For more than a year now, local "tea party" activists have rallied and protested against high taxes and government intrusion in their lives.
They've marched with signs, donned Uncle Sam suits, and waved "Don't Tread On Me" flags -- but never with a hero figure to rally around.
That all may have changed Saturday afternoon as Buffalo's Carl P. Paladino whipped up a crowd of about 250 at Erie Canal Harbor's Commercial Slip. As he railed against the media and "liberal elites," he seemed to strike a chord with a crowd ready for a local voice and face of their tea party movement.
Paladino reached back to the 1976 film "Network" to lead them in chants of "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore," and promised to reduce taxes and spending if successful in the Republican candidacy for governor he will launch on April 5.
"It's the liberal elites who are running this state into the ground," he said. "The liberal media wants to stop me and the people who demand change in Albany.
"They can't," he added. "Not if you're mad enough."
The attorney and developer, wearing a Yankee hat and New York State Police jacket during his Saturday appearance, enters the political landscape at no ordinary time. He and his message arrive as many up state taxpayers say they feel increasingly alienated by a state government dominated by New York City.
And while the tea party movement galvanizes against federal issues including health care, it also finds an equally maddening target in Albany.
"I want to begin the process of restructuring New York state government," Paladino shouted on Saturday. "We're going to freeze wages, we're going to freeze benefits, we're going to freeze hiring, because we're not going to have as many state employees six months after I take over."
Paladino is not alone in courting the new and growing segment of voters. State Republican Chairman Edward F. Cox -- lambasted by Paladino in his Saturday remarks -- sees them as a natural GOP constituency.
"They, on their separate path, are saying the same basic philosophy we talk about -- limited government and cutting taxes," he said. "Come Election Day, we'll all be in sync."
But Paladino and many of his tea party supporters are quick to distance themselves from GOP leaders like Cox, who is backing Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy -- a Democrat -- for governor this year.
"He doesn't have a clue what you are thinking about," Paladino said of Cox on Saturday. "Ed Cox told me core values are not important to the rank and file; they're more interested in jobs and fiscal responsibility.
"He told me, 'Carl, you should think about those things,' " Paladino added. "I said, 'Thanks, Ed.' "
Still, Paladino wants to run on both the Republican and Conservative lines. He reiterated Saturday that he will petition his way onto the GOP ballot and compete in the September primary, while hoping Conservative committee members will nominate him at their May convention.
Barring Conservative support, he is ready to create his own Tea Party line, which could impose a threat to the GOP by siphoning away votes.
Speaking to The Buffalo News just before his remarks, Paladino said he welcomes tea party support as sharing his frustration with "every level of government." But he also said he will be careful not to be lumped in with "zealots and extremists" who present opportunities for "the opposition to make them look like fools."
In a nationwide poll released last week, Quinnipiac University found 13 percent of American voters identify with the tea party movement. The survey determined it is made up of more women than men, is mainly white and Republican, voted for Sen. John McCain for president in 2008 and strongly supports former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Palin appeared at a "tea party express" event Saturday to protest against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in his hometown of Searchlight, Nev. The same event is scheduled for an April 12 appearance in Buffalo, though no guest speaker was announced on the group's Web site.
Quinnipiac, meanwhile, reported that 28 percent of American voters view the tea party movement as favorable and 23 percent, unfavorably. However, 49 percent say they don't know enough about the group to form an opinion.
Quinnipiac pollster Maurice Carroll, a veteran observer of New York politics, is not sure how much muscle the movement can flex in New York state. He points out that because of the uniquely powerful influence that minor parties like the Conservatives wield, any separate party that could, hypothetically, draw votes from a Republican-Conservative candidate might be doomed to failure.
"You have the Conservative Party, and they own that territory in New York," Carroll said. "They're not loonies, and they already have a conservative establishment."
The challenge for Paladino and his backers -- should they be forced to oppose the traditional Republican-Conservative alliance -- will be to "out-conservative the Conservatives," Carroll said.
"Can these people replace the Conservative Party?" he asked. "That's a really heavy lift."
But the all-white, mostly middle-age crowd cheering Paladino on Saturday didn't seem to care about abstract politics or campaign strategies. For them, Paladino represented the kind of candidate they've sought to voice their values.
"He's a good voice for us," said Judy Rathman of Lewiston. "I've watched him perform in the past, and I think he has a good mind for budgetary matters."
Paladino, she said, is the kind of leader who will "maintain our liberties as Americans."
Jim Payne of Cheektowaga echoed similar thoughts.
"I believe in liberty, and our federal and state governments are trying to fundamentally change that," he said. "We're here to try to stop that."
He was wearing a "Run Carl, Run" button for a reason, he said. "He's one of us."
Ellie Corcoran of Clarence, involved in the movement's leadership, said she first became fed up with local government when she encountered zoning problems while living in Amherst.
"So I started paying attention to things," she said.
She supported former Amherst Supervisor Satish B. Mohan, joined an anti-incumbent group called Primary Challenge, and started gravitating toward tea party protests when they began in spring 2009. She likes the movement's opposition to excessive government spending and support for fiscal responsibility.
She also likes Paladino.
"I think Carl Paladino is a wonderful person and a good candidate," the retired teacher said. "He has all the issues and he's not afraid to talk about them. I hope he runs and wins."
She recognizes that Paladino has the opportunity to latch onto tea party anger and build on that. But Corcoran says she also understands that even if all of upstate accepted Paladino and his ideas, she's not sure how he will play in New York City.
"I hope the tea party folks will adopt him," she said. "But I'm not sure the general public will recognize him. I'm optimistic, but I'm a realist."