Third party politics in New York is so byzantine most voters turn off when it comes up. But Rudy Giuliani wouldn’t have been mayor without the now-defunct Liberal line and George Pataki’s margin over Mario Cuomo in 1994 was provided by the State Conservative Party.
So the swing this week of the Conservative Party from Rick Lazio to Carl Paladino was a pivotal moment, especially since it’s historically impossible for Republicans to win statewide without Conservative endorsement.
All of this wind in the weeds is blowing even harder this year when, virtually unnoticed by the media, Paladino is also characterizing himself the Tea Party candidate. His legal challenge to a group that had claimed that name and nominated a Nassau liability lawyer, Steve Cohn, for governor prevailed in state court last Friday. And his willingness to drop an active campaign on his own Taxpayers Party line helped open the door to his negotiated settlement with Conservative Party chair Mike Long.
Long told the Voice that he met for hours last Sunday at the party’s state headquarters in Bay Ridge. Lazio left without taking a clear position, said Long, and Long continued to talk with Paladino. “I asked where are you on this Tea Party or Taxpayer Party thing,” recalled Long, “and he said the most important thing to him was getting votes on the Republican and Conservative Party lines.”
There was nothing anyone could do about the Taxpayer Party because, said Long, “it’s there,” meaning petitions circulated by Paladino have given it a line on the ballot, though just for this race. Unless Paladino gets 50,000 votes on that line, it will cease to exist, just as the Conservative Party would die if Paladino doesn’t get the same total on its line.
“I’m convinced that Carl’s not going to make an effort to get people to vote for that party,” said Long. “If Lazio had stayed in the race, Carl would have pushed his third party very hard.” Long suggested that this was hardly a bone of contention in the negotiations, but Paladino’s ownership of a third party line had to be one of the factors that drove the deal. A Paldino push on the Taxpayer line even now, after the Conservative endorsement, could be a deathblow to Long’s party.
The short work Paladino made of New York’s Tea Party, blasted by Paladino spokesman Mike Caputo as “disgruntled hacks,” helped too. In fact, Albany County Supreme Court Judge Eugene Devine took oral argument on Paladino’s challenge to the Tea Party on September 23 and ruled a day later, knocking the party off the ballot. Financed and organized by three leaders of another third party — the State Independence Party, which has had a ballot line since 1998 — the Tea Party had spent thousands of dollars collecting 45,000 signatures on petitions to qualify for the ballot. But Sam Zkerka, Bobby Kumar and Charles “Doc” Cavallo, who dominate the Independence Party in Nassau and Westchester, failed to name a candidate for lieutenant governor on a ticket led by a Nassau liability lawyer, gubernatorial candidate Steve Cohn.
Judge Devine ruled that a 1953 amendment to the state constitution requires that a lieutenant governor has to appear on a ballot line since lieutenant governors and governors are not separately elected but are, like presidents and vice presidents, jointly elected. The Tea Party lawyers countered by pointing out that the state ballot has for decades included on occasion gubernatorial candidates who were nominated by third parties without running mates for lieutenant governor. But that was permitted only because no one prior to Paladino challenged the arrangement, and the State Board of Elections has taken the position that, without a challenge, it would simply print the names of all nominees, even if the candidacies were constitutionally defective. Though Devine found the Tea Party contentions “unsupportable,” party lawyers filed a notice of appeal yesterday.
Should the appeal prevail and the party’s name appears on the ballot, it would presumably drain off Paladino votes, particularly those that might be cast on the Conservative line.
What’s surprising is that even as Paladino lays claim to Tea Party support, he’s paid no political price for actually disqualifying the only party carrying that name that had to chance to appear on this year’s ballot. And his campaign manager Caputo has been deeply embroiled for months in a similar legal effort to destroy the Florida Tea Party (FTP), or at least the group that was first to lay legal claim to the name. In fact, Caputo told the Sunshine News in July, while manning the fort in Paladinoland, that he was putting $20,000 a month into a lawsuit against the Florida Tea Party, insisting the money was coming “out of my own pocket.”
That was also when Everett Wilkinson, the leader of the South Florida Tea Party and the plaintiff in the lawsuit against the FTP that Caputo is funding, told the Washington Post that his group supported the recent federal court decision invalidating the ban on gay marriage. Wilkinson told the Post that his group includes “several hundred” supporters who are gay, making this an odd alliance in Paladinoland. The FTP actually registered with the Florida Division of Elections in August 2009, and the lawsuit, ballyhooed in a Caputo press release, was filed a year later.
Wilkinson rushed off the phone when we asked about Roger Stone’s possible role, but he testified at a deposition that he doesn’t know Stone. Oddly enough, he says he’s never met Caputo either, though they talk on the phone every “couple of days.” The young activist told the Voice that his phone relationship with Caputo, which began in January, was arranged by “a mutual friend” he declined to identify. Wilkinson testified that he couldn’t recall if he called Caputo first or Caputo called him, saying only that he receives no bills from the lawyers representing him in the case. He calls Caputo his “consultant” though they have no “formal agreement.” Asked how Caputo is financing the case, Wilkinson said to the Voice: “I don’t know. He makes money, he’s a professional consultant.”
Despite the cloud hanging over Wilkinson’s financing, a Wilkinson/Caputo ally, Don Hensarling, who’s challenging the ballot status of some of the 15 or so congressional and legislative candidates running on the FTP line, justified his opposition to the party by declaring: “I believe there’s money that may be coming from suspicious sources.” In fact, Caputo told FoxNews, perhaps projecting a bit, that Doug Guetzloe, a radio talk show host and political consultant leading the FTP, would use the organization to threaten to put up Tea Party candidates unless other candidates paid him off, either by retaining him as a consultant or paying him in some way .
The New York and Florida legitimacy claims are virtually impossible to penetrate, but Caputo continued these typically caustic attacks on even national Tea Party leaders.
When Tea Party Express chairman Mark Williams assailed Paladino’s forwarded racist and pornographic e-mails as “absolutely incompatible with everything we stand for” back in April, Caputo responded: “Who gives a hoot who this tiny band of bought-and-paid-for out-of-staters wants as governor of New York?”
Of course, the Tea Party Express has been widely credited with pulling off the biggest party victories — Jim Miller in Alaska and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware. In fact, world vagabond Caputo, a New York native who’s long called Miami home, had himself just arrived in Buffalo with Floridian Roger Stone to take over Paladino’s campaign. Indeed Paladino’s “scheduler,” Stone’s secretary, still operates from a Miami Beach suite.
Williams, who’s embroiled in controversy himself over his Nazi and other racially tinged references to President Obama, said Paladino “doesn’t understand what this movement is about if he’s touting himself as a Tea Party candidate.”
Incredibly, while making war on virtually every established element of New York politics, Paladino and Caputo are simultaneously in mortal combat with the disparate elements of the Tea Party insurgent movement as well.