Reporting from New York — Carl Paladino, a self-made multimillionaire who wants to be governor of New York, has set up shop in the lobby of a low-budget hotel in midtown Manhattan.
This real estate developer from downtown Buffalo has been giving media interviews back to back since he trounced an establishment Republican last month to become the party's nominee. He is visibly exhausted, shirt rumpled, dark circles under his eyes. But when the subject turns to New York's state legislators, he is suddenly renewed, pounding his fist on the table with the ferocity of the jackhammer breaking up the sidewalk outside the hotel.
"I'm gonna shine a spotlight on them and send them back to their constituents to get a whipping. I'm gonna tell voters exactly what's going on, and what it's costing them," he said last week. "I'm gonna have a press conference every day at 11 o'clock. I'll tell you what we did yesterday, what we're doing today, and what we're gonna do tomorrow. I'll tell you anybody who's standing in the way."
This is one angry guy.
The next day, the 64-year-old candidate nearly came to blows with a New York Post editor who Paladino alleged had sent "goons" to photograph his 10-year-old daughter. "I'll take you out, buddy," the candidate said in an exchange recorded on cellphone video.
This gruff Democrat-turned-Republican, who says his anger is nothing more than "a reflection of what the people want," is New York's flavor of the "tea party" movement that has incumbents and party-anointed candidates across the country quaking in their wingtips.
Until Paladino came along, the New York governor's race was supposed to be a coronation for Democrat Andrew Cuomo, 53, whose father, Mario, had the job for three terms in the 1980s and '90s. (Paladino likes to needle the notoriously thin-skinned Cuomo with references to "Prince Andrew.")
Many wondered whether it wasn't naive to presume an easy victory for a New York political scion during a down economy, with the state budget deficit expected to balloon to $15 billion next year.
Still, Cuomo had all the advantages.
As attorney general, he held investigative powers when the last two governors were imploding. First, Democrat Eliot Spitzer had to step down after revelations of his involvement with a prostitute ring; then his Democratic successor, Gov. David Paterson, now swamped by scandal, bowed out of the race.
With Paterson out of the running, Cuomo scared off any other potential Democratic challengers with behind-the-scenes maneuvering and a hefty war chest, estimated at $20 million. As it is, New Yorkers typically favor Democrats 2 to 1 over Republicans for statewide office.
But while Cuomo remains ahead in public opinion polls, his favorability numbers have fallen under his rival's attacks. Paladino is closing in, trailing by 11 points on average in the polls. For better or worse, he has gained voters' attention with his aggressive campaign style, his unconventional views on how to reform state government and his tabloid-tailored rhetoric.
The tangle with the Post editor grew in part out of Paladino's insistence that if he's going to be questioned constantly about his private life, then Cuomo — who is divorced from a Kennedy — should be on a similar hot seat. Paladino has already conceded "bad judgment" after it was revealed he'd forwarded offensive images and video from his personal e-mails.
But he makes it clear that he believes the personal failings of elected officials should not be held against them if they're qualified to govern. He cites Spitzer, whom Paladino supported with campaign contributions, as an example of a capable public servant who never should have left office.
"The day before he left I told Eliot, 'Don't quit,'" Paladino said. "You show me the perfect person. You show me Mr. Perfect out there. Who? Arnold [Schwarzenegger]? The former president, Clinton? … He's human, Eliot's human, I'm human."
Paladino did not extend such a concession to Cuomo, whom he holds responsible for single-handedly starting the subprime crisis when he served in Washington as secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Paladino has relentlessly attacked and poked fun at Cuomo; in one poster labeled "Why won't Cuomo debate Carl," Paladino's pit bull, Duke, towers over a Chihuahua named Fifi. (Cuomo has said he is petless, though his campaign did explain that his three daughters, who live mostly with their mother, have a small dog named Angus.)
Paladino makes no apologies for rants against entrenched Albany legislators, most notably Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, whom he likened to a dictator. Paladino vows to stay just one term if he's elected and to spend all four years bludgeoning legislators into submission with a baseball bat until they agree to slash the budget, taxes and Medicaid.