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What My Opponent Won't Tell You Is...

The greatest hit jobs of the 2010 election season

Even in an unexceptional year—which 2010 certainly is not—predicting the outcome of elections is foolish in the case of races that are close and dull in the case of races that are not. Instead, we offer a review of some of the season’s greatest political hit jobs: the ad campaigns that stand out as surprising or egregious, the self-inflicted wounds that will not heal, the desperate measures of desperate candidates. I’ve picked a half dozen to start.

We begin with a race that should be all wrapped up in a bow for the incumbent…

First, kill all the lawyers

The race: 60th State Senate District

The hit: Incumbent Antoine Thompson accuses Republican challenger Mark Grisanti of being a good lawyer

State Senator Antoine Thompson should have nothing to worry about, right? He’s an incumbent in a state that returns 98 percent of incumbents to office. His base of African-Americans on Buffalo’s East Side continues to vote as a bloc, and the get-out-the-vote machine of his Grassroots political club remains a juggernaut—witness his victory in the Democratic primary, where challengers Rory Allen and Al Coppola were buried by Thompson’s supporters in the Masten, Ellicott, University, and Fillmore districts, and split the anti-Thompson vote in the rest of the 60th District, which reaches into Grand Island Niagara Falls.

Even in a topsy-turvy year like this, the odds seems stacked in Thompson’s favor. But Democratic incumbents in Western New York are terrified that Carl Paladino will draw local Republicans and Conservatives to the polls. Plus, Thompson suffers from a high unfavorable rating aggravated by a series of public relations debacles. (That trip to Jamaica? The extravagant, taxpayer-funded expenditures on self-promoting mailers and literature? That time he voted against a bill that he himself had sponsored? That contribution he made to Hiram Monserrate’s legal defense fund? And most recently, his bit part in the AEG/Aqueduct scandal?) So in the last weeks of the race, the Democratic State Senate Campaign Committee, which Thompson co-chairs, has swooped in from Albany with foot soldiers, money, and an advertising campaign aimed at Thompson’s opponent, attorney Mark The gist of the attack on Grisanti: You can’t trust the man because he’s a lawyer and Republican.

First, the lawyer part: The TV and mail campaign posits, “If you’re a killer, drug dealer, burglar or scam artist, Mark Grisanti would like to represent you.” The ads feature a photo of Grisanti doctored to look blurry, evoking a famous image of JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. The ads claim that Grisanti “[t]ried to get a convicted drug addict murderer out of jail”; “[f]ought for a corrupt businessman who stole thousands of our tax dollars”; [a]ttempted to reduce the sentence for a woman who killed a 13 year-old boy”; [d]efended financial scam artists who stole millions of dollars.”

In the first case, Grisanti represented a drug addict who killed another addict in a fight with one punch—an accident. He was ordered to spend a year in jail and then enter rehab. In the second case, a Connecticut Street grocer was caught offering credit to customers whose food stamps had run out for the month, and then taking payment when their benefits were renewed the following month. In the third case, Grisanti represented an 18-year-old girl who was showing off a rifle at a party. She accidentally discharged it, killing a 13-year-old boy. Grisanti asked the judge to grant her youthful offender status, which the judge refused to do.

As for the fourth allegation, Grisanti says, “I have no idea what they’re talking about.” The ad campaign cite Buffalo News headlines to back up the first three, but there is no story cited to back up the fourth.

In any case, it is fundamental to our justice system that everyone has a right to representation, and a lawyer is professionally obligated to do his or her best to represent the interests of every client, no matter how unfortunate or savory the client’s circumstances. The ad campaign has raised the hackles of the local legal community—which is never a good idea in the world of politics, which is heavily populated with and sponsored by lawyers.

The Republican part: Grisanti is a Democrat running with the Republican endorsement. Sound familiar? Democrat-turned-Republican Joel Giambra is in fact supporting Grisanti in this race.

