The Provocateur Loading Paladino’s Slingshot
By JAVIER C. HERNANDEZ
Published: September 24, 2010
He has hired strippers to embarrass a political opponent. He cycles through eight pairs of eyeglasses to make himself more difficult to recognize. And he readily shows reporters the scar from a bullet wound he says was the result of a drunken encounter with a rival in Russia.
Michael R. Caputo's impish spirit and no-holds-barred campaign style have helped propel his boss, Carl P. Paladino, a relatively unknown real estate mogul from Buffalo, to the Republican nomination for New York governor and have Mr. Paladino now menacing the once seemingly unstoppable Andrew M. Cuomo.
Behind each outlandish advertisement, slingshot tactic and red-meat riff of Mr. Paladino's campaign is Mr. Caputo, his campaign manager, whose high-octane brain plays foil to his candidate's high-velocity mouth.
From Mr. Caputo's pen have come some memorable gibes at Mr. Cuomo, Mr. Paladino's Democratic rival, whom they have dubbed Prince Andrew, Status Cuomo and Br'er Andrew.
From Mr. Caputo's mind have come blistering attack advertisements, including one that featured a fake photo of Mr. Cuomo, the state's attorney general, shirtless in the shower and covered in mud, as part of an effort to portray him as a slimy politician.
During more than two decades in politics, Mr. Caputo has advised Boris Yeltsin and promoted Reagan administration policies in Central America. At one point, he says, fearing that Russian thugs were after him, he went into hiding on a boat in South Florida with only a parrot named August West for company.
He has brought his unconventional approach to American politics as well -- deploying people wearing duck suits and blowing whistles to drown out opponents at political rallies, and dispatching comely models outside polling stations to lure more voters to his candidates.
As he operates behind the scenes, Mr. Caputo, 48, has become an indispensable coach to Mr. Paladino, who likes to say that he is still learning to be a politician. Mr. Paladino considers Mr. Caputo the campaign's creative force, devising his go-for-the-jugular offensives.
"I'm facing some major demons here, and I needed someone who could go right back on top of them in a matter of minutes," Mr. Paladino said. "You've got to let them know they are going to get punished."
Mr. Caputo, who spent much of his childhood in Buffalo, recalls that he met Mr. Paladino the hard way.
He was 14 and a self-described juvenile delinquent. One day, he was caught by a newsstand worker stealing a box of change in a building owned by Mr. Paladino.
Within seconds, Mr. Paladino was rushing downstairs. He grabbed the boy by the ears, dragged him outside and kicked him in the legs six times.
"Don't you ever come back," Mr. Paladino said, according to Mr. Caputo.
(While Mr. Paladino does not recall the confrontation, he does not dispute the account.)
They did not cross paths again until March, when Mr. Paladino was considering a long-shot bid for governor. Mr. Caputo, who says he was hoping to settle into a leisurely life after spending much of his career in crisis management, had just moved back to Buffalo from Florida to work for his father's insurance company.
But then Mr. Paladino called. He had heard good things from Roger J. Stone Jr., a Republican consultant known for his ferocious tactics who remains an influential adviser to Mr. Paladino's campaign. Mr. Stone was a mentor to Mr. Caputo, who had once served as his driver, and told Mr. Paladino that his protege understood that successful campaigns involved making politics entertaining.
Those who know Mr. Caputo say he shares Mr. Paladino's sensibilities.
"He's a colorful character who has found a candidate who is just as colorful and just as much of a character as he is," Robert H. Ryan, a longtime Republican consultant, said.
But Mr. Caputo is his own brand of Republican. He cites Ronald Reagan and Jerry Garcia as people who have shaped his worldview (he has attended hundreds of Grateful Dead concerts). He has also written extensively on protecting the environment.
"He's a countercultural guy," said Mr. Stone, who is second only to Mr. Caputo's father on Mr. Caputo's speed-dial. "He's as likely to show up in a tie-dyed T-shirt as a three-piece suit."
Mr. Caputo began his career in message-managing as an Army public affairs specialist based in Hawaii.
After leaving the military, he worked for conservative politicians, including former Representative Jack Kemp. His career eventually took him to countries including Ukraine, Mongolia and Honduras. He said he was briefly kidnapped in El Salvador on a diplomatic mission for Mr. Kemp.
Mr. Caputo worked for the United States Agency for International Development as an adviser to the Yeltsin administration in 1995. It was in Russia that he got the scar, on his right ankle, from a run-in, he says, with a drunken political operative.
When he returned to the United States in 1999, he found the American political scene boring.
"In Russia, the fascists want to kill you, the communists want to starve you, and the democrats want to pick your pocket for a while," Mr. Caputo said. "I got back to the United States and I realized that the only difference between John Kerry and George Bush was a degree of tax cut."
He made a cameo appearance in New York politics in 2007 when Eliot Spitzer was governor, making it his mission to forward negative articles and unflattering cartoons about Mr. Spitzer to anyone with influence.
On the Paladino campaign, Mr. Caputo is part of a three-person team responsible for executing the campaign, which includes Nick Sinatra, a former confidant to Karl Rove, and John F. Haggerty Jr., a former campaign worker for Michael R. Bloomberg whom the Manhattan district attorney has accused of stealing $1.1 million of the mayor's money.
On a recent day at campaign headquarters in Buffalo, Mr. Caputo yelled at Mr. Paladino as the candidate stumbled through a script for a YouTube video on a plan to use prison space to teach job skills to welfare recipients.
"Just think about it, Carl," Mr. Caputo demanded as he tried to get his boss to focus.
"It's not coming good," said Mr. Paladino, muttering a series of expletives.
Opponents have denounced Mr. Caputo's high jinks as crass. "Not every idea he has is a winner," his friend Mr. Stone said.
But Mr. Caputo is unapologetic. He wasted no time in cooking up another madcap advertisement on Wednesday when Mr. Bloomberg, New York's billionaire mayor, came out in support of Mr. Cuomo.
In an e-mail to reporters, Mr. Caputo dismissed the two men as political elites who traveled in the "same royal coach."
"One upside to this," Mr. Caputo wrote. "The two can stop passing Grey Poupon back and forth from their limousines. It's holding up traffic on Park Avenue."