On paper, Carl Paladino is a dream opponent for Andrew Cuomo. First off, there are Paladino’s racist e-mail forwards. Then there’s his opposition to abortion. His aggressive government-favor-seeking professional past. His top campaign staffer who didn’t pay his taxes. Just this week came his threat to personally “take out” a New York Post reporter for “sending goons” to photograph his 10-year-old love child. Not to mention that, as a Times editorial put it, Paladino “may be a blowhard without a serious plan to govern New York.”
And yet polls, including internal Cuomo polls, point to a tightening race. Republican gubernatorial candidate Paladino, another in this year’s crop of rich populists, has tapped into the intense anger of the electorate. And so a sense of vulnerability has settled over the Cuomo camp. As one person close to him said, “Normally take-charge Andrew seemed to have a deer-in-the-headlights look.” Even some supporters have lately wondered if Cuomo knows how to handle Paladino.
If he doesn’t, the problem is not with Cuomo’s abilities—he’s more than Paladino’s intellectual match and has a better record of getting things done—but with the conflicts inside him. The inner Cuomo has long been home to competing personae. One was nurtured in the service of his father, former governor Mario Cuomo. Andrew was Mario’s henchman and enforcer, quick to anger, prone to nastiness, a win-at-all-costs operative. “I was 25!” Cuomo complained to me when I brought up the subject a few months ago. Which is true.
Over the years, Cuomo has worked to re-create himself as a more circumspect, more thoughtful person. Circumstance helped speed the transformation. Beginning in 2002, Cuomo suffered public humiliation: He was forced to bow out of the governor’s race; the next year his wife, Kerry Kennedy, left him after she had an affair. Failure seemed to free him from his past. The young, angry Cuomo, the one who had to constantly prove himself—to his father, to the press, to the public—emerged chastened and philosophical. “You control nothing,” Cuomo told me. If he couldn’t completely banish his temper—who can change the past?—he resolved to keep it at bay. Restraint became part of Cuomo’s political personality.
As attorney general, he was careful not to appear angry—or not to appear at all—worrying that his Darth Vader personality, as detractors called it, might show itself. Even as he championed the cause of a furious public, he seemed to want to keep himself offstage. He didn’t like to hold press conferences, preferring to answer reporters’ questions by phone (and off the record). Until recently, Cuomo’s campaign strategy was similarly cautious: Don’t make mistakes was the watchword. For a time, he hardly campaigned, instead wrapping himself in a cloak of inevitability. And it worked: Early polls had him ahead of Paladino by more than 35 points.
Then Paladino cast himself as Howard “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” Beale. He was going to “take out the trash” in Albany, he said. No doubt, the younger Cuomo, sensitive to every insult, would have risen to the fight. But Cuomo prefers the temperate, reflective person he’d become—more like his father—and so he’s waited patiently, hoping Paladino will blow himself up. “His nightmare is that public perception turns and people start calling him Darth Vader again,” says a person in the Cuomo camp. Lift the lid and the anger might boil over.
And so as supporters call for confrontation, Cuomo has stayed measured, adult. At a press conference, he had to be badgered into mildly denouncing Paladino’s offensive e-mail forwards. For Cuomo partisans, it has been a frustrating moment. When his staff recently pushed him, Cuomo seemed to throw up his hands: “What do you want me to do? Call him an asshole?” Cuomo responded, as if disgusted by the prospect. But New Yorkers want their candidate to “take out” Paladino rather than wait for his self-destruction. Let those youthful street-fighting instincts bubble to the surface, even if that’s the very thing the mature Cuomo seems to fear most.