Mad as Hell in Carl Country

The large banners hanging above the empty bar declare the corner for “Carl Country.” Around the corner New York’s Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl “Mad as Hell” Paladino waits in a hotel for the polls to close. The streets of downtown Buffalo, home to Paladino and much of his vast real estate empire, are quiet and mostly empty, save a few groups of wandering students and a couple shivering in their jackets and sharing a cigarette.

Paladino is expected to lose the election to Democrat Andrew Cuomo tonight – poll averages from Real Clear Politics show Paladino trailing by 20 points. But Paladino can expect a boost from Buffalo voters, with a recent local poll showing him leading Cuomo 49 to 29 percent in Erie County.

Paladino’s popularity here isn’t just a product of hometown pride. This is an overwhelmingly Democratic city, full of unions, grassroots community groups and the social safety nets necessary to keep the country’s second poorest city from falling apart. Still, people across the city show their support for Paladino with signs echoing the campaign catch phrase, “I’m mad as hell too, Carl!”

And they have every reason to be.

Like much of the Rust Belt, Buffalo feels forgotten. The industry the use to run its economy moved overseas years ago. Roughly 30 percent of the residents here fall below the federal poverty line. Abandoned houses and lots litter every urban neighborhood – neighbors here were muttering “foreclosure” years before the bottom dropped out elsewhere.

Like their Tea Party counterparts, Buffalo residents and Western New Yorkers are “mad as hell” at the political establishment in Albany, the state’s capital, and the Democratic machine running out of New York City.

Paladino rode this anti-establishment wave for months. I talked to blue-collar workers, hippies, college students and jaded progressive activists who were all jumping ship to join the Paladino camp. Carl was ironic, gutsy, a breath of fresh air. He unashamed, as evidence of all those emails full of porn he sent to his friends. Hell, the guy is only human.

Then there is Cuomo, a total Albany insider. Son of a former governor, heir to the Democratic throne. People here don’t exactly trust Paladino, but they definitively can’t trust Cuomo, either.

But Paladino took it too far. Taking a baseball bat to Albany and beating down the state’s super-high taxes and extensive bureaucracy is one thing, but making fun of gay pride parades and poor people is another. Western New Yorkers might be mad as hell, but they are not social conservatives.

I’ll be keeping this in mind as I try to attend Paladino’s victory party.