Republican candidate for governor Carl Paladino on Tuesday struggled to explain inflammatory comments attributed to him about Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver by an upstate newspaper last year — comments driven to the forefront by his upset primary victory last week — ultimately saying, “I condemn the words.”
Last October Paladino, at a public forum in upstate Wheatfield in Niagara County, defended comments by Erie County Supervisor Chris Collins at a Republican dinner that Silver was “the anti-Christ” because of his spending and social policies. According to the Niagara Gazette, Paladino said Collins, who apologized for his remarks, should not have done so.
“If I could ever describe a person who would fit the bill of an anti-Christ or a Hitler, this guy [Silver] is it,” Paladino was quoted as saying.
A spokesman for Paladino on Monday had insisted Paladino never used those words, but at an appearance the next day with politically conservative Orthodox rabbis in Flatbush, Brooklyn, the candidate first said the quote was taken out of context, and then said: “I may have used the word Hitler.”
After one rabbi in the room said the comparison was “more than distasteful,” Paladino said, “I condemn the words, there’s no question about that.”
But he insisted he had only brought up the topic to defend Collins against charges of anti-Semitism. “I don’t have an anti-Semitic bone in my body,” he said. “I practiced law in Buffalo and I have many Jewish friends.”
In an interview with The Jewish Week on Tuesday, Silver declined to say if he thought Paladino was an anti-Semite, but said, “Let people judge by what he said. He’s not running against me. People should look at who is asking for their vote and what his track record is.”
Asked if he could work with Paladino should he be elected, Silver said, “People should think about moving out of the state if he becomes governor,” but added “I think people have better judgment.”
The scene in Flatbush contrasted with that of another group of Orthodox Jews who gathered at City Hall Monday, led by Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a close Silver ally, to condemn Paladino. “What the hell was he thinking?” said Hikind, a Democrat who in the past has supported Republican candidates, of Paladino’s remarks about Silver. “Is he out of his freakin’ mind?” In a later interview Hikind said he hadn’t decided whom to support in the election.
The controversy seemed to make little difference to some two-dozen rabbis and others gathered by Rabbi Yehuda Levin, an anti-abortion and anti-gay activist who has endorsed Paladino. The meeting took place at Rabbi Levin’s synagogue on Avenue K, and Paladino was warmly received by all, giving him standing ovations as he promised to veto any gay marriage bill and “hopefully loosen up the rules so we can have religious charter schools.”
Paladino railed against welfare provisions that attract “every lame and disenfranchised person from out of state to hop on the backs of our taxpayers.”
Only one rabbi, Aryeh Ralbag of Young Israel of Avenue K, briefly objected to the Hitler reference, although the rabbi made clear that he felt Paladino would be the next governor.
The meeting showed that Paladino may find support in the hard-right segments of the Jewish community, but he isn’t seen as having the ability to make larger inroads.
“He’s a very hard sell in New York,” said Gerald Benjamin, director of the Center for Research and Regional Engagement at State University of New York New Paltz and a political science professor.
Although Jewish voters, Benjamin said, are “more conservative as a constituency than they are willing to admit,” he said Paladino had demonstrated “a certain contempt for certain groups in society that aren’t like him.”
To win, Paladino would need a strong Republican showing as well as a significant share of independent voters in the suburbs to counter Cuomo’s Democratic base. But because Paladino will be running without the Conservative ballot line, which went to former Suffolk Rep. Rick Lazio, “there are a significant number of Republicans unavailable to him.”
Paladino, a Buffalo developer has taken a sharp anti-government tack in his Tea Party-embracing, uphill campaign for the statehouse, and he packs none of the moderate appeal on social issues that have helped recent New York Republicans cut into traditional Jewish Democratic allegiance.
“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, and a Cuomo backer. “I don’t see 30 percent of Jews voting for Paladino in any way.”
Cuomo, the state attorney general and son of a three-term governor, is not immune to verbal gaffes himself — he caused a furor during his 2002 campaign by saying that Gov. George Pataki “held the leader’s coat” following the 9/11 terror attack, referring to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. But he has said little publicly since winning the Democratic nomination without a contest in May and has run a veritable Rose Garden strategy of limited engagement heading into the November election.
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; convert some under-used prisons into dormitories where welfare recipients would be given state-sponsored jobs and “personal hygiene” training. 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, in order to scuttle that project.
Paladino is pro-life, anti-gun control and would support gay marriage if 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. Paladino has also acknowledged forwarding sexually explicit and racially offensive e-mails to friends.
In his primary campaign against Lazio, 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 a vow to reform Albany with a baseball bat and his mantra of being “mad as hell” about the state of politics. In March, he compared President Barack Obama’s health care bill to 9/11.
“He’s such a bomb thrower, you don’t know where his bombs are going to go off,” said political science professor Doug Muzzio of Baruch College. “Cuomo’s people have to be smiling.”
Jeff Weisenfeld, a former aide to Republican Gov. George 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 Democratic control of the statehouse under two Democratic governors.
“I don’t know what will happen, but I can tell you anything can happen,” said Weisenfeld, who is now an investment broker. “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, 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. 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 Democratic Rep. Tim Bishop in November, businessman Randy Altschuler, who is Jewish, prevailed over Chris Cox, a Tea Party adherent. “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.