In a story many of his readers found shocking, Buffalo News columnist Rod Watson today wrote that developer Carl Paladino "now has more credibility than the teacher unions." The unabashed liberal writer urged the newly-elected conservative Buffalo School Board member to attack "union contracts and state laws that make change virtually impossible."
After I read today's column, I had to re-read it. And read it again. You should read it, too.
If Carl Paladino has Rod Watson rooting for him, all the planets may have lined up for the developer to really do something to help save Buffalo's public schools.
I find Watson's column today particularly remarkable because, as Carl Paladino's gubernatorial campaign manager in 2010, I knew the bad blood between my candidate and the columnist ran deep. Carl wouldn't even speak Watson's name. For his part, Watson took Carl's name in vain - over and over again. In fact, if the News' search function is accurate, Watson has taken about a dozen shots at Paladino since the first time he mentioned him in a October 20, 2005 column criticizing the Mayoral campaign of Republican Kevin Helfer.
Over in the other camp, the single biggest chunk of Helfer money comes from developer Carl Paladino, once described by former Common Council nemesis Jim Pitts as sitting "on top of the City of Buffalo like a vulture on dry bones."
That's some pretty damning stuff, quoted straight from the mouth of Paladino's old school nemesis Jim Pitts. But it wasn't until May 1, 2008 that Watson first brought race into his discussion of Paladino. After the developer accused the Buffalo School Board of hiring failed Superintendent James Williams "because he was black" - a comment many labelled racist - the columnist painted Paladino in racist hues for the first time, without making the outright charge:
"Injecting race into the discussion says more about Paladino than about Williams. This is a businessman who, after all, has a history of opposing black leaders... Now that we know where Paladino is coming from, it's tempting to tell him where to go."
It certainly appears Paladino's "because he was black" retort was the beginning of Watson's closer scrutiny of Buffalo's most outspoken businessman. Two years later, when I first went to work for him, Carl explained his comment to me.
"The School Board hired a search firm that specialized in identifying minority candidates for senior public education jobs," he told me one day as we ate lunch at DiTondo's downtown. Carl eats their volcanic stuffed peppers like pastry; I could never get through a plate. Carl would point at me and laugh as I sweated right through my shirt.
"The children of this city deserve the best superintendent, not the best black superintendent," he said as I gulped a jumbo ice water. "I don't care what color they are - black, red, white, yellow, purple - that person should be the best superintendent we can afford."
That sounds pretty sensible on the face of it, in context, and many agree with him. It's the SAYING of it that gets dicey, I told him as his advisor. When people hear him say Williams was hired "because he was black," they immediately hear it as racially charged speech. Technically, Carl is not wrong - the board sought only black candidates - but hearing it spoken aloud offends the delicate sensibilities of the politically correct. It's worse when the logic of the statement requires context or it's meaning is skewed.
Truthfully, it made me cringe when he said it, too. And he says it still, urging his PC critics to Hades. His logic is really quite simple: "it makes sense to me, I don't mean it that way, and I don't care what you think. Get over it."
"Because he was black." That phrase turned the Buffalo News' leading columnist on race into a growing critic of one of Buffalo's most influential business owners. In fact, that phrase opened a barrage of accusations against Paladino from several sources. It wasn't until two years later that Watson reported again on the developer, by then a candidate for governor. In an April 1, 2010 column criticizing the Tea Party for its principally white membership, he brought Paladino into the story:
When gubernatorial wannabe/loose cannon Carl Paladino rails against poor people flocking to New York to "get a check," it's a throwback to Ronald Reagan's welfare queen... New York's overly generous Medicaid program is a legitimate issue. But Paladino's verbiage is hardly the way to invite blacks into the movement, even if it will reduce their taxes.
I remember that column sent Tea Party leader and Paladino confidant Rus Thompson into the stratosphere. Thompson railed on Watson in a senior staff meeting that morning, but Paladino stopped him short: "Forget about Watson; he doesn't matter. I don't even read the guy."
