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'I'm just Joe Citizen," Carl Paladino kept repeating last week. "I'm just your everyday guy." This is part of the Republican candidate for governor's explanation for why he got so hot with a New York Post reporter whom he offered to take "out" if his paper tried again to snap photos of his 10-year-old daughter, whose mother is someone other than his wife.
Normally, guys with $150 million to their name don't qualify for "Joe Citizen" status. But Paladino is doing such a brilliant job of connecting with the rage of the frustrated, the angry, and those behind the economic eight-ball that he deserves at least a temporary green card allowing him entry to the working classes.
Part of Paladino's pitch is that he will be just as tough in office as he was last week with newsman Fred Dicker. "I don't back down," he says. We have to take his word on this. As he also says, he's never been a politician, and there's little public record to examine.
But as luck would have it, there does exist at least one snapshot of how Paladino behaves when he is in charge. It's not a perfect match: He's not going toe-to-toe here with heavyweights like Assembly leader Sheldon Silver, whom he is pledging to drag through upstate towns so citizens can beat him with sticks. He's dealing instead with true average Joes, the workers who clean his Buffalo buildings. But it's still a pretty interesting little episode, suggesting that, behind closed doors, the would-be governor can sometimes be more bully than bulldog, at least when dealing with his own employees.
The story comes to us courtesy of the National Labor Relations Board, one of Paladino's and his Tea Party supporters' least favorite agencies. But whatever you think of the NLRB, you have to admit it keeps meticulous records, and in the case of Ellicott Square Development Corporation and Service Employees Local 200C, it issued an 18-page report of its findings.
The report details an incident that began in June 1994, when Paladino summoned a veteran janitor named Michael Walden, who worked in Ellicott Square, Paladino's flagship office building in downtown Buffalo. The record shows that the city's largest commercial landlord was irate at some news he'd heard: Walden's mother-in-law was telling people she wanted to give the landlord "a piece of her mind."
Her alleged reason for wanting to tell him off was that Paladino had declined to pay Walden when he was out on jury duty. Company policy was not to pay for this public service, and neither the union contract nor state law covered late-shift workers like Walden. But it was widely known that some employees were reimbursed anyway, and Walden's mother-in-law was steamed that he wasn't getting the same courtesy.
The record shows that Paladino began with a loud bark: "Who the fuck is your mother-in-law?" he said.
Walden told him. The employer then asked why she was going around saying she wanted to give the boss a piece of her mind. Walden said he had no idea. As far as he was concerned, he added, the jury matter was settled.
The report continues: "Paladino then asked Walden whether his mother-in-law and his wife ran his life, and whether he can stand on his own two feet. The janitor replied that, yes, he could stand on his own two feet, and his wife and his mother-in-law do not run his life."
Paladino also asked if Walden thought his wife and mother-in-law "would have an effect on his work, and whether Paladino was going to get 100 percent work from Walden."
"I guess," the janitor replied. Paladino persisted. "Yes or no," he demanded. "Yes," his employee finally replied.
Paladino told Walden to tell his mother-in-law to "mind her own business." He then asked a few questions about the union before telling the janitor he could go.
You would think this might be enough of a labor-management workout for one day, but the boss was eager to get to the bottom of this threat to his authority. He next summoned Walden's wife, who worked as an office cleaner in another Paladino building nearby. The Service Employees was also recognized as the union there, but Paladino had refused to sign a contract. The union had recently made Lisa Walden a shop steward, another annoyance to the boss.
When she arrived, he grilled Lisa about her mother's attitude. The daughter told him the same thing as her husband: She had no idea what he was talking about.
There was some dispute about the rest of the discussion, but it was agreed that Lisa Walden had the temerity to ask Paladino why he had denied her a recent pay hike awarded other cleaners, a raise of all of 15 cents an hour. Paladino responded that she hadn't been working hard enough and that he suspected her of having faked a recent injury. Paladino was also heard telling his employee that he was the boss and she would do as he said. And at that point, Lisa Walden began to cry.
The tough guy did not melt. He told Lisa Walden not to discuss the meeting with other supervisors and dismissed her from his office. When he learned that she had complained about her treatment to a manager and then called in sick, he ordered her suspended. He also said that he would have her arrested for trespassing if she tried to enter any of his buildings. When she returned a few days later to see co-workers, he dealt with this new challenge by firing her for insubordination. To show that he meant business, he denied her unemployment-insurance claim. Walden won that one on appeal.
Paladino fared even worse when the labor board examined the firing. A panel found Paladino's testimony in the case to be "vacillating, contradictory, and inconsistent." It also noted that he demonstrated "substantial animus towards the union." The real reason he disliked Lisa Walden, the report stated, was because "she was someone who was not afraid to speak up for herself or on behalf of others, and would be likely to challenge Paladino as a shop steward."
The board ordered Walden reinstated, with back pay, including the 15 cents an hour she'd been denied. Paladino was also instructed not to interrogate employees about their union activities and to post a notice of its findings for everyone to see.
Your guess is as good as mine as to what this incident says about how the tough-talking Republican might behave in office. Paladino's equally plain-spoken campaign manager, Michael Caputo, said he'd make the candidate available to discuss his feelings about organized labor, but then couldn't find the time. Paladino's past public statements suggest that he doesn't have much use for unions, neither those representing public employees, nor private-sector workers like his own office cleaners. "I don't see any advantage to having a union," he told his hometown paper, The Buffalo News, a couple of years ago when a "Justice for Janitors" push was under way in Buffalo. "I think they are dinosaurs," he added.
We do know, however, that a big chunk of the candidate's fortune stems from his many office leases with government agencies. Last year, the Paterson administration tried to win some modest improvements for workers maintaining state offices by extending the prevailing wage law to cover them. An outraged Paladino immediately filed suit, calling it just another outrageous governmental power grab. He sounded like a true tough guy as he spoke.