Carl Paladino: The street fighter - The Buffalo News

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Carl Paladino: The street fighter

It’s easy to fall into a trap with Carl Paladino, reducing the brash developer’s intensity and inflammatory sound bites to a highlight reel of political incorrectness.

But there’s more to the bomb-thrower who has upended the status quo on the Buffalo Board of Education.

A fuller description paints a man who worked as a trash collector to pay for college, who lost his own son but is determined to keep thousands of other kids from being forsaken by a broken school system.

Paladino is a man of contradictions – as happy to tear down the Buffalo schools superintendent as he is to console his cleaning lady.

He can gleefully recall the retribution he brought on a man who denigrated his father with Italian slurs, and espouse the needs of 34,000 Buffalo schoolchildren – more than half of whom are African-American. Yet he has no problem repeatedly offending the district’s black, female leadership, referring to them as “the sisterhood” and “racists.”

Since joining the board in July, Paladino has introduced three dozen items calling for resignations, firings and reams of information – only a handful of which have gone anywhere.

Yet in that time, he has had more impact on district operations than any other board member in years.

Because of him, the board cast a vote showing the district superintendent is hanging onto her job by a thread. Routine, closed-door board meetings to circumvent the Open Meetings Law have ended. Paladino forced the board to review and “rehire” dozens of central office administrators improperly hired in the past. He unearthed shoddy contract paperwork and huge cost figures that helped drive out a controversial and expensive consultant.

“It’s high time that somebody spoke up, spoke plainly and fairly,” said Jennifer Usiak, one of hundreds of parents, teachers and community members who have written to Paladino since he was elected to office. “I know he sees there’s a problem, and he’s willing to be the tough guy to make the changes.”

But while some applaud him for “telling it like it is” in a divided district, others consider his comments inflammatory and racially insensitive, further evidence of his deep-seated prejudice.

“Carl likes to accuse other people, particularly me, of playing the race card, and he’s been dealing from the bottom of that deck for years,” said Dwayne Kelly, chairman of the BUILD for Buffalo education committee.

Board President Barbara Seals Nevergold describes Paladino as a bully whose behavior is often patronizing, paternalistic and shameful. She is not alone.

But Paladino, 67, said he never joined the board to make friends.

“I’m painting a picture,” he said. “I’m not running a popularity contest. I don’t need anybody patting me on the back. I don’t need anything but the people in the community recognizing this is a farce, and we can’t let it continue.”

A ‘rock,’ not a ‘cake’

Paladino grew up in East Lovejoy and admits he “skated” through School 43 and Bishop Timon High School. He described himself as an average “B” and “C” student who preferred to hang out with friends on the street, playing sports and getting drawn into an occasional fight.

Back then, kids he knew were either “rocks” or “cakes.” A “cake” was a studious, clean-cut kid; a “rock” was a street kid, a greaser like Elvis.

“The kids from my neighborhood,” he said, “they were all rocks.”

Paladino’s parents emigrated from Southern Italy. His father read water meters and sold medical equipment.

The oldest of three, Paladino was the first to attend college. He enrolled at St. Bonaventure University as an ROTC student in pursuit of an eventual master’s degree in electrical engineering.

His father sat him down with him halfway through his freshman year.

“You happy?” his dad asked.

“No,” Paladino glumly confessed.

When his father asked about his worst subjects, Paladino said he hated English. So his father told him to major in English, strengthen his weak spot, then go to law school.

“He thought I’d be a good advocate for people,” Paladino said. “He was right. He was right most of the time.”

As a college student, Paladino worked many rough summer and weekend jobs, some with long commutes. He also got loans and assistance from his father and uncle until gaining his law degree from Syracuse University.

Finding a good-paying job to help with college expenses required connections. Though the Paladinos were Democrats, his father took him to see the Republican Party chairman in West Seneca, where the family was living, because his brother had helped get the man started in the TV repair business.

The chairman was not interested in repaying the favor, Paladino said. Instead, he remembered the man calling them Italian slurs and telling them to get lost.

“He totally humiliated my father,” he recalled.

Paladino said he eventually got a job as a garbage lifter in the town Highway Department, with help from the town’s Democratic chairman. Then he found out where the Republican honcho lived. He used the trash truck to crumple the man’s metal cans and left them on his lawn.

The turning point

It’s sometimes hard to remember, but Paladino was once a general practice lawyer. He opened an office in 1972 after his Army service, and for 10 years law was his primary occupation.

But over the following decade, he gravitated to development work. His Ellicott Development would eventually employ more than 500 people and own, lease and manage 6 million square feet of property across upstate New York and Western Pennsylvania.

