Extremism in WNY: Local politicians have ties to far-right groups
Editor's note: This is the third in a four-part series.
Western New York native Michael Caputo has worked at all levels of politics.
He was a Russian presidential advisor in the 1990s, managed Carl Paladino’s run for New York governor in 2010, and served a tumultuous five months as the chief spokesperson of 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 a racist and those who support him are not racist,” he said. “And I am 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.
He went on a conspiratorial rant accusing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientists of sedition, and predicted an armed insurrection from the left following the 2020 election.
“If you carry guns, buy ammunition, ladies and gentlemen, because it’s going to be hard to get,” Caputo said in the video.
He also gave his viewers another piece of advice.
“I urge you to, if you're in Buffalo or anywhere in New York, I urge you to look up the New York Watchmen,” Caputo said while wearing a New York Watchmen t-shirt.
The Southern Poverty Law Center calls the New York Watchmen ananti-government militia that has advocated for violence. Members celebrated a violent clash with left-leaning counter-demonstrators at Buffalo’s Niagara Square in 2020, and have 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 doesn’t regret endorsing the Watchmen. He said he's proud of his longtime friendship with the Watchmen’s 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 are up to? I don't, but I wouldn't. I live in Florida.”
Still, others say, especially in wake of last month’s white supremacist shooting at Tops Market, it’s concerning 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 attorney and activist researching the local far right. “And when we have anti-democratic players in a democratic system, that creates a lot of tension and it disrupts our processes.”
New York State Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat, even went so far as to liken it to days of the Ku Klux Klan disguising themselves under white hoods.
“And I think we're back into that same situation again,” she said. “I think that there are public servants who dwell in this kind of hate, and we don't know who they are.”
Numerous politicians have ties to New York Watchmen
Local political figures have ties to several of the region’s five anti-government groups, defined by SPLC as hard-right, anti-democratic and believing that an illegitimate government of leftists is trying to bring about 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 who we know very well are members of that little club,” she said.
According to SPLC, the Watchmen have tried to recruit law enforcement into their ranks. Pellien, a former police officer, said as much on an Edge of the Fallspodcast appearance in November 2020.
“We take the military guys and former police officers, and we've got special forces veterans. We've got several black belts in our group. We've got [mixed martial arts] fighters. We've got championship boxers,” he said. “So we're not just some ragtag bunch of guys out there that don't know what we're doing.”
As for political figures, Caputo is far from the only one who has ties to the group.
Then-Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw thanked the Watchmen for protecting him during the 2020 Niagara Square altercation. Mychajliw was confronted by counter-demonstrators as he walked toward a protest against COVID-19 restrictions, leading to the physical confrontation between Watchmen and counter-demonstrators.
"Thankfully, members of the NY Watchmen and other members of our peaceful, patriotic rally to open the economy were there,” he wrote in a statement shortly afterward. “I am grateful for their protection.”
Mychajliw’s statement also mentioned 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 the need to ever use it to defend ourselves or our family,” the statement read. “I hope and pray I never, ever have to use my firearm to do so.”
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, afrequent political adversary of Mychajliw’s, 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’d 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 an interview request.
State Assemblyman David DiPietro, an East Aurora Republican, has had New York Watchmen attend several of his events. DiPietro also did not answer an interview request.
One political figure who did respond to an interview request was Paladino.
Uniformed Watchmen attended a2020 New Year’s Eve party at the 301 Ohio St.property owned by Paladino’s Ellicott Development, while Jan. 6 defendant Pete Harding, identifying himself as a member of the Watchmen, said in a November 2020Facebook video that Paladino rented a bus for him and approximately 40 others to attend a rally in Albany.
But Paladino said he has never heard of the Watchmen.
“And I wouldn't rent buses for them to go anywhere,” he said.
But Peoples-Stokes said it’s about more than just affiliations with far-right groups. She points to Paladino’s past racist remarks, including comparing then-First Lady Michelle Obama with a gorilla in a 2016 interview.
Peoples-Stokes also points tothen-Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard speaking in a uniform at a 2017 rally in Niagara Square where Confederate flags were flown and white supremacist literature was distributed. Howard did not respond to an interview request.
Peoples-Stokes said this kind of behavior makes people feel comfortable with hate.
“I'm never going to be comfortable with that,” she said. “And, so, as a legislator, I don't believe that there's a way that we can legislate morality. I think we can keep working on people's consciousness to help raise it up, but you can't legislate consciousness.”
Paladino said his comments about Obama were “humorous” and that he has never thought of himself “as being racist.”
As for Peoples-Stokes, Paladino said the Black majority leader is the one is racist.
“I wouldn't call her a majority leader, I’d call her a waste of time,” he said. “A very racist, waste of time.”
Paladino recently announced he’s 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 assault weapons ban.
Pellien, the New York Watchmen founder, has already voiced his support for Paladino’s campaign on social media.
Paladino has beenendorsed by the No. 3 Republican in the House of Representatives, Elise Stefanik, but the campaign has also been marred byheadlines about his comments, including hissharing of a Facebook post that suggested the Tops shooting may have been a false flag operation to revoke the Second Amendment.
‘We’re more mainstream’
Caputo said he was hurt like many Western New Yorkers to learn about the Tops shooting May 14.
“It's a terrible thing to hear when you’re hundreds and hundreds of miles away from your hometown,” he said.
But he rejects the criticism directed at him and other right-leaning Western New York politicians, and any insinuation that their rhetoric in any way contributed to the 18-year-old Broome County suspect committing the crime.
“The idea that somehow or another a crazy man from the Pennsylvania border rode in a car for hundreds of miles in order to shoot up a supermarket in Buffalo was inspired by me or any of my friends, that’s ridiculous," he said.
His left-leaning critics are the real extremists, he said, noting he and his family have received death threats.
“They’re just completely now absolutely obsessed with me, Stefan Mychajliw, Carl Paladino and others,” he said. “We’re more mainstream, we’re more part of the Buffalo kind of center, and they're not.”
Mentioning that parts of the Democratic Party used to be pro-slavery —a lot’s changed since then — he said Democrats now weaponize charges of racism against white people.
“Just as they denied the basic humanity of African Americans for more than a century, the same people now do the same thing to white Republicans to try to secure votes,” he said.
As for the “great replacement” theory espoused by the alleged Tops gunman, whicha recent SPLC poll found nearly 70% of Republicans believe, Caputo said he doesn’t know enough about it to say whether he believes in it or not.
However, he added that "just because the socialist left calls it a conspiracy theory doesn't make it a conspiracy theory."
“Whenever I hear conspiracy theory coming out of the mouths of leftists, I immediately question whether it's a theory at all,” he said.
Editor’s note: Part Four, airing Friday, will look at what can be done to combat extremism at the local and national level.