatorial primary, on the basic platform of taking a "baseball bat" to the entrenched interests in Albany. (Lately, he has taken some uppercut swings at Albany's press corps, blasting an angry letter to his 45,364-person email list denouncing two of the capital's most talented and respected reporters, Jimmy Vielkind and Liz Benjamin, who shrugged off the criticisms.)
A number of national Republicans eyed Paladino warily last year, worrying that he would be a drag on all New York Republican candidates in what was otherwise shaping up to be a very favorable election for the G.O.P. But shortly after Paladino won the primary, Gingrich offered a full-throated endorsement of him in an appearance on the Brian Lehrer show. "The battle cry of cutting spending, reforming Albany, making it harder to raise taxes are frankly battle cries that are resounding almost everywhere in America," Gingrich said. Asked if that was an endorsement, Gingrich said "Of course."
"If you want to rebuild jobs in New York state, Carl Paladino is the only choice in the election," said Gingrich, who had conceded a few days earlier that Paladino had a "fairly limited model of public policy." In a subsequent Fox News appearance, Gingrich also compared Paladino favorably to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
That was before Paladino suffered through a difficult general election that saw his anti-tax message derailed by stories about his family life, his plan to refurbish old prisons as a "Dignity Corps," and his own highly personal, unsubstantiated accusations against his opponent, Andrew Cuomo. He wound up losing the general by a nearly 2-1 margin.
Gingrich's opponents, namely the campaign of Mitt Romney, have essentially painted the former speaker as a national-scale Paladino, carrying social issue baggage and a propensity for big ideas—like his recent comments about children doing janitorial work—that could put the whole party at risk in a general election.
"They better watch what they say, because it's going to come back to haunt them," Paladino said. "How many times has Romney flip-flopped on issues? I mean, if there ever was a flip-flopper, he has. He shouldn't be talking bad about his fellow Republicans. The world is not all about Mitt Romney."
I asked Paladino whether Gingrich should be considered a Tea Party candidate, as Paladino himself was last year.
"No, I think Newt is his own guy," he said. "I think the Tea Party, when they get over the nonsense, and come to recognize that Ron Paul is not electable, I think they'll come over to the Newt side."
Paladino said he thinks Gingrich is much more palatable to the right than Romney.
"I look at Romney and he's trying to walk between the raindrops somewhere in the middle," he said. "The right will not come out to vote for Romney. He showed his weaknesses and his inability to be a debater and get with the issues in [Saturday's] debate, which I watched very carefully. And I think I was pretty well sold even before that. I think he illustrated pretty clearly he's just not presidential timber. He wants to be. He's a wannabe. But I think carrying the tag of being a hedge fund type guy and a little bit out of touch from the every day common man. You know, when you want to make a ten thousand dollar bet?"
Paladino said Gingrich would be better able to create jobs than President Obama, and that he has "a better perspective, especially on trickle-down economics. He was a big Reaganite when it came to that. And that's what this country needs."
But Paladino also compared Gingrich to some Democratic presidents, praising Bill Clinton's willingness to surround himself with good people, and Lyndon Johnson's ability to work the levers of power in Washington.
"I look at the positives about him, and I see a guy somewhat similar to Lyndon Johnson, who I think will probably go down in history as one of the greater presidents," Paladino said. "His Great Society that he put together, and imposed on Washington, was because of the talent that he had put together in dealing with the legislative branch. He knew how to deal with them, and he dealt with them. And he was a ballsy guy. He had a way about him that was somewhat different, because he was, he dealt from strength.
"And I see the same thing with Gingrich. I see the same type of personality who has been there, done it and obviously after experiencing Obama, for four years here, we're not too comfortable with his lack of knowledge, his lack of ability, and his bouncing around on every damn issue."
Paladino explained his kind words for Democratic administrations by saying, "I'm not a Republican per se. I'm not a person who wears a label on his forehead."
He said he wasn't exactly sure how active he would be on Gingrich's behalf, but that his support would include a financial contribution, and a concerted effort to motivate the Republican base, particularly in Western New York, who rallied around his gubernatorial candidacy.
"This is a first-timer for me," Paladino said. "I'll get as active as I have to be, to do the best we can and bring New York State, hopefully, to the red side from the blue side."