Michael R. Caputo recalls the night two years ago when Carl P. Paladino seemed to “click” with Donald Trump.
Meeting at a Manhattan restaurant with other Buffalonians, Paladino was unsuccessfully imploring Trump to run for governor of New York in 2014, said Caputo, the local political strategist who ran Paladino’s campaign and is now assisting Trump. The pair seemed to feed on each other, Caputo said, as well as on the anger and resentment toward Albany that they encountered throughout New York State.
“It was like they would finish each other’s sentences,” Caputo said. “He told him, ‘I think you can succeed where we failed. What I couldn’t do, I think you can.’ ”
Six years after Paladino’s own unsuccessful but noteworthy run for governor, several observers agree that he tapped into a New York fervor that Trump is now exploiting throughout the nation. Paladino’s “mad as hell” campaign won overwhelming success in the Republican primary that year against an “establishment” candidate supported by most party leaders. He then lost in a landslide in the general election to Andrew M. Cuomo, who’s now in his second term as governor.
Still, Trump rides the same wave of discontent in the Republican primary.
Both have been called “bombastic” and “shooting from the hip.” Both are successful businessmen. And both rail against the establishment of their own Republican Party.
“There’s no question about it,” Paladino said this week. “We’re unfiltered and speaking what other people are thinking.”
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Paladino said he experienced the same “vibe” at massive Trump rallies this week in Albany and Rome that he first encountered on his own campaign trail six years ago. The “silent majority” of 2010, he said, is the “vocal majority” of 2016.
“There’s a festering anger out there, and people are looking for a leader not afraid to get in the arena,” he said.
Republicans and Democrats agree that Paladino’s campaign served as a precursor to the one that Trump is now waging in New York. Polls show Trump topping the 50 percent mark statewide in his presidential primary effort against Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John R. Kasich.
Thomas M. Reynolds, of Clarence, the former Erie County GOP chairman and congressman who later directed the national Republican campaign in the House, recalled that Paladino beat former Rep. Rick A. Lazio in the 2010 statewide Republican gubernatorial primary by 2-to-1. In Erie County, he tallied an astonishing 94 percent.
“No one I know of scores a victory like that,” Reynolds said.
While Paladino carried a symbolic baseball bat across the state to use on the status quo, Reynolds said Trump conveys the same message bolstered by celebrity and personal wealth.
“He says things publicly that if any other politician even attempted it, he would be evaporated in the lasers of public reaction,” Reynolds said.
“And the more he says it, the better his standing in the polls.”
State Republican Chairman Edward F. Cox recognizes the same phenomenon in the electorate that Paladino sees on the current campaign trail. Although Paladino continually targets Cox as part of the “establishment” he opposes, the chairman nevertheless recognizes what he and Trump have created. He traces it to the “great silent majority” immortalized by his father-in-law – President Richard M. Nixon – as far back as 1969.
“I have been aware of this part of the electorate to which, frankly, both parties have not paid attention,” he said. “These are the people who make our society and our economy work and have seen their jobs eclipsed by technology. This is an electorate Donald Trump has focused on.”
Cuomo said last month in Buffalo that he also understands the Trump dynamic, even though he defeated Paladino in the 2010 general election. He said that it would have been unthinkable not long ago for Trump and Cruz to poll so well in New York or, for that matter, for a democratic socialist such as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to do so among Democrats.
“What’s happening? They’re angry,” Cuomo said.
“They are angry on both ends of the spectrum; they’re angry at the establishment. And in some ways, it’s an equal and opposite reaction.”
Robert E. Davis, a former Erie County Republican chairman, also recognizes the political atmosphere that Paladino first exploited and Trump now taps into. He was enjoying a cigar at the Tinder Box tobacco store on Transit Road in Amherst this week when the topic arose among seven other men in the smoking room.
All were onboard with Trump, explained Davis, who has been close with Lazio since his unsuccessful Senate run against Hillary Clinton in 2000. And he enthusiastically backed Lazio for governor against Paladino in the 2010 primary, only to get bowled over by the same force that Trump has resurrected.
“I was a very close friend of Rick’s, so I stayed with him,” Davis said. “But voters saw Carl as anti-establishment. They got attracted to him, and it’s the same thing with Donald Trump. The world has changed.”
Not everybody recognizing the phenomenon traces its origin to Paladino. Leading Republicans such Cox, Reynolds and current Erie County GOP Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy point to Rep. Chris Collins, of Clarence, as the earliest example.
Another successful businessman, he charged out of the private sector in 2007 to win the contest for county executive as a Republican in overwhelmingly Democratic Erie County. Now, Collins serves as one of Trump’s top national spokesmen.
“We are a place where there was a taxpayer revolt before there ever was one,” Langworthy said. “There are a lot of frustrated taxpayers from generations of bad politicians, and they’ve been big victims of the federal and state government.
“Collins enjoyed historic support in that election because people wanted to hear something different. They want someone to tell it like it is – and not another politician.”