by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post
Some people here are taking solace in the fact that the white supremacist who killed 10 people in Saturday’s supermarket massacre is from out of town.
As if Western New York doesn’t have its own growing cadre of right-wing extremists.
I’ll start with a reminder of a story we did last June in which Investigative Post reported only one county in the entire country had more of its citizens arrested on charges related to the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol than Erie County.
Among those charged was an Amherst man who assaulted a Capitol Police officer, stealing his badge and radio, and a Cheektowaga man who damaged CNN camera equipment and invaded the Capitol building. They were among the 100 or so Western New Yorkers who traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend the rally headlined by Donald Trump that precipitated the attempted insurrection.
At the time, Heidi Jones, a Buffalo attorney who researches local right-wing activity, told Investigative Post: “There’s intertwined networks that have been recruiting and been active for many years. The COVID pandemic has given such an opportunity to recruit more people into it with the strongly divisive political environment that we’re in.”
Cloee Cooper, a research analyst with Political Research Associates, told Investigative Post: “Erie County is kind of a hotspot for militia and far-right groups and local elected officials have been privy to some of that, or endorsed it in the past.”
Which brings us to the politicians. Let’s start with Tim Howard.
Some 30 people died in the Erie County Holding Center during his tenure. That didn’t stop Howard from getting elected no fewer than four times, the third time just months after he spoke at a political rally featuring Confederate flags and attended by avowed white supremacists. One attendee, frequent local political candidate Ricky Donovan, carried a sign that stylized the first letters of “Senator Schumer” — as in U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, who is Jewish — in the font of the Nazi SS.
In that 2017 election cycle, Howard joined fellow Republicans Mickey Kearns (county clerk) and Stefan Mychajliw (county comptroller) in waging a campaign that used overtly racist flyers. The mailers featured images of Black football players kneeling and dark-skinned immigrants scaling walls, presumably at the southern border, along with pro-police and anti-immigrant wording that told voters they better vote Republican.
Howard, Kearns and Mychajliw all won election.
When he decided to step down last year, Howard won election as supervisor of the Town of Wales.
Then there’s the guy who didn’t get elected governor, Carl Paladino.
His track record for racist rhetoric is unsurpassed in recent Western New York history. He won the Republican nomination for governor in 2010 before being trounced by Andrew Cuomo. While Cuomo won statewide by a 2-to-1 margin, Paladino carried all eight counties of Western New York.
He retreated to Buffalo, won election twice to the Buffalo Board of Education — in 2013 and 2016 — and served until he was removed by the state education commissioner in 2017 for publicly disclosing confidential information obtained in executive session.
In 2016, while still serving on the School Board, Paladino hit rock bottom, telling the alternative weekly Artvoice that in the coming year he’d like to see Barack Obama die of mad cow disease contacted after having sex with a young cow. As for Michelle Obama, Paladino said: “I’d like her to return to being a male and let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe where she lives comfortably in a cave with Maxie, the gorilla.”
Did all this make Paladino a pariah?
He remains part of the city’s power structure.
For example, he continues to serve on the board of Buffalo Place, which promotes downtown and manages the Main Street pedestrian mall.
His campaign donations have long been accepted by Democrats and Republicans alike, including Byron Brown, the city’s Black mayor.
His company continues to do business with various levels of government, including the City of Buffalo, as well as the Buffalo Bills, which has had a sponsorship deal with hotels his company owns since 2013.
Repeat: the Buffalo Bills do business with Carl Paladino.
When Paladino ran for governor, he tapped Michael Caputo, a protege of Republican dirty trickster Roger Stone, to run his campaign. The East Aurora native, who recently moved to Florida, worked on Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and later took a job in his administration. He has advised numerous local right-wing candidates, including Mychajliw, the former county comptroller, and Assembly Member David DiPietro.
In 2020, Caputo brought alt-right idol Steve Bannon to an Elma fire hall to rally support for then U.S. Rep. Chris Collins, who was running for reelection while under indictment for insider trading. Collins won.
Paladino, Caputo, Mychajliw and DiPietro all maintain at least informal ties with the New York Watchmen, a quasi-militia group that frequently attends protests is support of right-wing causes. Caputo, in a September 2020 Facebook post, wore a Watchmen shirt as he warned of violence should Trump lose his reelection bid. He describes the group’s founder, Charles Pellien, as an old friend.
Some Watchmen favor combat gear at protests. Members were in D.C. during the assault on the U.S. Capitol and a pro-Trump rally two months earlier. Locally, their encounters with other protesters sometimes have turned violent.
Pellien, the group’s founder, responded to news of Saturday’s massacre by tweeting, “Black neighborhood, white suspect in custody. Buckle your chin straps.”
The local right-wing scene includes other players, including anti-vaxxers whose activities included picketing the home of Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz when he acted to curb the spread of Covid-19.
A small but growing number of elected officials align with this rag-tag collection of right-wing extremists.
DiPietro, the East Aurora Republican who represents much of the Southtowns and Wyoming County, comes immediately to mind. He rarely gets any legislation passed: his failed proposals include making English the official state language, requiring recipients of public assistance to submit to drug testing, dividing New York into three autonomous regions, and exempting private and parochial schools and day care centers from immunization requirements.
On Twitter, DiPietro followed accounts of right-wing militias and their members. He followed an account with the display name “Caucasian Spring,” whose bio read “I love my whiteness. And yours.” Another account he followed tweeted frequently about “#WhiteGenocide” and decried the “de facto genocide of Western Man by immivasion.”
DiPietro and Paladino were co-sponsors, along with Howard, of the 2017 rally that drew neo-Nazis and Confederate flags.
Not to be overlooked is Congressman Chris Jacobs, a one-time moderate who has gone full Trump. The last thing I read on him he was pushing to punish the Walt Disney Co. for opposing Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Because, you know, that’s a burning issue to his constituents in Upstate New York.
You can find a small but growing number of right-wing extremists in local government.
For example, there’s Williamsville Mayor Deb Rogers and two of her colleagues on the village board, who have equated state measures to limit the spread of Covid to the abuses of Nazi Germany and Communist China.
The far right this month lent its support to at least 26 candidates running in 13 school districts in Erie and Niagara counties. Eleven of them won, in districts that include Williamsville, Akron and Grand Island.
The Constitutional Coalition, which along with WNY Students First assisted right-leaning candidates, said another 11 of their candidates won election in other counties in western and central New York.
These candidates ran on platforms that opposed the teaching of sex education, critical race theory and mask and vaccine mandates to address Covid.
“Our base is energized. These school board victories are a strong foundation for future success. The mission is far from done,” Nancie Orticelli, founder of The Constitutional Coalition, said in a joint statement with WNY Students First posted on Facebook.
If her words aren’t a wake-up call for progressives, moderates and other thinking people, I don’t know what is.
True, last Saturday’s shooter wasn’t from here. But remember who was: Timothy McVeigh.
Geoff Kelly and Layne Dowdall contributed to this column.