CLEVELAND – Carl Paladino was ambling through this convention city’s Terminal Tower over the weekend, clutching a Coke and a newspaper, clad in a gray T-shirt and rumpled “standing Buffalo” hat.
The hundreds of people passing through the downtown landmark would never know he was the 2010 Republican candidate for governor of New York. Nor would they ever fathom that the touristy-looking guy from Buffalo is assuming a high profile during the Republican National Convention, which this week will nominate Donald Trump for president.
Paladino will be everywhere in the convention that starts Monday night in Quicken Loans Arena, and he will be everywhere in New York this fall. As New York chairman, he faces the daunting task of winning for Trump his home state – the bluest of blue states.
Few experts view that task as even remotely possible, but Paladino has received his marching orders.
“I’m a hands-on guy,” he said while draining the Coke at a Terminal Tower table, “and Donald feels very strongly about doing the best he can in New York State. He wants to win New York State.”
That tough assignment begins here at the convention. It means giving the public as much exposure as possible to the “tough and determined” image of Trump that the campaign’s media meisters will craft for television.
Paladino predicts that a new seriousness will replace the bombast and bravado of the primaries. Conventions are all about image, and Trump – maybe more than anyone – knows about image.
Still at the Terminal Tower table, Paladino fielded phone calls from Rick Gates, a top official of Trump’s campaign. Then another came in from Jeanine Pirro, the onetime Westchester County district attorney and state attorney general candidate who hosts a Fox News television show. Paladino was slated for an appearance with her over the weekend, and he was lining up other possible surrogates.
The Buffalo developer has other Fox News TV appearances during his first-ever convention, and it’s a pretty good bet more national media will seek him out too. It’s all part of a plan that began with Trump’s landslide victory in the New York primary back in April. Paladino served as a driving force then, too.
“I ran eight rallies in 10 days throughout the state,” he said. “It was brutal. But he was happy.”
In Cleveland, state GOP officials are expected to unveil the team that will work with Paladino. The big county chairmen and state committee members will surely leave here as united as any delegation in the country for their New Yorker. That means Paladino will find himself stumping the state from Niagara Falls to Montauk this fall, working with top party people – and maybe just laying the foundation for 2018, too.
The Buffalo developer has made no secret that he is “seriously considering” another run at Andrew Cuomo in the next gubernatorial election, the same Cuomo who easily dispatched him in 2010. Cuomo seems to rile up Paladino more than anyone, as he makes sure a reporter scribbles down words like “nightmare” and “crooked.” Now, he thinks emerging Republicans such as Mike Pence – the Indiana governor and Trump’s running mate – will show the way for the GOP in New York.
“I’ve been reading up on Pence,” he said of one of the Indiana governor’s own economic-development plans. “Pence created 2,000 jobs with an investment that cost about $5,000 per job. Andrew Cuomo will create maybe 500 jobs (at Buffalo’s SolarCity project) if it ever happens at all, at about $1.5 million per job. It’s so obviously incompetent, if not corrupt.”
Paladino will rely heavily in Cleveland on John Haggerty, the veteran Republican operative from Queens who was with him in 2010 and will help this year, too. The bet here is that Haggerty will also be around in 2018. Together, they will cement their already strong contacts throughout the state and build on an already strong advantage.
Some people call Trump “Paladino’s protégé.” After all, Paladino’s 2010 campaign of bluster and bravado earned him tabloid headlines of “Crazy Carl,” but it also fostered an overwhelming primary victory. Ditto for Trump.
Critics lambasted Paladino in recent days for his trademark intemperate remarks, when he even suggested one “dump Trump” advocate should be “hung for treason.” Paladino does not back off, pointing to the “political correctness” that he detests.
But he knows he can go only so far with talk like that. Maybe he would have fared much better in 2010 by acting “gubernatorial” (sound familiar?).
“Yeah,” he acknowledges. “I’ve got to tamp that down and stick to the issues.”
In Cleveland and for the rest of the campaign, Paladino will make gaining New York votes for Trump his main task. He recalls his first visit with the candidate in 2013, when Trump summoned him to his Trump Tower office on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan while contemplating a run for governor – which both men realized would only serve as a warm-up to 2016.
Now, he points to one of his recent conversations with Trump.
“He said to me, ‘I’ve done everything in my life, and one thing I feel earnestly about is that I can do some great things for this country. My mom and dad worked hard to earn a place for me. My legacy for them and my kids would be to do something great.’ ”
“He won my heart,” Paladino added.
Paladino may be tramping through Terminal Tower on Public Square this week as a little-known visitor. But throughout New York in the months and maybe years ahead, everyone will recognize his face and know his name.