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Enemies in high places – Paladino vs. Higgins

Every day for the last six months, approximately 37,000 commuters on the southbound Niagara Thruway get an in-your-face dose of one of the most bitter and deeply personal feuds in the history of Buffalo politics.

That’s where developer Carl P. Paladino has targeted his most recent opponent, high atop a dilapidated building he owns on Scott Street. It features a marionette-like Rep. Brian Higgins with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

“That’s my #1 boy,” the caption reads.

The billboard stands as the most public manifestation yet of the vicious feud between two South Buffalo stalwarts who are among the most recognized political figures in New York State.

Thruway gawkers pondering the sign must wonder what it’s all about. Why would Paladino go to such lengths to humiliate a U.S. congressman?

There was a time when Paladino and Higgins called each other friends. In fact, they are related by marriage; their wives are first cousins.

In recent weeks, however, the billboard has released a pressure cooker of animosity building

between the two since even before Paladino’s unsuccessful Republican candidacy for governor in 2010.

Now, neither is holding back.

“I don’t respect him, his politics, his demeanor nor his personality,” Paladino said recently, citing Higgins’ “arrogance.”

“I saw in him an obstinacy; an attitude that, if it’s not Brian’s idea, it’s not a good idea,” he added. “Given my nature, I would point out these things to him.”

After Paladino decided to “point out these things” to millions of motorists traveling the road over the past months, Higgins also unleashed. Some are shocked that the normally serene congressman, who prefers discussing Irish history to street politics, is even reacting.

But he says he’s had enough of Paladino.

“Carl is the worst kind of coward this community will ever know,” Higgins said. “He hides behind his dirty money and sits in his Ellicott Square cave spewing his venom and hateful emails every day. He’s pathetic, disgraceful and a broken man.”

Higgins characterizes his former friend as a “street punk,” a “bully,” and Buffalo’s “chief bloviator.”

“Carl has all the moral arrogance without the moral integrity,” Higgins said. “It’s very, very sad what’s become of him.”

When they were friends

It wasn’t always this way.

Both recall happier days when friendly banter over politics or neighborhood news enlivened family gatherings. The two, after all, married a couple of “Hannon girls” from the neighborhood – Mary Jane married Higgins and Cathy married Paladino. The cousins, according to those who know them, have always been close as part of a prominent South Buffalo family. So it was natural that their husbands became friends.

“They were more than close, they were married into the same family,” James P. Keane, the former South Council member and deputy county executive, said of Higgins and Paladino.

“They were family close; that kind of close,” he added.

Friendship seemed suited for Higgins and Paladino, both products of blue-collar families who worked hard for their success.

Paladino, 66, grew up in Lovejoy and graduated from Bishop Timon High School and St. Bonaventure University. He is the son of a city worker and grandson of Italian immigrants and he made millions as a downtown real estate developer after Syracuse University Law School.

His empire now includes a string of suburban hotels and office buildings he leases to New York State.

But he is also an outspoken politician whose conservative views catapulted him into the national spotlight three years ago when he entered the GOP race for governor.

After shocking the state’s Republican establishment with an overwhelming primary victory, his brash ways and pugnacious nature seemed to dim his appeal in the general election. Even though Paladino spent $4.1 million of his own money, Democrat Andrew M. Cuomo scored a landslide 61 to 34 percent win.

New York City tabloids labeled him “Crazy Carl.”

An early supporter

Higgins, 55, hails from a similar background.

He is the grandson of Irish immigrants and son of a teacher and the late South Council Member Daniel J. Higgins Sr. – a former bricklayer. The future congressman graduated from South Park High School, majored in history and economics at Buffalo State College, and earned a master’s in public administration from Harvard University.

But he has always seemed destined for public life. He was South Council member, chief of staff to the Erie County Legislature, member of the Assembly, and now sits in the House of Representatives.

Keane, the former deputy county executive from South Buffalo, said he has “great respect” for both men, partly because of their commitment to the community.

