Comments made by Buffalo school board member Carl Paladino to a local weekly newspaper have led to widespread condemnation of the controversial developer.
Paladino, who represents the Park District, was among the participants in a year-end "wish list" survey taken by Artvoice. Questions included what those surveyed most want to happen in 2017, who they would like to see go away next year, and who they would like to see run for Buffalo mayor in next year's election.
In his replies, Paladino makes remarks about President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama, including saying he hopes the president dies from mad cow disease.
"Obama catches mad cow disease after being caught having relations with a Herford. He dies before his trial and is buried in a cow pasture next to Valerie Jarret, who died weeks prior, after being convicted of sedition and treason, when a Jihady cell mate mistook her for being a nice person and decapitated her," Paladino answered.
Regarding 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."
WBFO reached out to Paladino for comment, but messages were not returned. The developer has confirmed that he made the comments, issuing a lengthy statement Friday afternoon that starts, "It has nothing to do with race. That’s the typical stance of the press when they can’t otherwise defend the acts of the person being attacked."
Paladino lists a number of grievances he has with the Obama administration, ending with, "And yes, it’s about a little deprecating humor which America lost for a long time. Merry Christmas and tough luck if you don’t like my answer.
Governor Andrew Cuomo issues a statement Friday afternoon, condemning the remarks. Cuomo called the comments about the Obamas "racist, ugly and reprehensible."
“Paladino has a long history of racist and incendiary comments. While most New Yorkers know Mr. Paladino is not to be taken seriously, as his erratic behavior defies any rational analysis and he has no credibility, his words are still jarring. His remarks do not reflect the sentiments or opinions of any real New Yorker and he has embarrassed the good people of the state with his latest hate-filled rage," the statement reads.
"These comments are terrible and there is no place for them in our society. Comments like this only serve to divide, when we should be looking for ways to bring people together," added Mayor Byron Brown, in a statement.
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz is calling for Paladino to resign, effective immediately, from the board.
Poloncarz was attending the funeral of longtime local political figure James Keane when he first learned of Paladino's remarks in Artvoice. He says Paladino should resign his position on the Buffalo School Board.
"It's reprehensible. It's deplorable," Poloncarz said. "If you are a representative of the people, regardless of whether the First Amendment protects your right to say it, you cannot think that let alone say it. He needs to step down."
After Artvoice published the controversial remarks, Paladino released an email blast in which he dismisses claims that his remarks were racist. He also called his remarks "deprecating humor." Poloncarz dismissed Paladino's explanation for the remarks.
"To go out there and talk about the First Lady is really a male and should live in a cave with a gorilla, that's old code words," Poloncarz said. "Those are code words for African-Americans. It's wrong. You can't sit there are justify it. There's no justification to it."
Poloncarz notes that it's not the first time Paladino has come under fire for questionable remarks. He recalled Paladino's defense of Donald Trump's remarks about women while still campaigning for the White House. Paladino had dismissed those remarks as "locker room talk."
"I coach hockey. I play hockey. This is not what we talk about in locker rooms," said Poloncarz, who suggests conversations more often focus on their own respective injuries and game-related aches and pains.
He says his office received numerous calls, including some from out of town, and he's disappointed that the remarks may portray Buffalo as a "racist backwater." He says Buffalo and Erie County remain a very open society that has been more welcoming to immigrants and refugees than many other communities through the U.S.
"One individual does not represent the views of this entire community," Poloncarz said. "For the best interest of this community, I think he needs to move on."
In a tweet, Assemblyman Sean Ryan called the comments "reprehensible," adding "Carl Paladino is unfit to serve on the Buffalo School Board and should resign immediately."
The Buffalo News reported when it asked Paladino about his comments, he used an expletive aimed at News editors, mentioning editor and columnist Rod Watson, who is black, by name.
In the lobby of City Hall on Friday afternoon, Buffalo School Board President Dr. Barbara Seals Nevergold denounced Paladino’s comments, calling them “unacceptable” and saying she is concerned about the message that is being sent to city school children. Nevergold said she has received numerous calls, emails, and comments from community members who are distressed and outraged.
Nevergold said the school board sets policies for how students should act – policies that come with expectations for civility, courteousness, and respect for authority, as well as encouragement to stand up to injustice and bullying.
“We teach them to be upstanders, not bystanders to something that’s happening that’s wrong in their district.”
Nevergold also pointed out that students, educators, and members of the district staff – including school board members – are held to standards of New York State’s Dignity for All Students Act, which provides for an environment free of harassment and discrimination.
“If a student had written this kind of information, had put this kind of information on social media, they would be suspended,” said Nevergold.
Nevergold is hopeful that students will see the outrage of community members, along with her response and those of other board members as demonstration of being upstanding citizens.
“What I want to happen is for Mr. Paladino to certainly recognize that what he has said is egregious, that what he has said sends the wrong message to our students, and that he may want to retract what he said.”
Given the written response made by Paladino in response to Friday’s uproar, Nevergold thinks it is unlikely that he will retract his original comments. When asked about calls for Paladino’s removal from the school board, Nevergold said, “I think that people have a right – just as Mr. Paladino has a right to say what he said, just as I have a right as a citizen to make comment in response to what he said – I think people have a right to call for his resignation or call for his removal.”
The school board does not have the authority to sanction, censure, or remove a sitting school board member. Only the New York State Education Department has such power. Nevergold could file a complaint with the Education Department, but said she was not certain yet that she would. It’s one of the numerous possibilities she says she’s going to look into, aiming to keep her options open.
The Buffalo Parent-Teacher Organization is demanding the State Education Department remove Paladino from the board, saying he is violating the board's and the district's Code of Ethics and DASA with "hateful and racist remarks."
The next meeting of the Buffalo School Board takes place on January 18 at City Hall, and Nevergold expects community members will want to speak about Paladino’s comments.
As of Friday afternoon, Nevergold had not discussed the matter with fellow board members or Schools Superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash. She said the board will have the option to discuss Paladino’s comments in the next meeting.