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When they met for the first time last March in Manhattan, veteran political operative Roger Stone had a personal question for a novice candidate, Buffalo developer Carl Paladino, then mulling a run for governor.
“I asked if he had any skeletons, and he said he had two,” Stone recalled. One was his 10-year-old daughter by a woman who was not his wife. The other was his gay nephew, Paladino said, according to Stone and Paladino’s campaign manager, Michael Caputo. (Caputo said Stone did not ask about “skeletons” but rather if there “was anything that would prevent him from winning the election.”)
Stone told Paladino to disclose the love-child before he announced his candidacy. A few weeks later, Caputo -- a close friend and former employee of Stone -- was talking with Buffalo News reporters about the girl and Paladino's relationship with her mother, carefully managing the unveiling of what Caputo says was an "open secret" in the Queen City.
"Caputo leaked it out himself," Stone said, which Caputo confirmed.
It was a classic Stone move, bringing information from the shadows into the light while remaining firmly in the shadows himself.
A persistent question as Paladino runs for governor is how large a role Stone is playing in the campaign. An admitted Nixon prankster, a partner* of Willie-Horton-ad creator Lee Atwater, and the alleged organizer of the so-called Brooks Brothers riot during the Bush v. Gore dispute in Florida, Stone’s presence has lent the Paldino campaign an air of anything goes.
For his part, Stone says his role is informal. He speaks to Caputo once a day, Paladino less. He says he is not paid and that his main interest lies in the candidacy of former madame Kristin Davis and getting 50,000 votes and a ballot line for her Anti-Prohibition Party.
"I agreed to give some informal advice" after the meeting in March, Stone said. "Because quite obviously Paladino is running to win and Kristin is running to make a point. I don’t see any inconsistency there."
Stone also said he was just an informal adviser to Bob Dole's presidential campaign, from which he was pushed out after X-rated ads he and his wife placed in swinger magazines were discovered.
Stone's main marks on the Paladino campaign are its penchant for provocation --questioning Andrew Cuomo's manhood, fatherhood, sexual prowess -- and its staff.
Stone said he recommended several Paladino aides, including Caputo, who said he considers Stone a "godfather" figure. Among other Stone acolytes working for Paladino are press operative Kirk Bell and Michael Johns, a former Bush administration speechwriter who has helped the campaign organize tea party factions.
Caputo said Stone gave him a place to sleep and a job after a nasty divorce and a financial meltdown in 2003.
"If you are his friend, there is nothing he won’t do for you," Caputo says of Stone. "And if you are his enemy there is nothing he won’t do to you."
Just ask former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, whom Stone was paid to counteract by former Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. Stone claims credit for getting the FBI interested in investigating Spitzer for prostitution, sending a letter with the infamous line that Spitzer wears black socks during sex (Caputo claims credit for writing the letter, though it went out under Stone's name).
Stone's own website, stonezone.com, says he developed "the negative campaign into an art form.”
“He plays the game in a certain way, and it’s hardball,” said Douglas Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College.
There is speculation that the Paladino campaign is a secret Stone operation, but he seems far removed from many decisions. Stone roundly denounced Paladino's recent remarks on gays, which sparks a firestorm of controversy and forced him to apologize. He says Paladino went “one step too far” in calling Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver a "criminal."
Stone said Paladino simply doesn't listen to his advice many times.
“He nods his head,” Stone said. “He’s not a trained seal. He’s going to do it his own way.”