Paladino, Cuomo Face-Off in Debate

Tea Party-backed Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino and Democrat Atty. Gen. Andrew Cuomo squared off in the first and likely only debate in the race for New York governor. At the insistence of the Paladino campaign, Paladino and Cuomo shared the stage at Long Island’s Hofstra University with five minor party candidates.

The debate was the first chance for Paladino and Cuomo to meet in person in what has been an increasingly nasty race. Paladino, flush from his surprise Republican primary blowout of the establishment candidate and former U.S. Rep. Rick Lazio, set out to goad Cuomo into a debate featuring all of the candidates for governor by issuing a challenge to his manhood.

“It’s difficult to understand why you, a polished veteran campaigner, scion of a political dynasty and king-designate, would fear a simple businessman from Buffalo, who candidly has never been in a debate in his life—except maybe in a bar,” Paladino said in an open letter to Cuomo. “Frankly, I don’t think you have the cojones to face me and the other candidates in an open debate.”

Once the event started, however, there was none of the expected fireworks between the two major party candidates. In the time since his open letter, the game has changed for Paladino. Recent news stories on the race have focused on controversial statements Paladino made on gay marriage and a highly publicized shouting match with a New York Post reporter. The goal for Paladino in the debate, then, was to present himself as a serious candidate who can speak credibly on the issues and not simply channel popular anger at government. On that score, Paladino received an assist from a most unlikely source: Andrew Cuomo. 

Paladino and Cuomo never mentioned each other by name. Instead, Cuomo found himself agreeing with many of Paladino’s positions, and sparring with one of the minor party candidates in what could be a sign of lingering bad blood between Cuomo and a traditionally Democratic constituency that should form a significant portion of his base of support.

On the size of government, Medicaid, education spending, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and even drilling for natural gas, Cuomo espoused positions in line with Paladino. Paladino cited Medicaid and education spending as the two biggest budget busters facing New York; Cuomo called for cutting Medicaid funding and said more money for education was not always the answer for failing schools. Paladino called for school choice, more charter schools, and vouchers for students in failing schools; Cuomo called for “experimentation,” fostering competition in the public school system, and more charter schools. 

Paladino called for a 10% income tax cut and slashing corporate tax rates; Cuomo called for “targeted tax incentives” and eliminating the state capital-gains tax. Paladino said that New York property taxes—which he said were 60% higher than the national average—are being driven up in part by education mandates from Albany; Cuomo called property taxes “oppressive” and said that he would reduce “unfunded mandates.”

Paladino said he would put the M.T.A. under the governor’s control for a period of five years to make it “responsive to the people;” Cuomo said he would put the governor in charge of the agency permanently. Paladino called for drilling in Western New York State outside the New York City watershed; Cuomo refused to rule out drilling.

The only issue on which Paladino and Cuomo substantively disagreed was gay marriage. Paladino said that he did not support legalizing gay marriage while Cuomo said he “strongly support[ed]” it.

Cuomo’s advertising has been critical of Paladino’s anger at the dysfunction of state government. “Anger is not a governing strategy,” the ads say. But in the debate, Cuomo sounded his own disgust at Albany, telling viewers that New York State government has become a “national embarrassment,” and saying, “I understand that you’re frustrated with Albany. I’m frustrated, too.”

The most frustrated candidate on stage, however, was New York City Council member Charles Barron (D.-Brooklyn), who is running on the Freedom Party line. Barron started the Freedom Party, which he bills as an all-black party, as a protest against Cuomo’s selection of a white running mate and all the other state office candidates being white. Barron attacked Cuomo numerous times in the debate, accusing Cuomo of dragging his feet on investigating his political allies, telling Cuomo’s supporters not to be scared to vote for another party’s candidate, and drawing a pointed response from Cuomo on one occasion.

The flare up between Barron and Cuomo could reignite tensions between African-Americans and Cuomo stemming from Cuomo’s failed bid for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2002. Cuomo challenged popular African-American state comptroller H. Carl McCall in the Democratic primary that year. Leaders in the black community, who were eager to see McCall become the first African-American gubernatorial candidate, were angered by Cuomo’s candidacy. Under pressure, Cuomo eventually withdrew but retained a spot on the general election ballot on the Liberal Party line. McCall went on to lose to then-Gov. George Pataki in a landslide.

Paladino regained some of his characteristic zeal in his closing statement. “I’m not a career Albany politician, I’m a builder from Western New York,” Paladino began. “Critics say I’m angry. No, I’m passionate about saving New York. New York’s government needs a major overhaul, now. My plan scares the career politicians in Albany to death. That’s why they call me crazy,” he said. “I’ll tell you my plan and you tell me if it’s crazy: cut taxes by 10%; cut spending by 20%; demand eight-year term limits; and demand legislators disclose all outside income.”

In addition to criticizing his anger, Cuomo’s ads say Paladino has no plan to turn around New York. Before tonight, he may have called Paladino and his plan crazy. But when it came time to face the voters, Cuomo seemed to be looking to find ways to align himself with Paladino on issue after issue.

Paladino is still a long shot to overtake Cuomo, who after two close polls last month has opened up a double-digit lead in the race.  But Cuomo may have made a mistake tonight in attempting to adopt Paladino’s positions as his own, thereby undercutting his criticism of Paladino, and elevating the Republican in the eyes of voters who are looking for a fresh face in Albany. Combine that with Barron’s hinting at potentially resurgent tensions between Cuomo and the black community, and Cuomo’s performance in the debate tonight could breathe new life into Paladino’s bid.