NEW YORK - Most here were expecting this year's gubernatorial race to be bland at best, pitting a George W. Bush-style Republican against a sure-to-win centrist Democrat. But last week's primaries threw that conventional wisdom out the window as "Crazy Carl" Paladino, an extreme right tea party candidate with a penchant for inflammatory rhetoric and racist e-mails, took the Republican Party's nomination for governor.
One of this state's numerous "third parties" has added to the uncertainty, with Congressman Rick Lazio, the losing Republican whose politics mirror those of George W. Bush, vowing to continue his campaign for governor on the state's Conservative Party line.
Consequently, the main contenders fighting to replace Democratic Gov. David Paterson next January range from the proto-fascist to the center-right. Andrew Cuomo, the centrist Democrat who is currently the state's attorney general, is still leading in the polls, but his advantage has narrowed and how the race will play out is anyone's guess.
The biggest wildcard in the race is Paladino and his contradictory campaign. While he seems to go out of his way to offend with crude racist remarks, he has campaigned as an insurgent reformer in attempts to tap into voter anger. The wealthy Buffalo businessman paints himself as an outsider and criticizes a "ruling class" of elected officials in Albany, the state capital, saying that he would fix them "with a baseball bat."
Paladino has alienated many in the Republican establishment. Almost immediately after Republican former Gov. George Pataki voiced support for Paladino as the Republican primary winner, Paladino referred to Pataki as a "degenerate idiot."
Even Brooklyn Assembly member Dov Hikind, a Democrat known for often supporting Republican candidates, has taken offense at Paladino.
Criticizing the well-known dysfunction of the state Legislature, Paladino singled out Speaker Sheldon Silver, saying that "the fish rots from the head." Previously, he called Silver, who is Jewish, an "antichrist" and compared him unfavorably to Adolph Hitler.
"Does he know what Hitler represents?" asked Hikind, an Orthodox Jew who represents Borough Park, an overwhelmingly Jewish neighborhood. "Does he know that Hitler represents ... the murder of six million men, women and children?"
"There's a long history of pogroms and anti-Semitism all over Eastern Europe, relating to us Jews being ‘the Antichrist,'" Hikind added.
Paladino's penchant for racist humor is also well known. A batch of e-mails the gubernatorial hopeful forwarded to dozens of people in 2008 and 2009 was uncovered months ago, including racist "jokes."
While Paladino's antics have offended many, his racism will certainly buoy him in the tea party movement, one of the most energetic mass players on the national scene.
And some of what he says has tapped into a populist anger among some New Yorkers, especially given the level of dissatisfaction with the state Legislature and the economic crisis. His criticism of the "ruling class" seems to echo a feeling of disaffection of some sections of the electorate. He has been working to mobilize the vote outside the five New York City boroughs by routinely bad-mouthing the city, especially Manhattan. And his website notably promises jobs for working people.
But while Paladino criticizes the "ruling class," he himself seems to be part of the real thing, and has benefitted from the very government largesse he campaigns against. As a businessman, he has collected millions of dollars renting office space to state agencies. And while Paladino argues that the only way to restore jobs is to cut taxes, his own companies have benefited from "job creating" tax breaks while adding so few people to Buffalo's employment rolls that they could be counted on a single hand.
Conservative Party nominee Lazio advocates many of the same policies as Paladino, but with a moderate face, and he has therefore been able to pick up the endorsements of a number of Republican leaders and elected officials. Most see Lazio's candidacy as beneficial primarily to Cuomo, insofar as Lazio is likely to draw support away from Paladino.
Cuomo may need all the help he can get. His early promises to attack public workers and cut spending have alienated much of the labor movement, and his all-white slate has alienated the state's minority communities. Still, his campaign has become more attractive to those who have begun to fear an upset victory by Paladino, the extremist Republican nominee. Many note that virtually no one expected Paladino to win a major party nomination.
Cuomo has moved recently to diversify his campaign.
And the Working Families Party recently endorsed Cuomo and gave him their line on the ballot, making it easier for those who take issue with his stances on labor and racial equality issues.