Content with his personal empire, Paladino spent years fighting about various public issues. He expanded his tear-down campaigns of local leaders in print, over airwaves, on billboards and online. He called former Common Council President Jim Pitts “a crook,” labeled now-retired Buffalo News Publisher Stan Lipsey “spineless” and described former Buffalo Niagara Partnership President Andrew Rudnick as “pompous.”

He also targeted school district leaders for failing the city’s children, while he invested heavily in charter schools.

“I’m watching my city die,” he said. “The heart and soul of that is the schools.”

But Paladino’s activism was stoked by tragedy in 2009 when his youngest son, Patrick, was killed in a car crash. That devastating loss transformed Paladino from an outspoken and influential crank to a zealous political contender.

Now, more than four years later, Paladino cannot talk about his son at any length without getting choked up. Patrick’s rebelliousness and struggles with drugs tore at the family’s heart, Paladino said, but that never diminished his kindness, protective nature and generous spirit.

Sitting at his kitchen table, Paladino recalled seeing Patrick’s report card after he enrolled at St. Bonaventure. He came home with five “F’s” and a “D.” Paladino remembered asking Patrick how he managed well enough to get the “D.”

Then he threw back his head and laughed while his eyes filled with tears.

“I spoiled him so bad,” he said, “and I miss him so much.”

Paladino adopted Patrick’s dog, a gray pit bull mix 20 pounds too heavy. Patrick picked up Duke from a drug dealer, Paladino said. Now, the sweet-tempered mutt has a spot in Paladino’s office, a sheet-draped couch at the house, and a welcome space in the master bed. In July, Paladino asked his School Board colleagues if Duke could come to meetings. They said no.

Paladino said he is grateful his oldest son, William, CEO of Ellicott Development, and daughter Danielle never caused him and his wife the same worry and grief. He hopes for a similarly untroubled life for his youngest child, Sarah, 13, whom he sees several days a week. His daughter’s mother was a former employee of Paladino’s.

But when Patrick was thrown from the SUV he was driving and died at age 29, Paladino changed. He went from being a conservative critic on the sidelines to one who challenged Andrew M. Cuomo for the governor’s office in 2010, and has flirted with another challenge this year. He also ran and was easily elected in May to the Park District seat on the School Board representing South Buffalo. With Patrick’s death teaching him that life is not to be wasted, he has done more to rankle district leaders since July than any other board member has in years.

Commitment, conflicts

Board Member John Licata – who tends to walk a middle path on the School Board – describes Paladino as the embodiment of people who have lost faith in public education.

“Carl’s philosophy is that government cannot be trusted to provide services for education or anything else,” he said.

Paladino’s gloomy view of the Buffalo school district appears to have only gotten gloomier since he took his seat July 1, and he remains unrepentant about his single-minded quest to tear down the current district leadership and start over.

“I’m on the side of the kids,” he said. “If it means the dismantling of that system is the only way we’re going to improve the education for our kids, I’m for dismantling the system.”

The fact that he sent all his children to private schools and has financial relationships with charter schools leads many to wonder if he’s capable of believing that traditional public schools can succeed.

Paladino has been a major contributor to his alma maters and has leased space and helped finance several city charters, including Health Sciences Charter School, Tapestry Charter School and West Buffalo Charter School.

Critics say his financial stake in charter schools has been profitable for him and makes him susceptible to conflicts of interest.

Paladino and his supporters say he has far easier ways to make money that don’t involve such great financial risk.

As a solutions-oriented businessman, Paladino likely sees charter schools as an answer to the problem of urban education, said Teo Balbach, president of the Tapestry board.

In 2008, Paladino guaranteed a $12 million loan for Tapestry. Without that backing, the successful school could never have opened.

“No other group that we talked to, and I probably talked to 15 or 20, would even return our phone calls,” Balbach said. “You almost have to be a financial person to understand his incredible generosity.”

In August, Paladino purchased the Holy Angels Academy building on Hertel Avenue for $2.9 million and said the building would be reopened as a school but wouldn’t say what kind.

Finally, Paladino is leasing space to the district for its Middle Early College program. He has not interfered with the board’s decision to terminate that lease in June.

Pass or fail?

Paladino’s time on the board is reflected in the hours on the clock. Board and committee meetings are often much longer.

Since July, Paladino – once an outsider who railed against district leaders from a public lectern – is no longer bound by a three-minute speaking limit. That’s a big reason he ran for office. He also can demand documents and explanations no unelected member of the public would be given.

