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Why writing about Carl Paladino is such a challenge

Of the three profile stories I have written about the new power players in the Buffalo public school district, Carl Paladino's profile was toughest.

As noted in my blog post introducing the profile series -- when Supt. Pamela Brown's profile ran -- these profiles are meant to humanize important people most readers would otherwise never get to know. Supt. Brown's profile ran two Sundays ago. Paladino's was published today, and the profile on parent activist Sam Radford will run on a future Sunday.

When comparing the profiles of Brown and Paladino, it's truly remarkable how many similarities these two people share, even though their personalities and positions are so opposite. They both emerged from humble, working-class backgrounds. They both were devastated by the loss of their sons, and as a result, they were both transformed into more ambitious people -- the people they are today.  

Paladino's profile was easy to report in a few respects. Carl Paladino loves to talk. Some of the most interesting pieces of information I got from him for my profile didn't result from questions I asked him, but from stories he spontaneously chose to share. He's an emotional guy. He's easy to read. Anyone speaking with him at any length gets the clear impression that what he says is what he believes.

("I’m not better than anybody else and nobody’s better than me," he told me. "That’s the way I was raised. I have my opinion, and if you don’t like it, fine. That’s OK with me. You want to go in a different direction in life? Fine. I’m going to fight you, and we’ll see who wins.")

The biggest problem about writing about Paladino is that we've already written about him -- over and over. Paladino is a big shot in this community -- a successful developer, a political contender, a loud public critic and a school board member. We've run several other lengthy and prominent profile stories about him over the years. Beyond that, we've devoted thousands of inches of copy to him as a newsmaker over the past decade. He's taken a public position on almost every major issue this community has faced. To sort through that and write an insightful profile that didn't rehash a lot of what people already know was difficult.

Aside from that, it was a challenge to clearly and accurately convey the nature of a man as complicated as Paladino. His detractors and supporters often describe him in either villainous or heroic terms. But he's simply not that thin a character. 

Today's profile story on Paladino is not an encyclopedia-like reference about the man. It's a story that's meant to touch on his most human elements, explore how his attitude about education came to be, and fairly describe what people make of his time on the board.

Some trivia about Paladino that didn't make the final story:

- He was a good sprinter in high school but had a "trick knee" that finally put an end to his track career.

- To pay for college, Paladino also worked at Bethlehem Steel and was a mailer for the Courier Express. The Courier job required him to commute home to Buffalo the weekends while he was studying law at Syracuse University.

- Paladino still sends money back to Italy to support nine cousins he has over there. He's paying forward some generosity. When he was scraping together the funds to get through St. Bonaventure University, his Uncle Pasquale Paladino sent him $5 a week. "I lived all week on that," he said.

- He took the bar in 1971 and went into the Army the next day as a first lieutenant. He trained in air defense artillery, and expected to be sent to Vietnam. "I really loved the military," he said. "It just rang my bell." A year later, however, the Army said it needed fewer active duty officers and gave him the option to move into the Reserves. Paladino’s oldest son had just been born so he took the offer.

- He considers all politicians "disarming and mischievious." "They all live in a gray area," he said.

- Paladino does not have a "gray area." "That's not the way I was raised," he said. "There was right, and there was wrong. My whole life was good guys and bad guys." That explains why he's a fan of cowboy movies.

What other people say about Paladino:

- Dwayne Kelly, chairman of the BUILD for Buffalo education committee and Paladino critic: "I personally like the guy. I've met him a few times. But at the end of the day, we’ve got to come together and get something done. It’s not so much what he wants to do, as much as how he wants to do it."

Kelly cited Paladino's repeated and unsupported efforts to unseat mild-mannered board president Barbara Nevergold. "Barbara Nevergold would be the last person I would ever have expected Carl to go after. Who’s next, the pope?"

- Regent Robert Bennett, a supporter of Paladino's, on the conflict Paladino brings to the school board: "I think he wants reform to happen, and he’s urgent about it. In an ideal world, it would be nice if we could all get in a room, shake hands and have the sign of peace, but I don’t think that’s going to happen."

- Board Member Jason McCarthy: "I hear board members saying he’s going to ruin this district. I disagree. What -- we haven’t been on a downward spiral for decades? I think by opening people’s eyes to what’s going on this district, because he’s such a controversial figure, when he does speak about these issues, people seem to listen."

- Board Member Sharon Belton-Cottman called Paladino "a lone wolf" and says Paladino refuses to get educated on school issues, even when administrators take the time to explain things to him. She cited his repeated efforts to get the superintendent's positive evaluation rescinded (resolutions that never get seconded by other board members).

"He just continues bringing it up, bringing it up. Why? When we should be working on other issues, trying to move the district further," she said. "We’re just spending our time patronizing him."

She added, "Carl Paladino has a lot of talent. But if he thinks he’s going to run to board like he runs his office, it’s not going to happen."

- And finally, Paladino on his own work as a board member and his response to the dozens of requests he gets for help from district employees and parents every week: "What we’ve been telling people is that I can’t get at every problem that is being directed into me. I have to focus on the big picture of leadership...

"I’m just one guy. I can’t get into all this stuff. There’s hundreds of problems going on every day. I’m not going to get involved. I can’t. I can’t serve all those interests and focus on the incompetence at the leadership top. The best thing I can do for this school system is to get rid of this current leadership, on the board and in the superintendent slot. I’m going after all of them, and I will take them down."

-- Sandra Tan

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About School Zone

Denise Jewell Gee

Denise Jewell Gee

Denise Jewell Gee joined The Buffalo News in 2007 and currently covers education and suburban schools. She also writes a column for the City & Region section and previously covered government in Erie County and Niagara Falls. Gee graduated from Boston University with degrees in journalism and political science.

@denisejewellgee |

Tiffany Lankes

Tiffany Lankes

Tiffany Lankes joined The Buffalo News in 2013 and primarily covers the Buffalo Public Schools. She has written about education since 2003 at newspapers in Florida and New York. In 2008, she was a nominated finalist for The Pulitzer Prize. Lankes is an Amherst native and graduate of Sacred Heart Academy and Syracuse University. She started her journalism career writing for the News’ NeXt section.

@TiffanyLankes |

Sandra Tan

Sandra Tan

Sandra Tan has been a cityside reporter for The Buffalo News since 2000 and currently covers the Buffalo Public Schools beat. She previously covered the Williamsville school district and was a full-time education reporter for five years prior to joining The News. She graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

@BNschoolzone |

Deidre Williams

Deidre Williams

Deidre Williams began working for The Buffalo News in 1999 and currently covers Buffalo Public Schools. She formerly was a suburban reporter on the Northtowns beat and has been a cityside reporter covering communities since 2004. Williams has a mass communications degree from Towson University.

@DeidreWilliamsB |