Paladino, he pointed out, has sponsored tuitions for deserving kids to his alma maters, while many say he quietly and often assists families in need.

“Those things count,” Keane said.

Early on, Paladino helped Higgins launch his political career. The real estate developer gave Higgins $9,350 in contributions during his days in the Common Council and Assembly, according to campaign finance records. He even hosted a fundraising event for Higgins’ 2004 congressional bid at his Orchard Park farm.

And Paladino claims to have partially financed Higgins’ Buffalo Niagara Partnership scholarship to the Kennedy School in 1995-96, although Higgins and Partnership officials deny he had anything to do with it.

“I had some faith in him; I thought he was trying to do the right thing,” Paladino said of Higgins.

But the situation changed once Higgins went to Congress.

Higgins goes to Congress

Perhaps the first issue dividing them was abortion.

While in the Assembly from 1999 to 2004, Higgins consistently voted pro-life. But as a candidate for Congress in 2004, he switched to a strong pro-choice stand, much to his former supporter’s disappointment. The relationship was beginning to deteriorate.

Higgins notes that Paladino was fully aware of his changing views but still contributed to his first congressional campaign.

The already strained relationship reached the breaking point when Higgins embraced President Obama’s health care initiative – anathema in Paladino’s eyes.

“I recognized that Obamacare was being pushed quickly and unethically ... and the first guy on the bus was Brian Higgins,” Paladino said. “I wrote him a memo and gave him all the logic. But on the personal side, I was recognizing an arrogance that was out of character for him.”

Paladino invited Higgins to his Ellicott Square office to discuss their differences at about the time Obama’s health care proposal was debated in 2009. And though political staffers often tape record conversations with reporters, Paladino was more than miffed when a Higgins aide recorded him. The congressman, he said, told him he had to “protect myself.”

“I found that insulting,” Paladino said.

Just about everyone close to the two men pointed to Higgins’ support for Obama’s health care plan as the turning point for Paladino.

“If he thinks the government is forcing him to do something ...,” Keane mused. “Carl’s a CEO. He doesn’t like being told what to do, particularly by the government.”

Michael R. Caputo, the East Aurora political consultant who served as Paladino’s campaign spokesman in 2010, said the developer seriously contemplated a congressional challenge to Higgins that year before he was persuaded to run for governor instead.

Obama’s helath care plan was “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Caputo said.

“He was absolutely passionate about the ravages of Obamacare,” the former campaign aide said. “The two of them talked a lot about it, and Carl said when they talked, that this was a major divisive issue.”

Another confidant, tea party activist Rus Thompson, said he watched Paladino grow increasingly disenchanted with Higgins on many levels.

“He feels Brian has really turned on his own core values for political expediency,” he said. “And it hurts Carl.” Thompson added that Paladino deems Higgins guilty of “grandstanding” on every issue associated with the Buffalo waterfront.

But one incident may have forever broken a friendship and transformed the pair into archenemies. That came just after Paladino announced his candidacy for governor a little over two years ago.

Release of the emails

Paladino’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign seemed doomed after a Buffalo website revealed his practice of emailing racist and pornographic jokes to friends.

At the time, Caputo (who has since broken with Paladino) told reporters he had been approached by a Higgins “emissary” who promised “everything would come out” if Paladino ran for governor.

Though he sent jokes to many friends on his email list, Paladino then and now blames Higgins’ staff for the leak.

“That was the end,” Paladino says now. “I knew he did it. And it only caused more anguish in the family than we already had.”

Thompson said the Paladino campaign engaged investigators to track the email trail.

“So we know where it came from,” he said.

Higgins denies that he or his staff leaked the emails, pointing out that Paladino’s email list included dozens of people who could have released the jokes.

Even before the email incident, Paladino claims Higgins threatened to use his influence to scuttle renewal of the FBI’s lease of a building he co-owns behind City Hall. He said Higgins told business associates that unless Paladino “got off my back, the lease won’t be renewed. Make sure the message is clear to him.”

