Carl Paladino's Carefully Crazy Act

How many nuts win multimillion-dollar state leases?

There is much talk that the winner of the Republican gubernatorial primary, Carl P. Paladino, businessman from Buffalo, may be somewhat mentally unhinged.

It is a long time since a candidate for statewide office has been asked to vouch for his own mental health. The last time was when the late parking-garage millionaire Abe Hirschfeld—who actually was insane—almost won the lieutenant governorship in 1986.

But less than 24 hours after Paladino's thumping defeat last week of party favorite Rick Lazio, the sanity question was put directly to the winning candidate. "Some people have said you're . . . you're crazy, Carl," said NY1's Elizabeth Kaledin.

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Paladino did not deny it. "I am a man of conviction," he responded, looking straight into the camera. "I am not a chameleon."

Both of these statements are complete fictions, but what of it? They are also conclusive proof that the hip-shooting Tea Party favorite is totally sane. For one thing, he understands that these days it helps to have people think you might be a little nuts. Polls show the voters are so frustrated with a sagging economy and steady corruption that they identify with candidates who talk about smashing things up with baseball bats. Paladino has been making this threat so often that a bat manufacturer has offered to make him his own signature brand. It will be cut from fine Adirondack White Ash and called the Paladino Albany Slugger.

No one ever said that the winning recipe for a gubernatorial race has to be only sober talk about hospital subsidies. Years back, a Louisiana man won the governorship just by traveling around singing a song he'd written. Jimmie Davis sang "You Are My Sunshine" so sweetly that voters elected him twice—15 years apart. You'll say, "New York is nothing like Louisiana. We are sophisticates here." Oh, really? Take this instant pop quiz: Which state just had a governor forced from office after being caught wearing only his socks in a hotel room with an expensive hooker? The place where les bon temps rouler or the Empire State? Case closed.

But the proof that Carl Paladino is of sound mind will not be found anywhere in his campaign speeches, all of which are carefully laced with hints of psychosis. The real evidence is up in Buffalo in his beautiful Italian Renaissance–style building at Ellicott Square, 295 Main Street. This grand commercial palace was built in 1896 and boasts a half-million square feet of office space. Its magnificent lobby has a glass roof framed by ornamental steel and a floor of intricate mosaics. It is such a glorious setting that—in a rare Hollywood visit to Buffalo—the producers of the movie The Natural chose it for a scene with stars Robert Redford and Glenn Close. You may remember that Redford's character, ballplayer Roy Hobbs, does amazing things in the film with a baseball bat he calls "Wonderboy"—a lesson clearly not lost on Paladino.

Still, it is not his architectural marvels that conclusively prove the Republican nominee is just as savvy and sane as Sheldon Silver, Pedro Espada, Al D'Amato, and all the other politicians he claims to loathe. It is his tenants. The building is packed with government agencies, all of them wooed and won by the candidate's clever politicking, and all paying fat rents directly into his pocket.

Take one of the 16 brass elevators to the second floor and you'll find the Office of Children & Family Services, which has already paid $2.2 million to Paladino, with another $2 million to come. Up on the sixth floor is the state's social services office. Its rent payments since 1990 have totaled $7 million, with two years to go on its lease. In December, just as Paladino was deciding to run for the state's chief executive, he negotiated a $1.6 million amendment with the agency—and he didn't need any sanity clause inserted into the lease.

The fullest accounting of Paladino's business was published by the Buffalo News in April when reporter James Heaney took stock of the landlord's remarkable success. He found that Paladino pulls in some $10 million a year from more than three dozen local, state, and federal tenants housed in his properties. The Tea Party maverick also talked the former mayor into making his downtown businesses eligible for deep tax breaks, reported Heaney.

The mayor at the time was Tony Masiello, and Paladino was a friend and major supporter. This worked out well for him, as he managed to win some $3.4 million in tax breaks. He also snagged several city-owned properties for below-market prices, including one major downtown building he bought for a dollar.

This is not how mad men generally operate. Nor is there anything off-kilter about his campaign donations: Paladino has contributed almost $500,000 to candidates he supported. Like most donors who do well by government, he does not discriminate: He has given generously to those in a position to help his business, Democrat or Republican. For instance, at the same time he was signing long-term leases with state agencies, he was making large contributions to then governor George Pataki, including $18,000 during Pataki's last term. Last week, Paladino told the Daily News what he thinks of Pataki now that he cannot approve leases anymore: "A degenerate idiot," was his exact phrase.

When Eliot Spitzer succeeded Pataki, Paladino gave him some $12,000. And in December 2008, when it looked like David Paterson might be governor for a while, Paladino was moved to give him $6,000. The kindest thing Paladino has said recently about Paterson is that he's "a drug addict."

In another tell-tale sign of lucidity, Paladino rarely makes donations in his own name. Why would you when the state's wide-open campaign finance laws allow you to spread your donations out among innocuous-sounding corporations? Paladino's gifts arrive in the campaign equivalent of plain brown envelopes, from companies named the "1093 Group," the "JP Group," and "Michigan/Seneca," among many others. This kind of thing has long been denounced by good-government groups and sourpuss editorial writers as part of the "pay-to-play" culture plaguing politics. Paladino couldn't care less. Like any smart radical, he has learned how to game the system.

Paladino proved this again last fall when he launched a barrage of radio ads against Buffalo's current mayor, Byron Brown, who was up for re-election. He accused Brown, the city's first African-American executive, of handing out subsidies to developers other than Paladino. He also claimed that the mayor is doling out stolen handicapped parking stickers—the first time this charge has been leveled outside of a Carl Hiaasen novel.

"Hellooo, it's me again—Carl Paladino," his first ad began. He then launched into a breakneck spiel, sounding like a breathless beatnik poet reading blank verse. One phrase that jumped out was a prediction that a top Brown aide would "soon be frolicking in a prison shower."

The ad went up on the airwaves on September 8, 2009. Paladino was clearly pleased with himself. That morning, he sat down at his computer and e-mailed 50 close friends a video of a naked woman managing to couple with a horse. "Easy, steady big fella . . ." was the caption. The e-mail was one of several similarly salacious or racist messages he sent to friends that were released last spring by a local news website, WNYmedia.net. A lesser politician might have apologized. Paladino just shrugged. Anyone insulted shouldn't vote for him, he said, proving again how well he understands his times: A touch of insanity is a political asset.

trobbins@villagevoice.com

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