The Italian job

The race: New York Governor

The hit: Self-inflicted—Carl Paladino and campaign manager Michael Caputo shoot themselves in the foot for two dozen votes

Our colleagues at may argue that Carl Paladino made his biggest mistake—and made it over and over again—long before he announced his candidacy for governor of New York, by forwarding rafts of racist, misogynist, pornographic, and generally sophomoric joke emails to a long list of friends and acquaintances. Those emails were going to come out, and Paladino’s campaign manager, Michael Caputo, seemed completely unprepared to field the disclosure. (Though Paladino and I have a cordial relationship, we agree on very little, and he once sent a message to me through one of our stringers that I should “go fuck a drainpipe.” Still, even I was on that email distribution list, which speaks to Paladino’s complete disdain for discretion.) Of course, one of those emails showed a woman having sex with a horse, and a candidate who promulgates bestiality faces an uphill climb running for dog-catcher, let alone governor of New York.

In general, Caputo ran a campaign distinguished by his strongest asset as a campaign manager: a sarcastic, assaulting wit that complements Paladino’s rawness and briefly wrong-footed the Cuomo camp, which had expected to cruise into the governor’s mansion without having to engage whomever the Republicans threw into the fire. But whatever advantage Caputo and Paladino gained with their lopsided victory over Rick Lazio in the Republican primary and their relentless ridicule of “Prince Andrew,” they lost in one huge gaffe that knocked the Paladino campaign off the rails for an entire, irretrievable week. Caputo sent his man to speak to a gaggle of ultraconservative Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn. Presumably, Caputo hoped that the confab would provide evidence that Paladino is not an anti-Semite, notwithstanding his professed hatred for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (Paladino seconded Erie County Executive Chris Collins’ characterization of Silver as the anti-Christ), while burnishing Paladino’s championship of conservative “family values.”

Instead, Paladino read a series of remarks that offended the LGBT community and its supporters, doubled the damage when he tried to explain away the remarks the next day on television, and spent the next few days back-pedaling into an apology. Coupled with his run-in with New York Post columnist Fred Dicker the week before, the incident caused many of his nominal supporters to question Paladino’s temperament and judgment—publicly. To counter the impression that he was simply too crazy or too angry to be governor, Paladino put in a subdued performance at the only gubernatorial debate, where he seemed uncomfortable while Cuomo seemed confident.

And for what? The synagogue where Paladino shot himself in the foot is home to a scant handful ultra-right-wing, not-quite-Hasidim. There are a couple dozen votes there to win, tops. And Paladino lost those when he apologized for pandering to them. Caputo offered his resignation in the wake of the incident, but Paladino wouldn’t accept it.

Meantime, on the other side, the cautious-to-a-fault Cuomo’s biggest gaffe was calling for the improvement of transmission infrastructure to more efficiently send electricity from the Niagara Power Project downstate, where the statement was not viewed as a gaffe at all. He also told the Buffalo News’ editorial board that there is “no such place as upstate New York,” arguing for a tight focus on the problems of regional economies, instead of the more simplistic upstate/downstate divide. Paladino’s campaign did not gain ground on the backs of either remark. This week Cuomo’s campaign aired a dubious allegation that Paladino inflated his record of military service, and Caputo and company pounced, trotting out angered veterans. The Paladino campaign also expressed outrage at the Cuomo camp’s efforts to besmirch the reputations of Paladino’s chief operatives—Caputo, Roger Stone, Grand Island Tea Party activist Rus Thompson—but neither Cuomo attack seemed to win new converts for Paladino: With just a few days left, Cuomo maintains a substantial lead in the polls.

If you don't ask

The race: New York Attorney General

The hit: Republican Dan Donovan tries to tie Democrat Eric Schneiderman to the Aqueduct scandal, reveals his ignorance of state law.

Republican Dan Donovan has got to be hoping that the wave of Republican, Conservative, and Tea Party voters that Carl Paladino seemed to likely to deliver after his dramatic primary victory doesn’t peter out before November 2. Otherwise his Democratic opponent, State Senator Eric Schneiderman, is poised to clean his clock. He’s got all the big endorsements, lots of money, an enviable campaign operation.