One source, who asked not to be identified and whom Paladino says witnessed the conversation, does not recall the incident. But another person present for the conversation, former Buffalo Sabres President Larry Quinn, confirmed that Higgins made the remark.

But Quinn said he did not believe then or now that the congressman was serious.

“Brian got mad and said that, in anger,” Quinn said. “I didn’t take it seriously, and it didn’t mean he would really do it.

“It would be a shame if people took it for anything else than a guy blowing off steam, which we all do,” he added.

Higgins said the incident “may have been a conversation Larry and I had. It is what it is.”

“He has not advanced anything to say ‘here is rock-solid evidence he did this thing,’ ” Higgins added.

The congressman said Paladino should be held just as accountable for the many controversial comments he has made in public.

“It’s not OK for him to insult gay and lesbian people in Buffalo or a professional woman at a public meeting,” he said. “I think he’s a creep, a punk, and a coward.”

Paladino’s billboards

Fast-forward to Paladino’s Thruway billboard, which at one time featured an “enemies list” skewering everyone from Buffalo Niagara Partnership President Andrew J. Rudnick to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to former News Publisher Stanford Lipsey. Paladino has never shied from expressing his feelings.

Still, he has recently demonstrated he can repair previously broken relationships – such as with Mayor Byron W. Brown.

A mellow Paladino showed no animosity after the city rejected his proposal for a Webster Block commercial complex in favor of one submitted by the Buffalo Sabres. And a year later, the mayor says his administration will now support Paladino’s new hotel and commercial complex at Erie Basin Marina – pegged at $75 million.

The congressman points to his own support of Brown as the root cause of his Paladino problem.

“That’s the irony in all this,” Higgins said. “Now he’s cozy with the mayor and in exchange is doing business with the city – which is fine.”

Paladino, meanwhile, attended a recent Brown fundraiser after years of animosity, and said he will not support a Brown opponent in this year’s mayoral election as in the past. Witnesses report that Paladino even gave one of his trademark “bear hugs” to the mayor at his fundraiser, and that Brown – for the first time ever – attended Paladino’s famous Christmas party in December at Ellicott Square.

But it appears no such reconciliation lies in the future for Paladino and Higgins.

“No, I don’t expect that,” Higgins said. “I’m not interested in a relationship with people like that.”

The Paladino camp expects little on that score either.

“I would like to see it, but I honestly don’t know,” said Thompson, the tea party leader. “It goes very deep.”

Higgins labels his rival hypocritical for railing against government while renting his properties to New York State for “big money.”

And he delights in pointing out that the structure hosting the “silly billboard” is deserted, dilapidated and covered with graffiti.

“Carl has a beautiful family, both immediate and extended, and I feel sorry for them,” Higgins said. “He is pathetic.”

A surplus of tension

Back in South Buffalo, the tension sometimes overflows, even if life goes on.

Last week, Paladino announced he will run for the Buffalo Board of Education this year in the South District. Voting records show that in the 2010 gubernatorial race, the South Council District was the only city district that Paladino carried.

And he won big, by a 2-to-1 ratio.

“Isn’t that quite a statement?” Keane said. “That just shows how much anger and frustration there was.”

Still, Keane says he is saddened by a dispute between two men who by all rights should be working together. The Niagara Thruway billboard now adds a new dimension to the feud, and he calls Paladino “out of line.”

“In general, people are not even aware of it,” Keane said of South Buffalo’s reaction to the feud. “But among politically connected people or among those who know them both, it bothers them. They wish it would go away.”

Paladino, who often hints at supporting a Higgins congressional opponent, doesn’t see any chance for reconciliation either.

Reapportionment, he acknowledged, handed Higgins a district that appears invulnerable to a Republican challenge.

“He’s so lucky a judge gave him the perfect district,” Paladino said, hinting at only one remaining possibility. “Until a better Democrat comes along.”

And the family gatherings? They are now a bit awkward.

“We’ve been at events in the same room,” Paladino said of Higgins, “but he generally leaves right away.”