Standing in Buffalo before a raucous crowd of more than 11,000 people, most of them supporters, Donald Trump delivered the same message he has been spreading across the country on the eve of the state’s primaries.
"We're going to unrig the system, and we're going to clean up the system," Trump, the frontrunner for the Republican nomination in this fall’s presidential race, said to a growing roar from the crowd.
While the New York City real estate mogul had many lines that drew great cheers, this line was one that Trump supporters in New York had heard many times before – but from another politician.
Carl Paladino, just minutes before Trump took the stage, delivered one of his familiar narratives, railing against what he describes as a corrupt system built to protect the power of the elite and shut the citizenry out of the democratic process.
As his speech neared it’s end, Paladino pulled out the big guns, celebrating the end of President Barack Obama’s time in the White House, the crowd growing louder in waves after each line.
“We’re tired of the leadership that’s been dragging us along for so long,” Paldino said and the crowd let out a jubilant scream.
In the works
While Paladino did his job in riling up the crowd for Trump, the Buffalo developer has been railing against what he perceives as “establishment” politics, the insider world of the two big parties working to protect and insulate themselves from regular voters, since his first foray into politics – his unsuccessful bid for governor in 2010.
In the ornate Ellicott Square Building on the morning of the rally, where his real estate company’s offices are situated, the calls were pouring in so fast that the receptionist, rolling her eyes as she worked to sort each person’s business, couldn’t finish one before the ringer was lighting up again, most of the requests to do with the night’s events.
In his corner office, stacks of papers nearly covering his conference table, legal briefing folders stacked chest-high at one point along the wall, Paladino, in his suit and tie, leaned back in an office chair.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said.
The similarities between Trump and Paladino, and their approach to politics, are striking.
Both have been accused of being racist. Both had no political experience before seeking major offices. Both have given generously to Republicans and Democrats alike, and have been registered members of both parties. Both made most of their money in real estate and development.
And both deliver a message that the politics of today must be torn to shreds and rebuilt.
While that message came far from winning him the governor’s office – Andrew Cuomo defeated him by 27 points statewide – Paladino took Cuomo in his home base of Western New York, where he beat him handily.
Paladino said that the reason he has been able to build such a strong following in Western New York and other upstate regions is that people who have long been frustrated are starting to wake up, because people like him and Trump are bringing a message of dissatisfaction to politics and finally giving a voice to what he often describes as the “silent majority.”
“All of a sudden a leader is speaking what the people think, whether it be about immigration, military,” Paladino said.
During his rally speech Paladino encouraged supporters to turn toward the pen where TV, print and radio reporters from outlets big and small were assembled and “let them know how mad you are.” The crowd jeered and hissed.
Later he came by the media area and chatted and joked with reporters.
The media, which he talks about as a monolith, has taken words out of context to fit their agenda, Paladino said. The people who have been “festering” in the world of establishment politics see past what the media labels as gaffes, inconsistencies or untoward comments.
For example, Trump at one point said “7/11” when referring to the 2001 terrorists attacks in New York City, which quickly became a meme sensation on social media. Later in the speech he claimed to be a “free-trader” after railing against the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership while proposing tariffs on imported goods.
"We're going to have really great trade deals, tough trade deals," Trump said.
People don’t get caught up on those little details if they trust you are a straight shooter, as he and Trump are, Paladino said.
For Paladino and Trump the strategy is a more pure politics of personality. Voters don’t need policy wonks explaining the minutiae of a tax proposal – they want someone who will make them feel confident and that they are not being lied to.
The disjointed, unplanned nature of Trump’s speeches appeal to that very sentiment, Paladino said.
“They talk to him, and he talks back to them in the audience,” Paladino said. “It isn’t just one of those phony rhetoric speeches that they give about America, motherhood and apple pie. Fuck that shit.”
Indeed, the Trump message has drawn a hard-to-figure crowd for most political analysts. As pundits have repeatedly predicted that his popularity would wane, he has only become stronger. While only registered Republicans can vote in the New York primary, party affiliations are hardly a predictor of who his common supporters are.
Sitting in a watering hole next to the First Niagara Center a few hours before the Trump rally, Pat Hanley was sipping a beer and chatting with a friend. Hanley, a registered Democrat and a resident of the Buffalo suburb of Lackawana, was there partially out of curiosity, but is supporting Trump.
While he’s not particularly impressed with any of the candidates, Trump offers a chance to change the status quo, to start a shift in Washington.
“Our political system is in such disarray,” Hanley said. “It needs a change so badly. Someone has to come in and say, ‘We can’t give everything away, we have to change.’”
And while he has doubts that Trump or any one person can bring about the drastic changes he would like to see, Hanley believes that Trump has the best chance at moving it in the right direction.
He recited the familiar complaints of frustrated voters in both parties: lifelong legislators, pay-to-play, tone deaf representatives. If nothing is to change, there doesn’t seem to be much point in participating, he said.
“Screw the system,” Hanley said.
Meanwhile, protesters started to line up outside the nearby arena, many railing against what they see as a message of hate and fear being promoted by Trump.
Earlier in the week, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose campaign for the Democratic nomination is also resonating with disaffected Americans, albeit with vastly different policy ideas, drew a large crowd of his own, bringing more than 8,000 people to the campus of the University at Buffalo.
These voters, particularly in a state with chronically low turnout, are the new battleground, and so far those who have worked within the existing system of lobbyists and super PACs are losing out to those who want to tear that system down.
While Paladino insists his work on Trump’s campaign has nothing to do with his own political ambitions, he has made it clear that he plans to take another run at the governor’s office in 2018.
Despite U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s recognition that his office had cleared Cuomo of wrongdoing in an investigation related to the dismantling of the Moreland Commission, Paladino said he believes he won’t have to face the incumbent, who has also implied his intention to run again – because he will be removed under criminal charges.
But he’s no friend of New York Republicans in the state legislature, either.
With Paladino, who currently holds a seat on the Buffalo School Board, again set to enter the arena of state politics, many in the conference are surely preparing for battle. He railed against the successful bid to make John Flanagan state Senate Majority Leader. He has had public spats with state Republican Committee Chairman Ed Cox. Dean Skelos, the former state Senate Majority Leader who was removed after his conviction on corruption charges, deserves to go to prison, he said.
And, just to send a message that there needs to be change, Paladino is hoping that the Republicans will lose their thin majority in the state Senate this fall, the only place in state government where they hold power.
“They’ve been going around and begging, begging, to stay relevant,” Paladino said. “Instead of doing their job and being the opposition government, what have they done? They sold us out.”
With nearly all voting districts in, unofficial results showed Trump crushing his opponents in the New York primary, beating out his nearest rival, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, by more than 30 points and likely taking 92 of the state’s 95 delegates.
Paladino, smiling and nodding along through most of Trump’s victory speech, stood behind him in Trump Towers as he delivered many of the same lines he had the night Before in Buffalo. One in particular about beating the unfair delegate system seemed to strike a chord with the Buffalo businessman.
With Trump’s domination in this primary, it’s a little less clear whether Paladino’s personality politics of anger and anxiety will be more effective a second time around.
“It’s a crooked system,” Trump said. It’s a system that’s rigged and we’ll be going back to the old way. It’s called you vote and you win.”