Each candidate accuses the other of cozying up to the people whom the AG’s office is expected to police. And you know what? They’re both right. There’s no political candidate for statewide office that doesn’t take money, if it’s offered, from big banks and investment firms, insurance companies, law firms, and industrial interests.

However, Inspector General Joseph Fisch’s curiously timed release of his report on the AEG/Aqueduct scandal has got folks running in all directions. Donovan tried his best this week to suggest that Schneiderman was up to his ears in the affair. Donovan filed a request under Freedom of Information Law for “emails and phone records, memos, schedules and other documents, which may indicate [Schneiderman’s] involvement, collusion or participation in the process that awarded a $300 million state contract to an unqualified entity—AEG.”

In fact, Schneiderman—who, whatever one else may make of him, has a reputation for being on the up and up—says he voted against a Republican bill that made the fraudulent bidding process possible.

But the real problem with Donovan’s FOIL request is that New York’s legislators, in their wisdom, exempted themselves from most aspects of the state’s Freedom of Information Law. That stinks and ought to be changed, but why doesn’t a guy who wants to be the state’s top lawyer know what can be FOILed and what can’t?

In response, Schneiderman—who, whatever else one may think of him, has a reputation for playing tough—filed a FOIL request for “emails and phone records, memos, schedules and other documents, which may indicate his involvement, collusion or participation in the process to illegally assist Interstate Industrial in winning a city contract.” When Donovan was chief of staff to Staten Island’s borough president, Interstate Industrial was negotiating a trash-hauling contract with the borough. The company turned out to have ties to the mob, and Donovan returned a donation the company made to his campaign for Staten Island District Attorney.

Trying to tie Donovan to a mobbed-up trash hauler is about as spurious as trying to tie Schneiderman to AEG and the Aqueduct scandal, but at least Schneiderman’s FOIL indicates an awareness of state law: Contract negotiations between an executive and a private company, especially if complete, are eminently FOILable.

You’re soaking in it

The race: 144th Assembly District

The hit: Incumbent Sam Hoyt calls Democratic primary challenger (and now Conservative general election challenger) Joe Golombek a Tea Partier.

Assemblyman Sam Hoyt took a shellacking in 2008 at the hands of his arch-nemeses in local Democratic politics, Steve Pigeon and Steve Casey, who orchestrated the release of emails revealing an affair Hoyt had with a young woman in Albany. Fear that the affair—which ended in 2004—might become public had already curtailed Hoyt’s plan to run for mayor in 2005. The revelation in the last go-around did him tremendous political damage, notwithstanding his spirited win over the hapless Democratic challenger, Barbra Kavanaugh, who pretended to have no knowledge of the mud-slinging perpetrated on her behalf.

That 2008 challenge to Hoyt was underwritten with nearly $500,000 of Tom Golisano’s money, deployed by Pigeon. (Statewide, Pigeon spent about $4 million of Golisano’s cash in 2008, to very little effect—although the show of wealth did help Golisano and Pigeon to orchestrate the State Senate leadership coup that froze government for several weeks.) So when it became clear that North District Councilman Joe Golombek, who had lost a close primary challenge to Hoyt in 2004, planned to take another shot, Hoyt expected another filthy and well financed campaign. He swore that this time he’d be prepared to swing back.

Golombek swore he would not allow his campaign to get dirty. (He says he was disgusted by the 2008 campaign against Hoyt, not out of sympathy for Hoyt but because of the embarrassment it caused Hoyt’s family.) For the most part, he would live up to that promise. He sniped at the incumbent and tried to pin on him all of Albany’s dysfunctions, but never swung below the belt.

Still, the Hoyt camp kept waiting for the other shoe to drop: When would Golisano’s (or some other moneybag’s) cash kick in? When would the character assassination commence?

Impatient, the Hoyt campaign decided to drop the first shoe. They launched a series of mailers depicting Golombek sitting in a steaming cup of tea, with “Democrats can’t trust Joe Golombek” written on the cup. On the teabag’s label was a photo of Sarah Palin. Below was the caption “Joe Golombek wants to be the Tea Party candidate.” The allegation: Golombek had actively sought the endorsement of local Tea Party types at a forum hosted by Tea Party activist (and driver to gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino) Rus Thompson.

