The upset victory of Buffalo developer and Tea Party activist Carl Paladino in Tuesday’s Republican primary for governor over Rick Lazio is likely to solidify the Democrats’ most crucial voting blocs — including Jews — and drive most independents into the Democrats’ camp as well in November’s election, observers say.
The blunt-talking Paladino, who has said he will take a baseball bat to Albany to change the way politicians do business there, is the most conservative Republican running statewide in New York in recent history, and is seen having little chance of building the kind of coalition a member of the GOP would need to get elected in a heavily Democratic state.
That coalition would have to include independents, moderate Democrats, unions, substantial minority backing, and a large share of the Jewish vote.
Paladino, who has said that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver “would fit the bill of an anti-Christ or a Hitler,” faces Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, son of three-term Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo in November. Cuomo was nominated at the Democrats’ state convention in May and had no primary challenger.
Republicans who have fared well with Jews in recent years have been moderate on most social issues, while Paladino, an ultra-conservative, is likely to garner mostly protest votes from that community.
“Mike Bloomberg, George Pataki, even Al D’Amato was a moderate in comparison to Paladino,” said Seymour Lachman, a former Democratic state senator from Brooklyn and professor of government studies at Wagner College on Staten Island. “I don’t see 30 percent of Jews voting for Paladino in any way.”
“Here’s a guy who has more baggage than a cross-country Greyhound bus,” said Baruch College political science professor Doug Muzzio. “[The Democrats] don’t even have to do detailed opposition research on him because his public record is so devastating.”
Paladino, 64, who was CEO of his own real estate development firm before he launched his campaign, has said he will declare a state of fiscal emergency to cut government spending and would cut off welfare services to those who have lived in the state less than a year and turn some prisons into dormitories where welfare recipients could get state-sponsored jobs. He also said he would use eminent domain to seize the Manhattan land where a Muslim group wants to build a community center near Ground Zero to scuttle that project.
Paladino is pro-life and anti-gun control but somewhat moderate on gay marriage, saying he would support it voters approved it in a statewide referendum. Prior to launching his campaign Paladino acknowledged that he has a 10-year-old daughter from an extramarital affair with a former employee. (A similar situation helped derail the political career of a Staten Island Republican congressman, Vito Fossela, when it was revealed following his 2008 drunk driving arrest.) Paladino has also acknowledged forwarding sexually explicit and racially offensive e-mails to friends.
In his campaign against Lazio — a former Suffolk congressman who ran for Senate against Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2000 — which Paladino financed with an estimated $10 million of his own money, he quickly became known less for his policies than for his bombastic style, such as the baseball bat vow and his mantra of being “mad as hell” about the state of politics. In March, he compared President Obama’s health care bill to 9/11. Last October, in defending Erie County Executive Chris Collins, who had called Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver an “anti-Christ,” Paladino said, “If I could ever describe a person who would fit the bill of an anti-Christ or a Hitler, this guy [Silver] is it.”
Criticizing the speaker for tax and spend policies that he says favor New York City over the rest of the state, Paladino reportedly said he would send Silver to Attica prison and have people along the Thruway "beat him up a little.”
“He’s such a bomb thrower, you don’t know where his bombs are going to go off,” said Muzzio of Baruch College. “Cuomo’s people have to be smiling.”
It’s unclear how much resources the national or state Republican Party will invest in the race. Locally, the GOP has a far better shot at recapturing the soon-to-be vacant attorney general’s office, with Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan facing Manhattan State Sen. Eric Schneiderman, who barely won Tuesday’s primary against four opponents.
The Republican Jewish Coalition declined to comment on the record about Paladino on Thursday.
Jeff Weisenfeld, a former aide to Republican Governor Pataki and a Jewish GOP activist, said on Thursday that Paladino’s style didn’t necessarily rule out his appeal to those upset with the status quo after four years of stormy, scandal-plagued Democrat control of the statehouse under two governors.
“I don’t know what will happen, but I can tell you anything can happen,” said Weisenfeld, who is now an investment broker. “The tasteless joke that [Paladino] e-mailed showing natives on the African continent doing a tribal dance with a caption that said Obama inaugural rehearsal was an offensive thing to do, but guess what? With the public’s intense anger and particularly the buyer’s remorse in the Jewish community [for supporting Obama], you don’t know what can happen.
“Everything Paladino expresses is coarse and distasteful, but the big problem is that 90 percent of it is true.”
Another former Pataki aide, Michael Fragin, who also worked on the 2005 campaign of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said that Paladino’s support within the GOP should not be underestimated.
“Eighteen percent of Republicans turned out, as opposed to about 12 percent of Democrats, and he won about 90 percent of the vote in Erie County, where 30 percent of Republicans voted,” said Fragin. While it may be a challenge to tap that support from a more diverse constituency, Fragin noted, “[Paladino] did focus on the key issues for New Yorkers, which are jobs and taxes.”
Fragin said Paladino’s comments about Silver were unfortunate, saying, “We shouldn’t engage in inflammatory, demagogic language. We should disagree, but not make it personal.”
In the campaign, Paladino is likely to try to revive the anti-tax and spending atmosphere that helped Pataki sweep Mario Cuomo out of office in 1994. “I don’t know where [Paladino] stands on many other issues, but this year a lot of people are looking at pocketbook issues,” said Fragin.
Paladino has embraced the growing but disorganized Tea Party movement that saw significant gains elsewhere in the county, particularly in the upset victory of Christine O’Donnell in Delaware over Republican Rep. Mike Castle in a Senate primary.
But the victory does not likely suggest a foothold for the Tea Party movement in New York. Muzzio noted that in the Suffolk County primary to face Democrat Rep. Tim Bishop in November, businessman Randy Altschuler prevailed over Chris Cox, a Tea Party beneficiary. “In the case of Paladino, you had a partisan primary where the most extreme elements of the party came out to vote because they were more motivated,” said the professor.
If Altschuler prevails in the general election, he would be only the second Jewish member of the House. (House Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia is currently the only Jewish Republican in the House.)
November’s gubernatorial election is likely to be a “dirty campaign and an expensive campaign,” said Lachman. Cuomo is believed to have at least $24 million on hand for the general election, having spent nothing on a primary, and Paladino will likely spend millions from his own fortune as well.
“Paladino can give Andrew some agita by spending money and taking out ads, but he can’t win in New York,” said the ex-senator, who is co-author with Rob Polner of a biography of Gov. Hugh Carey, “The Man Who Saved New York.”
To win, Paladino would “have to have independents supporting him and Andrew is going to sweep the independent vote and the Democrat vote. And there might even be some moderate Republicans [who support Cuomo]. He will run a more aggressive campaign than Rick [Lazio] did.” n