09.30.10

Paladino Holds GOP Hostage

As the New York governor candidate’s nasty temper tantrums startle voters, John Avlon asks Republican leaders why party loyalists continue to irresponsibly—and nervously—close ranks around him.

Like the rest of the country, New York voters are angry. Washington aside, they don't think Albany dysfunction can get any worse. But they're just getting to know the GOP's bomb-throwing nominee, Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino.

He's been on a headline-grabbing spree since unexpectedly winning the nomination in a closed partisan primary two weeks ago—mailing out garbage-scented fliers, dropping f-bombs, accusing his opponent of extramarital affairs without evidence, threatening to 'take out' a respected Albany reporter, furious about unwelcome attention his candidacy has brought to a young out-of-wedlock daughter.

Paladino's campaign signs echo Howard Beale's mantra from the '70s-recession-era masterpiece Network—"I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" But as screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky understood, there is a thin line between mad as hell and just plain crazy.

Nonetheless, Republican Party loyalists who once denounced the man as dangerously irresponsible are—nervously—closing ranks around him. As they see it, they have no real choice. Bucking him up protects down-ticket races where Republicans look like they could make real gains this year—in a half-dozen upstate congressional seats, retaking control of the pivotal state senate, and in the serious bids being mounted by Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan for Attorney General and Howard Wilson for State Comptroller. And then there's the chance of Governor Paladino, courtesy of an Election Day miracle by anti-Albany voters that don't trust Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to bring about change.


Paladino loses his temper with a New York Post reporter last week.

How did the man who called the last Republican governor, George Pataki, "a degenerate idiot" get to the point where he could be his GOP successor?

"He tapped into the real anger and resentment that people in upstate New York, particularly in western New York, feel about state government. These people have watched the economy wither away and die and they are justifiably angry about it," says John Faso, the former Assembly minority leader and 2006 gubernatorial nominee. "He's potentially a very strong candidate. Obviously, he has to guard against saying things that would allow people to trivialize his candidacy—and he's the master of his own destiny in that regard."

“If he wins, I would bet that he doesn’t finish his term because of the potential to explode.”

"There was a vacuum of leadership in the state party and Carl Paladino filled it," adds Larchmont Mayor Liz Feld. "He says a lot of things that people can relate to—the traditional Republican message of responsibility, accountability ,and small government. But I don't think that the GOP should have a standard bearer that uses the 'n word,' that belittles homosexuals, that sends around pornographic emails—I think that's terrible for the Republican Party."

Ah yes, the emails. Much justified attention has been given to the barrage of sleazy emails sent by Paladino before the campaign—they managed to offend large swaths of New York state's population—women, AfricanAmericans, Obama supporters, and horses.

But in aiming for high office, hypocrisy is the unforgivable sin, and the larger scandal seems to me that Paladino's self-funded anti-government crusade is made possible by taxpayer dollars—he is the largest landlord for government offices in western New York, holding $85 million in state contracts. His hometown Buffalo News called him "the biggest proponent of government involvement in the private economy since Karl Marx."

This week's run-in with the irascible dean of the Albany Press Corps, New York Post columnist Fred Dicker, showed a side of Paladino that had been reported but not caught on camera before—a man not just angry but unhinged, barely in control of his emotions. He accused Dicker—who is known for his contempt for pretty much any man who sits in the governor's chair—of being in the bag for Andrew Cuomo. It's a version of the 'if you're not with me, you're against me' pathology. Dicker's alleged sin was asking for evidence backing up Paladino's off-hand accusation of adultery to Maggie Haberman of Politico. When Paladino told Dicker "I'll take you out" it sounded less like an invitation to step outside and more like a threat from a thug reciting lines from Goodfellas.

"It's crazy. I mean the whole thing," admits one county Republican chair who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He's just, you know, he speaks out of line."

"But does that create an embarrassment that hurts the GOP?" I asked.

"No," she said. "We've had lots of embarrassing candidates. So have the Democrats."

Welcome to the sad state of New York politics.

The New York State Republican Party was a once proud organization—home to reformers like Theodore Roosevelt, Fiorello LaGuardia, and my former boss Rudy Giuliani. Now, in an election year where Republicans are poised to make gains in almost every state, New York—with three statewide races on the ballot—is left hoping that momentum alone will compensate for a lack of serious candidates at the top of the ticket. Party regulars don't want to be caught publicly criticizing the party's nominee but many shudder at the prospect of either Paladino or Andrew Cuomo winning. Partisan enthusiasm evaporates when the idea of a Governor Paladino actually comes into play.

"I have said to people privately that if he wins, I would bet that he doesn't finish his term because of the potential to explode," says one former state party official—"something with women, something with race, [or] that he will do something crazy… What Chris Christie is doing in New Jersey is what has to happen in New York, but I don't think you can do it with baseball bats. You have to be firm, state your position, and then go out and sell your position to the public."

New Yorkers are left with a joke but no punchline. There is nothing funny about this great state, in need of serious reform, left with schoolyard bullying instead of real substance. We are headed for a fiscal cliff, with little time to save our state.

"Sadly for the New York Republican Party, this was the right year for our message but we haven't had the right candidates," adds Larchmont's Feld. "I don't think it's healthy for the GOP to have him as a standard-bearer—and I wouldn't call him a standard bearer—I would call him a candidate running on the Republican line. "

John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.