Extremism at WNY: Local politicians have ties to far-right groups

Editor’s note: This is the third in a four-part series.

Michael Caputo, a native of Western New York, has worked at all levels of politics.

He served as a Russian presidential adviser in the 1990s, led Carl Paladino’s bid for governor of New York in 2010, and served a tumultuous five months as chief spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services after being appointed by then-President Trump.

And he has no problem defending the right.

“Donald Trump is not racist and those who support him are not racist,” he said. “And I’m certainly not a racist.”

In September 2020, while still working for the Trump administration, he made a Facebook live video outside his East Aurora home.

Michael Caputo speaks during a September 2020 Facebook Live video outside his East Aurora home while wearing a New York Watchmen t-shirt.

He launched a conspiratorial rant accusing scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of sedition and predicted an armed leftist insurrection after the 2020 election.

“If you carry guns, buy ammunition, ladies and gentlemen, because it will be hard to get,” Caputo said in the video.

He also gave his viewers another piece of advice.

“I urge you, if you’re in Buffalo or anywhere in New York, I urge you to seek out the New York Watchmen,” Caputo said while wearing a New York Watchmen t-shirt.

The Southern Poverty Law Center calls the New York Watchmen a anti-government militia who advocated violence. Members celebrated a violent clash with leftist counter-protesters at Buffalo’s Niagara Square in 2020 and had affiliations with the Proud Boys.

Caputo, who went on medical leave for head and neck cancer shortly after posting the video and now lives in Florida, said he regrets making the video, but he doesn’t. didn’t regret endorsing the Watchmen. He said he was proud of his longtime friendship with Watchmen founder Charles Pellien.

“But am I a member of the Watchmen? No. Have I ever attended a Watchmen event? No,” he said. “Do I have any idea what the Watchmen do?” I don’t know, but I wouldn’t. I live in Florida.”

Still, others say, particularly in the wake of last month’s white supremacist shooting at Tops Market, there is concern that mainstream political figures are associating with far-right groups.

“It sends the message that they are legitimate players in our political system,” said Heidi Jones, a Buffalo lawyer and activist who studies the local far-right. “And when we have undemocratic actors in a democratic system, it creates a lot of tension and it disrupts our processes.”

New York State Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Democrat from Buffalo, even went so far as to compare this to when the Ku Klux Klan dressed up in white balaclavas. .

“And I think we’re back in the same situation,” she said. “I think there are officials who live in this kind of hatred, and we don’t know who they are.”

Many politicians have ties to the New York Watchmen

Local politicians have ties to several of the region’s five anti-government groups, defined by the SPLC as far-right, anti-democratic and believing that an illegitimate government of leftists is trying to establish a new world order.

But when it comes to far-right groups, Peoples-Stokes specifically expressed concern about the New York Watchmen.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if some people we know very well are members of this little club,” she said.

According to SPLC, the Watchmen attempted to recruit law enforcement into their ranks. Pellien, a former policeman, said it on Edge of the falls podcast appearance in November 2020.

“We take military and ex-police, and we have special forces veterans. We have several black belts in our group. We have [mixed martial arts] fighters. We have championship boxers,” he said. “So we’re not just a motley bunch of guys who don’t know what we’re doing.”

As for political figures, Caputo is far from the only one with ties to the group.

Stefan Mychajliw, Erie County Comptroller thanked the Watchmen for protecting him during the 2020 Niagara Square altercation. Mychajliw was confronted by counter-protesters on his way to a demonstration against COVID-19 restrictions, which led to the physical confrontation between Watchmen and the counter-protesters.

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Then-Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw speaks to members of the media from his office in 2018.

“Thankfully, members of the NY Watchmen and other members of our peaceful and patriotic rally to open up the economy were there,” he wrote in a statement shortly after. “I am grateful for their protection.”

Mychajliw’s statement also mentioned that he was carrying a concealed firearm at the time of the incident.

“Responsible concealed carry permit holders have the privilege of having a firearm on our person without ever needing to use it in defense of ourselves or our family,” the statement read. “I hope and pray that I never have to use my gun to do that.”

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, a frequent political opponent of Mychajliw, criticized the then comptroller for the incident, tweeting, “officials should defuse such situations, not incite them.” Poloncarz also said Mychajliw’s gun would be confiscated or he would be denied entry if he ever tried to enter the county’s Rath Building with it.

