The Site That Saved Andrew Cuomo

When Andrew Cuomo holds campaign rallies, he calls them his “Big Tent” events. The phrasing isn’t metaphorical. The Cuomo Team actually does rent a fairly well-apportioned white tent for dignitaries and supporters and reporters to huddle under while Mr. Cuomo makes a speech about how we’ve had tall governors and short governors, Republican governors and Democratic governors, but that nothing in Albany will change unless a broad coalition of New Yorkers demands it.

A year ago, when Andrew Cuomo slowly began inching toward a run for the long-sought-after governorship of New York, there were seeds of distrust about him among two core Democratic constituencies: African-Americans and women.

Their suspicion derived from a disastrous 10-month period in Mr. Cuomo’s life in 2002 and 2003, when he managed to alienate both groups–the first by challenging Carl McCall, a popular black statewide officeholder who was the party establishment’s pick for governor that year; the other by dragging his ex-wife, Kerry Kennedy, through a very public and very messy divorce.

Then earlier this year Mr. Cuomo picked Rochester mayor Robert Duffy as his lieutenant governor, meaning that not a single black or Hispanic would be on the statewide ticket, and the only women, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, was only there because of Governor David Paterson’s bungled attempt to find a replacement for Hilary Clinton.

Big tent indeed. Disgusted with the tableau, and sensing an opening, New York City Councilman Charles Barron, a former Black Panther, announced that he was forming a third party, the Freedom Party. He fielded a slate of all black and Latino candidates, with himself at the top, and encouraged disaffected minorities to join him in protest.

But in a recent poll, 71 percent of female voters said that they backed Mr. Cuomo. Another showed that nonwhite voters supported Mr. Cuomo over Mr. Paladino 88 percent to 7 percent.

The reason? An obscure Web site in Buffalo, that seems to have single-handedly sunk a major party nominee for governor, and, with that, ended hopes of a G.O.P. comeback.

 

WNYMEDIA.NET, RUN BY an out-of-work TV news producer and an out-of-work attorney, had for five years toiled in obscurity as a new-media venture focusing on the ins and outs of politics and local government in Erie County.

In April, Alan Bedenko, the out-of-work lawyer who helped found the site, received an email from a pseudonymous Gmail account that featured hundreds of emails that Mr. Paladino sent to his friends. Included were doctored photos of Barack and Michelle Obama dressed as a 1970s-era, blaxploitation pimp and prostitute; a video of an African tribal ceremony labeled “Obama

inauguration rehearsal”; and a video of a woman having sex with a horse.

Mr. Bedenko responded to the mysterious correspondent but heard nothing back. He then reached out to the people on Mr. Paladino’s cc list, confirming the authenticity of the emails, and then uploaded the raunchiest and most alarming ones to the WNYMedia Web site. The resulting traffic shut down their servers.

And before anyone even knew Carl Paladino, he was finished.

Mr. Paladino has brushed aside the emails, telling an NPR radio host, “I’m human like you and like everybody else. So don’t pontificate to me, O.K.?”

But everywhere Mr. Paladino has gone, he has been asked about the emails, as have the rest of the Republican candidates for office. What was once thought to be a major Republican year is looking like a lost cause.

Suddenly, gone were concerns among black leaders that Mr. Cuomo was not a friend to their community–not when there is an apparent actual racist on the other side of the ballot.

“Let’s be honest, the public doesn’t know that much about candidates,” says Kevin Wardally, one of the leading African-American political operatives in the state. “They know a few things that give them cues about whether or not this is somebody they can support. [These emails] sent a cue to most of the public that this is somebody they cannot.”

After polls showed Mr. Paladino gaining, Mr. Cuomo arranged to shake hands at a subway stop on 125th Street surrounded by black political leaders. He has since toured Baptist churches in Brooklyn; released an “urban agenda” surrounded by black and Latino members of Congress and the State Assembly; and talked job creation in Buffalo. But none of it has mattered much, not so long as the first thing that popped into everyone’s mind when they thought of Carl Paladino was videos of horse sex and African tribesman being confused with the president of the United States.

“We have to put aside everything that might have happened in the past and we’ve got to think about the future,” Mr. McCall, whose own statewide ambitions were thwarted by Mr. Cuomo in 2002, told a congregation of Brown Memorial Church in Brooklyn. “A man who sent out racist messages to people talking about us and our community and our president–is that the kind of leadership we need?”

Even Barron, the former Black Panther, has noticed that Mr. Cuomo’s campaign appeal to black voters has boiled down to, “We’ve got to stop the boogeyman.”

The folks at WNYMedia, meanwhile, are thrilled. Although they eschew any attempt to lump them in with the “netroots” activists who emerged in the wake of Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004, they are solid Democratic partisans who have suddenly seen their page counts explode.

Mr. Bedenko and his partner, Marc Odien, knew Mr. Paladino back when he was a mere Buffalo developer. They say he was something of a folk hero for his willingness to battle the entrenched interests like the school board and the teachers’ union. Back before he became a gubernatorial candidate, they were even on a different, more sedate list of people Paladino corresponded with.

Now, Mr. Paladino’s campaign manager, Michael Caputo, won’t return their emails or phone calls. He told The Observer, “They have an unhealthy obsession with Carl and pornography. They are well known in Buffalo for being off the left edge and they are not taken that seriously.”

But they have the distinction of possibly doing what newspaper editorials and millions of dollars of fund-raising have failed to do: helping quash the Republican opposition for governor.

“We didn’t know it at the time, but they really helped define the guy,” Mr. Bedenko said. “Any article that mentions Paladino now mentions his proclivity for sending inappropriate emails. It’s the defining moment for his campaign, I think.”

dfreedlander@observer.com

The Site That Saved Andrew Cuomo