True, Golombek did seek Tea Party support. True, he remains on the ballot as the Conservative Party candidate, and is actively campaigning. But Golombek has been a Democrat his whole life, albeit the sort of conservative Catholic Democrat which is one of Buffalo specialty products. He’s not as progressive on social issues as Hoyt, of course, but he’s hardly a Bircher. Or a Birther.

So Hoyt went negative first, which surprised many. In the end, Golombek never got big money from Golisano, who, having moved to Florida to escape New York’s taxes, sat out this election cycle. Pigeon, caught up in his own troubles, was invisible this summer. Casey went to bat for Golombek, but he didn’t bring much money with him, and his get-out-the-vote efforts fell just short.

The Young Republican in the race, Brian Biggie, has spent the last month and a half waving his arms and begging for Hoyt to pay him some attention, attempting some of the same baiting rhetoric Paladino has used gainst Cuomo—don’t be a coward, stop ducking me, let’s have a debate. That hasn’t really stuck. The three candidates were scheduled to debate Wednesday night.

Do not go gentle...

The race: 59th State Senate District

The hit: Demographics, demagoguery, and major party politics kill any chance of a competitive race for an open seat.

Dale Volker held on to this seat for decades by understanding that its rural, conservative western and southern reaches trumped the Erie County political machines, both Democratic and Republican, who occasionally plotted to remove him. That’s why former Erie County Sheriff Pat Gallivan beat former Erie County Republican Party Chairman Jim Domagalski for the Republican nomination: Gallivan had rural appeal and Domagalski did not.

Former East Aurora Mayor and Tea Party activist Dave DiPietro fared well enough in that primary in his own backyard, but he had to file petitions to get on next week’s ballot as a third-party candidate—a tough row to hoe, made tougher by DiPietro’s demagoguery. (People will listen to and even cheer on an angry man, but rarely will they vote for him, given a reasonable alternative who preaches roughly the same message.) DiPietro’s efforts to saddle Gallivan with the bad publicity that has dogged the current sheriff, Tim Howard, have found no purchase.

Meantime, Cynthia Appleton must watch from the sidelines: The district just isn’t cut out for a Democrat, even this year, with Gallivan and DiPietro sparring for Republicans and Conservatives and other denizens of the right. Her refusal to take a contribution from the Democratic State Senate Campaign Committee, shaken by the Aqueduct/AEG scandal, is laudable but simply will not change the district’s demographics.

All quiet on the western front

The race: 58th State Senate District

The hit: Bill Stachowski, with a monkey wrench, in the conservatory.

Erie County Legislator Tim Kennedy did a masterful job setting himself up to wrest away fellow Democrat Bill Stachowski’s seat in the State Senate. He raised lots of money and lined up enviable endorsements—all of which he needs against Assemblyman Jack Quinn III, his Republican opponent, who is also well financed, popular, and bound to benefit from a heavy Western New York turnout for Carl Paladino.

The campaign between Quinn and Kennedy has been testy but clean until this week, notwithstanding the efforts by each candidate—both, one must remember, already hold elected office—to characterize the other as an entrenched incumbent. Recently Quinn’s campaign rolled out a radio ad which expresses shock at Kennedy’s ties to political operative Steve Pigeon.

But Kennedy’s not going to lose Democrats to Quinn on that count, not in a year when control of the State Senate, and therefore redistricting, hangs in the balance. No, Kennedy’s campaign has a more intractable problem: That pesky Stachowski remains on the ballot on the Independence Party and Working Families Party lines. The 58th District favors a Democrat, but Stachowski threatens to siphon off some of Kennedy’s votes. Add in the Paladino factor, which will be a reality in Western New York even if it fails to materialize elsewhere in the state, and Stachowski’s name on the ballot threatens to do more damage to Kennedy than any overhyped attack by Quinn.

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