Mychajliw, who now works for a political consulting firm, did not respond to a request for an interview.

State Assemblyman David DiPietro, a Republican from East Aurora, invited the New York Watchmen to attend several of his events. DiPietro also did not respond to an interview request.

One political figure who responded to an interview request was Paladino.

Uniformed guards attended a New Year 2020 party at 301 Ohio St. property owned by Paladino’s Ellicott Development, while Jan. 6 defendant Pete Harding, identifying as a member of the Watchmen, said in a November 2020 Facebook video that Paladino rented a bus for him and about 40 others to attend a rally in Albany.

But Paladino said he had never heard of the Watchmen.

“And I wouldn’t rent a bus from them to go anywhere,” he said.

Carl Paladin

Eileen Koteras Elibol

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Buffalo Toronto Public Media

Carl Paladino speaks at a rally for then-candidate Donald Trump at Buffalo’s Key Bank Center on April 18, 2016.

But Peoples-Stokes said it was about more than just affiliations with far-right groups. She points to Paladino’s past racist remarksincluding comparing then-First Lady Michelle Obama to a gorilla in a 2016 interview.

Peoples-Stokes also points out Tim Howard, then Erie County Sheriff, speaking in uniform at a rally in 2017 at Niagara Square where Confederate flags flew and white supremacist literature was distributed. Howard did not respond to an interview request.

Peoples-Stokes said this type of behavior makes people comfortable with hate.

“I’ll never be comfortable with that,” she said. “And so, as a legislator, I don’t believe there is a way to legislate morality. I think we can continue to work on people’s conscience to help raise it, but you can’t legislate conscience.

Paladino said his comments about Obama were “humorous” and he never considered himself “racist.”

As for Peoples-Stokes, Paladino said the black majority leader is the racist one.

“I wouldn’t call her a majority leader, I would call her a waste of time,” he said. “A very racist waste of time.”

Paladino recently announced that he is running as a Republican for New York’s 23rd congressional district. Congressman Chris Jacobs dropped out of the race after being criticized for endorsing a federal ban on assault weapons.

Pellien, the founder of New York Watchmen, has previously voiced his support for Paladino’s campaign on social media.

Paladino was approved by Republican No. 3 in the House of Representatives, Elise Stefanik, but the campaign was also marred by securities of his comments, including his sharing a Facebook post this suggested that the Tops shooting may have been a false flag operation to revoke the Second Amendment.

“We are more traditional”

Caputo said he was hurt like many Western New Yorkers when he learned of Tops’ shooting on May 14.

“It’s a terrible thing to hear when you’re hundreds and hundreds of miles from your hometown,” he said.

But he rejects criticism leveled at him and other right-wing politicians in Western New York, and any insinuation that their rhetoric has contributed in any way to the elderly Broome County suspect. 18 years old, to have committed the crime.

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Scott Apple White

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AP Photo

Michael Caputo leaves an interview with Senate Intelligence Committee staff on Capitol Hill on May 1, 2018.

“The idea that somehow some madman from the Pennsylvania border drove hundreds of miles in order to shoot up a supermarket in Buffalo was inspired by me or a friend of mine. , it’s ridiculous,” he said.

His leftist critics are the real extremists, he said, noting that he and his family had received death threats.

“They are now completely obsessed with me, Stefan Mychajliw, Carl Paladino and others,” he said. “We’re more traditional, we’re more of the Buffalo kind of center, and they’re not.”

Mentioning that parts of the Democratic Party were once pro-slavery – a lot has changed since then — he said Democrats are now weaponizing accusations of racism against white people.

“Just as they denied the basic humanity of African Americans for over a century, the same people are now doing the same to white Republicans to try to get votes,” he said.

As for the theory of the “great replacement” defended by the alleged shooter of Tops, which a recent SPLC poll found that nearly 70% of Republicans thinkCaputo said he didn’t know enough to say whether he believed it or not.

However, he added that “just because the socialist left calls it a conspiracy theory doesn’t mean it’s a conspiracy theory.”

“Whenever I hear a conspiracy theory come out of the mouths of leftists, I immediately wonder if it’s a theory,” he said.

Editor’s Note: Part Four, airing Friday, will look at what can be done to counter extremism at local and national levels.