Monday, October 11, 2010
In New York Governor Race, Two Italian Identities - NYTimes.com
By MICHAEL BARBARO
Strategy sessions have been held at a restaurant called Sinatra’s. “Sopranos”-style gold chains have shown up in campaign advertisements. Ethnic-tinged terms, like “goumada,” and wisecracks about Sicilian grudges have been bandied about. And television news crews from Italy have descended on the candidates.
In the raucous race for governor of New York this year between Andrew M. Cuomo and Carl P. Paladino, an unexpected debate is mesmerizing the Italian-American community and increasingly spilling out into public view: Is the contest shattering long-held ethnic stereotypes or reinforcing them?
The tension has recast a milestone election for the state’s largest ethnic group, which has spent decades battling for political might.
Along with feelings of pride have come moments of unease and even mortification. A Staten Island lawmaker has scolded Mr. Paladino, a Republican, for comments that “degrade our shared cultural heritage,” comparing him with the makers of the reality television show “Jersey Shore.” And in an interview, Mr. Paladino mischievously questioned whether his opponent was really Italian.
An age difference of only a decade separates Mr. Paladino and Mr. Cuomo, who are both expected to march in the city’s huge Columbus Day parade down Fifth Avenue on Monday, and each traces his lineage to southern Italy. But the two men are starkly different in how they view and express their Italian identity.
Mr. Cuomo, the Democrat who is the state’s attorney general, prides himself on transcending the image of the unpolished, old-country Italian, and credits his father, Mario M. Cuomo, the former governor of New York, for debunking many of those stereotypes.
Even as he embraces his ancestry, Andrew Cuomo is extremely sensitive about the assumptions that surround it and the political liabilities that could attach to it: He once had his pollster question the state’s voters about their views of the television show “The Sopranos,” to glean insight about how they saw Italians.
He complained after a reporter described him in an article as a “double espresso of a politician,” suggesting that the term amounted to an anti-Italian slur.
Behind the scenes, Mr. Cuomo worked to avoid having the Democratic statewide ticket he leads be excessively dominated by Italians this fall. He privately fretted that if Eric R. Dinallo became the nominee for attorney general and the incumbent Thomas P. DiNapoli for comptroller, voters might find that one Italian too many.
“People will think we’re trying to open a pizza parlor,” Mr. Cuomo joked to a friend, according to people familiar with the conversation. (Mr. Dinallo was defeated in a five-way primary last month.)
In an interview, Mr. Cuomo, 52, said he had absorbed the lessons of his father and tried to emulate him. Mario Cuomo was a breakthrough figure in American politics who still felt the sting of bias; as a young lawyer, he had been turned down for jobs at Manhattan’s “white shoe” law firms.
“He is the model of decorum and civility and grace,” Andrew Cuomo said, “and he was on the stage at the same time that you were watching Italian-Americans depicted in movies and television as thugs and people who were crude.”
He recalled the hurt that his father, the state’s first Italian-American governor, felt shortly after his election in 1982, when Albany reporters performed skits for an annual satirical show that featured gangsters and Mafia-inspired characters. “He was offended by it, and he should be,” Mr. Cuomo recalled of his father, who is the son of immigrants and grew up speaking Italian at home.
The younger Mr. Cuomo said that the polling he paid for in 2002, during his first run for governor, showed that the stereotypes remained pervasive. “I can tell you, it’s real,” he said, adding, however, that he thought it was less pronounced and less negative than in the past.
By contrast, Mr. Paladino, a Republican real estate developer from Buffalo, seems to relish his reputation as an undiluted, street-smart, up-by-the-bootstraps Italian.
He travels to Italy up to a dozen times a year. He sometimes lapses into Italian. And he developed a habit of greeting associates, Italian-style, with a kiss on the cheek.
Like Mario M. Cuomo, Mr. Paladino’s father, who immigrated at age 6, endured discrimination. As an adult, to find work he shortened his given name from Belesario to the anglicized Bill. But rather than shrink from an ethnic style and mannerisms, his son Carl, 64, has embraced them.
One of Carl Paladino’s proudest accomplishments was gaining admission to the Big Timers, a heavily Italian social club in East Buffalo.
“He can’t let go of that. He doesn’t want to let go of that,” his brother Joe said. “He is still connected to that neighborhood.”
Guy V. Molinari, the former Staten Island borough president and Republican power broker, who like many of New York’s Italian-Americans is riveted by the governor’s race, said, “As Italians, they are very much the opposite of each other.”
To Mr. Molinari, Mr. Paladino fits the mold of a traditional southern Italian: loud and brash, often shooting from the hip. “I know these type of Italians; they are in my family,” Mr. Molinari said. “They all talk at once; nobody listens.”
Mr. Cuomo, he said, is a different but equally recognizable kind of Italian: studious and reserved, bent on obsessively thinking everything through before taking action.
What is most interesting to many watching the campaign is that the stereotypes are being stirred up in a race between Italian-Americans, or, in the words of Stefano Albertini, a faculty member in the department of Italian studies at New York University, “not when there was an Italian against somebody else, but an Italian against an Italian.”
It is not only the candidates giving this election its Italian cast. Central players in both campaigns are Italian: Mr. Cuomo’s closest and most powerful adviser is Joseph Percoco, a pugnacious political enforcer (a term Mr. Cuomo finds ethnically loaded) and Mr. Paladino’s campaign manager and spokesman is Michael R. Caputo, who describes himself as a “junkyard dog.”
From the start, the Paladino camp, sensing Mr. Cuomo’s sensitivity to the issue, has deliberately injected ethnicity into the campaign. After Mr. Paladino won the Republican primary, Mr. Caputo commissioned a campaign poster that, by means of an altered photo, depicted Mr. Cuomo shirtless in the shower, trying to wash off the muck of Albany corruption. (“Clean up Albany,” it said. “Start with Cuomo.”) A sly detail was inserted: a gold chain around his neck, prompting howls of protest from those who detected anti-Italian bias.
Mr. Caputo scoffed at the complaints at the time, gleefully declaring to reporters, “Carl has his own gold chain he wears very proudly, and so do I.”
Mr. Paladino playfully told an interviewer from Italy that perhaps Mr. Cuomo’s claim of Italian ancestry should be viewed skeptically. “I don’t know, he might have been adopted,” Mr. Paladino said impishly.
During the same interview, he showed off his mastery of Italian, such as it is. When the reporter complimented his fluency, Mr. Paladino begged to differ. “It’s very broken,” he said. “I can find my way to the bathroom.”
Mr. Paladino’s response to Italians upset by his ethnic provocations: Stop being so touchy. He calls himself an equal-opportunity offender: Defending his having forwarded to friends and associates e-mails containing inflammatory images of African-Americans, he used a string of derogatory terms for Italians.
That prompted Diane J. Savino, a state senator from Staten Island, which is heavily Italian, to fire off a letter to Mr. Paladino chiding him for “offensive” language.
“In an environment where people still believe it is acceptable to degrade our shared cultural heritage, whether it be mob references or the buffoonery of the ‘Jersey Shore,’ ” she wrote, “it is simply unacceptable for you to lower the discourse even further, particularly in a gubernatorial campaign.”