While he can be respectful, insightful and constructive, he is just as willing to rudely and loudly plow over anyone who gets in his way when he is in full interrogation mode.

“He’s a very complex man, obviously, and I don’t pretend to know all of his motivations,” Nevergold said. “I’m just saying that what I see with respect to his actions, and the way he characterizes the people on the board – the ‘sisterhood,’ the ‘family and friends,’ the ‘incompetence,’ the superintendent ‘not being able to walk and chew gum at the same time’ – I think that demeans him more than it demeans us.”

Grading Paladino’s effectiveness on the board is tough.

If you judge by his ability to successfully draft and gain support for policies that improve student learning, Paladino would likely get a “D.” While a few of his proposals have gained support, many others have been duds. Of more than three dozen he has introduced, 13 have been withdrawn, failed for lack of a second, or been swiftly voted down.

Roughly 22 others have been referred to the superintendent or to committee for further discussion and input.

“I think it’s been a disaster,” said Kelly, the BUILD education committee chairman who actually agrees with Paladino on the need for more neighborhood schools. “Carl acts like a bully, and he doesn’t have to act like a bully ... He’s not out here, reaching out, trying to build coalitions to get something done.”

Even his board supporters agree that if Paladino would stop littering his resolutions with inflammatory language, more of them would actually pass. Allied board member Jason McCarthy said people tell him regularly they love Carl’s message but hate his delivery.

“I’ve heard it a thousand times,” he said.

But that’s not the point, Paladino said.

“The simple making of the motion sends a message across their bow,” he said. “It sends a message to the community that there’s something wrong here. I don’t need to pass motions. I’m not there for motion practice. I’m there painting a picture for people of the incompetence of the entire system.”

Paladino has been gunning for Superintendent Pamela Brown since before she took office, saying she lacks the experience to lead. Although Paladino hasn’t yet been successful in ousting her, his push for her dismissal did come to the floor for a vote in October, revealing that Brown is only one vote away from being fired.

Paladino has been a champion of transparency and pried information out of a school administration often viewed as secretive.

“Carl has been able to request and receive information that other board members have requested and not received,” Licata said. “Many people tell Carl things they don’t tell others. People feel they know him and trust him with information.”

Paladino has also raised challenging questions on a board some have viewed as too patient and accommodating in light of district failures.

“I think he’s very upset by the results he sees in terms of school performance,” said state Regent Robert Bennett. “I would not call that destructive. I would call that very direct.”

Wasted gifts

Critics say Paladino has gifts that are wasted on him – the influence, intelligence, talent and money to make positive changes. Instead, they consider him a costly distraction in a district already loaded with problems.

“He basically feels it’s his way or no way,” said board member Sharon Belton-Cottman. “Everywhere he goes, he creates some sort of dissension, and it’s just toxic.”

Paladino said he espouses the cause of Buffalo children, more than half of whom are black, but he is also defensive of the district’s white administrators and more willing to label and attack black administrators and board members as incompetent.

He denies the “racist” tag by pointing out that he’s gone after plenty of high-profile white leaders, too.

That doesn’t fly with everyone, including teachers union chief Phil Rumore, who said he judges Paladino “by the disgusting sexist and racist emails that he sent out during his campaign” for governor.

Finally, many criticize Paladino for being so willing to tear others down without having a sound plan for building the district up.

Paladino admits he would be happy if Buffalo public schools disappeared and all city youths got vouchers to go to private schools and charters. But if the district is capable of turning around, he said, it will take an extraordinary leader with a proven track record.

“I don’t have the answers to fix the school district,” he said. “What I have is the knowledge that without great leadership, without the best leadership, this district is never going to get fixed.”

Paladino has pledged that after the School Board elections in May – in which three at-large seats will be decided – he will have the board votes he needs to make that change. Money to back favorites is no object.

He dismisses those who contend that poverty and bad parenting are to blame for failing schools and failing children.

“Don’t tell me about the parents, and don’t tell me about poor people, because I live with them,” he said, referring to his working-class neighbors and employees.

He motioned to the comfortable but modest South Buffalo home where he has lived for the last 40 years (he also owns a horse farm in Orchard Park). He referred to the boxes of letters and emails he has received from teachers, parents and community members since joining the board.

“They’re from humble people who work very hard, like my parents did to send three kids to school,” he said, his voice catching. “That’s where I came from. The death of my kid made me a stronger person. There’s no end to what I’m willing to do. I’ve got the money. I’ve got the wherewithal. I have the relationships in this community. And the more that they’re afraid of me, the better.”

For more on Paladino, visit the School Zone blog at email:

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