Paladino’s Boys

carl paladino azi paybarah Paladino’s BoysIn the spring, when Buffalo developer Carl Paladino began mulling a long-shot bid for the state’s top office, he called his friend and fellow western New Yorker, Tom Golisano, the Rochester billionaire who thrice tried to crash the governor’s mansion, to ask for some friendly advice.

“He told me not to go around and kiss the rings,” said Mr. Paladino, who has defiantly opposed the party establishment even as he courts Republican voters in advance of next week’s primary.

“And he told me to go out and hire the very best people. And that’s what I did.”

To find the very best people, Mr. Paladino approached Roger Stone, the infamous Republican operative who had helped Mr. Golisano spend more than a hundred million dollars of his personal fortune over the course of three creative, if quixotic, gubernatorial campaigns.

“I said I need somebody that’s got balls, that’s thick-skinned, because this is not going to be politically correct,” said Mr. Paladino. “Somebody who’s not intimidatable, like me. Because I’ve got a military mind–attack, attack, attack.”

‘I’m not afraid of anything in politics,’ said Michael Caputo, a political operative for Carl Paladino. ‘I’ve been shot, I’ve been stabbed, I’ve been kidnapped.’

Mr. Stone had a prior commitment–to the madam Kristin Davis, as it happens–but he referred Mr. Paladino to a longtime protégé, Michael Caputo, who had moved back to his native Buffalo to take up the family insurance business after stints as a press aide for, among others, George H.W. Bush, Rock the Vote, Boris Yeltsin and the Nicaraguan Contras.

 “I’m not afraid of anything in politics. I’ve been shot, I’ve been stabbed, I’ve been kidnapped,” said Mr. Caputo, who’s spent the past several years living with a pet parrot on a solar-powered tugboat off the coast of Miami. “This campaign is the first time I had put on shoes in four years.”

On a recent Friday afternoon, he and Mr. Paladino showed up for lunch in Long Island, each looking distinctly awkward in the same ensemble–black pants, white shirt and a red tie–Mr. Paladino’s was loosened around his neck, and Mr. Caputo had on a set of conspicuous skull-and-crossbone cuff links.

They amused themselves recounting a stunt from the previous week, when the pair dispatched someone in a duck costume to dog Andrew Cuomo through an upstate RV tour. “He ducked issues all the way through there, so we hired a duck to chase him around,” said Mr. Paladino. “She had a little duck call inside the mask,” added Mr. Caputo. “So every time a reporter came up to her and said, ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Quack, quack, quack.'”

The pair shared a hearty laugh.

Seated between them, in khakis and a pink button-down, was John Haggerty, a veteran Queens operative who was hired to manage Mr. Paladino’s downstate political operation, despite a weighty indictment that alleges he pilfered $750,000 from Mayor Bloomberg’s most recent reelection campaign. (Mr. Haggerty has pleaded not guilty.)

Not present was the man who is handling the western politics: Nick Sinatra–a young entrepreneur whose family owns an Italian restaurant in Buffalo, and who recently returned home with degrees from Yale and Wharton, after serving as a top aide to (who else?) Karl Rove.

“It’s like Carl said, everybody in this campaign likes to fight–not with each other–but we don’t back down from a fight,” Mr. Haggerty said.

“It’s the Campaign of Misfit Toys,” said Mr. Caputo. “Remember Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Island of Misfit Toys? This is the Campaign of Misfit Toys.”

 

MR. PALADINO’S WILLINGNESS to swing wildly would seem to be one of his primary selling points to Republican voters currently staring up at an ascendant and seemingly unstoppable Andrew Cuomo. While Rick Lazio runs the kind of buttoned-up, professional campaign befitting a former congressman and official party designee, Team Paladino is having a good time casting itself in relief to the Lazio camp, as a straight-talking, rabble-rousing, underdog effort with no political future to lose.

Last Monday, in a lush patch of parkland outside Syracuse, the campaign hosted “Little Ricky’s Chicken Barbecue”–featuring a person in a plush yellow chicken costume with a sign that read LAZIO’S CHICKEN TO DEBATE PALADINO–to shame Mr. Lazio for not participating in a televised debate that evening.

The costume belonged to Mr. Caputo.

“Our chicken costume has been used in Russia, Ukraine, Ohio, Florida and West Virginia,” he said–a small sample of the places Mr. Caputo has run campaigns. (The gag was lost on Russians, because the chicken metaphor doesn’t translate; in Florida, it got him accused of racism, when he used it against a Haitian candidate.)

The Web site for his PR company shows old pictures of Mr. Caputo with generals in Pakistan and Honduras, and one on a tarmac with Oliver North somewhere in Central America. “I couldn’t get ahold of Oliver North, so I flew down there and checked into the hotel and said I wanted to speak to the Contras,” he said. He ended up as a press aide. There’s also a nonpolitical photo of he and Twin Peaks director David Lynch, after Mr. Caputo started a group called Citizens Outraged at the Offing of Peaks, to keep the show on the air.

“It’s like he’s Forrest Gump,” said Mr. Haggerty. “Anything you say, he’s like, ‘Yeah I was there, I was emergency-landing in Siberia.’ That’s what he said to me. Emergency landing? ‘Yeah, front of the plane broke off.'”

In the mid-’90s, Mr. Caputo had been recruited to Moscow by an aide to Boris Yeltsin to help mobilize young voters for Yeltsin’s reelection in 1996. He stayed to work on about 45 races over four years, until his savings account collapsed along with the ruble.

“I compare this race here very much to the Yeltsin-Zyuganov election,” Mr. Caputo told me. “They looked at Yeltsin as someone who could lead them out of the wilderness.”

And, like Yeltsin, Mr. Paladino brought rather significant personal liabilities to the race–in his case, a series of distasteful emails he had forwarded that include bestiality, the N-word and racist jokes about President Obama.

“With those emails out there, he’s clearly unelectable,” said one veteran consultant, who speculated that the team that’s having so much fun fighting alongside Mr. Paladino might also be taking the wealthy developer–who has pledged to spend $10 million of his $150 million fortune –for a ride.

“The people who think that have never met Carl Paladino. No one has ever taken Carl Paladino for a ride,” said Mr. Caputo, whose firm has billed more than $350,000 for what he says are a variety of services. “Carl knows where every cent in this campaign is going.”

Mr. Paladino, for one, doesn’t seem to buy the notion that he’s unelectable, even as polls show him trailing Mr. Lazio by 12 points, and Mr. Cuomo by about 40.