[As it turns out, the Watson Tea Party column didn't top our hit parade that day at all - one of the most difficult days of the campaign. That afternoon, Carl would interview with Watson's Buffalo News colleague Bob McCarthy for a story that would change the election forever.]
Watson criticized Paladino during the campaign, but not about perceived racism - about corporate welfare. In a column he wrote after we lost to Andrew Cuomo, his opinion of Paladino had sunk to new lows:
"Carl Paladino, of course, won't have [to govern]. He can go back to profiting off government contracts and exchanging racist e-mails. But before he exits, we should thank him for running a gubernatorial campaign that implanted Buffalo firmly in the national consciousness - like snow and the McKinley assassination."
Contrary to his critics, Rod Watson is not so easily dismissed as a knee-jerk pundit. He thinks about his topics, then writes - a process far too rare in the commentary class. The evolution of his writing on Paladino indicates that he thought long and hard about the bombastic Buffalo builder. The first wisp of Watson's begrudging support for Paladino's education ideas appeared on January 27, 2011:
Normally the warning "Consider the source" is good advice. But in pondering the merits of boarding schools to help Buffalo kids shortchanged by district schools, the opposite applies: Disregard the fact that the idea comes from Carl Paladino... Paladino, for those who want to forget, was the GOP gubernatorial candidate who raised some valid issues before racist e-mails, threats against reporters and other peccadilloes denied New Yorkers the benefit of his leadership. Now, like a nagging virus, he won't go away. But a public boarding school for Buffalo is an idea whose time has come, regardless of who the idea comes from.
Still, the columnist reserved barbed language for the popular developer. Like this, from a December 8, 2011 column about the infamous Paladino billboard on I-190, entitled "Paladino's Hit List Tells What a Bully He Is":
[Paladino] told The Buffalo News' Politics Column that fellow Republicans will be on his list of officeholders targeted to get tea party opponents unless they sign an oath to support causes he holds dear. Presumably, the oath will not include a vow to forward racist and misogynistic emails, as Paladino was caught doing amid the disaster he billed as a gubernatorial campaign last year. But anything that elected officials want to do can be accomplished without professing fealty to a divisive bully who made this area a laughingstock with his ridiculous vow to cut government by 20 percent while revealing a level of bigotry that no respectable officeholder should want to be associated with.
But, as Paladino's race for School Board took shape and he spoke more often of his education reform agenda, Watson was clearly listening closely. Perhaps his most memorable column until today on the matter was published March 13, 2013, where he struggled with the concept of supporting a man he suspected of racism because he may be the only force strong enough to save our schools:
The 2010 Republican gubernatorial nominee known for stirring things up and getting things done also is known for other things: Forwarding racist emails using the N-word. Proposing that unused prisons be converted into a kind of re-education camp for welfare recipients. Derisively referring to black female board members and administrators as "the sisterhood." Telling an audience, including students, that an African-American superintendent was hired only because he was black.
The attitude behind such comments raises a dilemma for black candidates for the School Board, one of whom has acknowledged talking with Paladino. It also raises a dilemma for voters and education activists frustrated with the schools and desperate for a change catalyst, but who have to decide if and how closely to align with someone with that kind of racial baggage.
Clearly, that column helped Rod Watson formulate the story he published today. And so we have Buffalo's most racially-focused writer urging on a man he believes is racially divisive to fix our City schools. Today he specifically pushed Paladino to "target the Triborough Amendment," which ties school districts' hands in union negotiations. The infamous Amendment is one of Carl's key issues, a topic I heard him discuss hundreds of times on the campaign trail.
Watson and Paladino v the Teachers Unions: what strange bedfellows! That's a battle I'd pay to see, and it looks like we might get the chance. Because, after years of criticizing government, Paladino is finally in a place where he can actually DO something. And many of his critics have hope he'll help.
Carl and Mr. Watson should meet at DiTondo's for lunch and talk about killing the Triborough Amendment and maybe working together as change catalysts for the children. That would be a helluva start to change Buffalo Schools for the better. But one warning word to the scribe: order a jumbo glass of ice water if Carl talks you into those stuffed peppers. You'll need it.