A story from yesteryear offers a glimpse into the ups and downs in the career of Steven M. Casey, Buffalo's shadow mayor.
It's 1999. Campaign season. Casey toils for Erie County Executive Dennis T. Gorski, doing whatever his re-election force needs done. Casey and some others design a piece of campaign literature to use against their proudly Italian opponent, Joel A. Giambra. The main image is a baby with a bowl of pasta spilled over his head. It's a stock photo you've probably seen in poster shops at the mall.
Giambra and Buffalo's mayor at the time, Anthony M. Masiello, cry foul and call the piece a slur on Italians. The public takes notice, and an otherwise irrelevant mailer gives Giambra traction. Casey, according to someone who knew him then, was largely unfazed by the disaster and even joked about it as the Gorski campaign sputtered.
Casey points out now that one of his bosses, then-Deputy County Executive James Keane, signed off on the mailer, titled "What a Mess." Still, Casey was a creative force in a piece that clearly backfired on the incumbent and his appointees. Giambra went on to win the Independence Party primary against Gorski and then beat him in the general election.
For all his effort, Steve Casey, now Buffalo's deputy mayor, has an uneven record as a campaign operative. In his loss column are races for the County Legislature and a suburban State Assembly district. Starting in 2004, he was part of the effort that tried every two years to knock Sam Hoyt out of his Buffalo-area Assembly seat, but Hoyt hung on each time. (Hoyt now holds a post in Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's administration.) Similarly, Casey tried to displace two Buffalo councilmen aligned with Hoyt, but Michael LoCurto and David Rivera remain in office.
This summer, Casey was out there hustling for Charles M. Swanick, trying with his former mentor, political agitator G. Steven Pigeon, to place Swanick, rather than the party-endorsed candidate, on the Democratic line in the 60th Senate District. Swanick, too, came up short in the Sept. 13 primary, but he now looms as a potential Conservative Party spoiler against incumbent Republican Mark Grisanti.
With Byron W. Brown, Casey's fortunes have been different. Casey landed with Brown early in the last decade, when Brown was a state senator. Casey managed Brown's successful mayoral campaigns in 2005 and 2009, winning himself a perch near the very top of the City Hall bureaucracy. He has the title of first deputy mayor; a yearly salary around $100,000; the liberty to let his blunt, bulldog style flourish; and the freedom to roam into assorted political arenas.
Now, even before their next election year dawns in 2013, with grumbling from their base and federal agents poking around, Brown/Casey remain well-positioned for a third term. Their main campaign fund again tops $1 million, provided by the array of developers, lobbyists, contractors, law firms, businesses and politicians determined to remain on good terms with City Hall.
Of course, money also flows from the City Hall appointees who owe their jobs to Brown/Casey and are pressed to regularly pony up.
"I don't see any viable alternative to Byron Brown at this point in time. I think he's going to have a sleigh ride," said Peter A. Reese of North Buffalo, a zone chairman for the Democratic Party committee who is currently on good terms with Casey and Brown. "He does have a million bucks in the bank, right? Most people don't."
A campaign chest brimming with more than $1 million in advance of the actual election year - usually the most active year for raising money - scares away potential challengers. Meanwhile, a Barry Zeplowitz poll puts Brown's approval rating at 65 percent among city voters.
Brown/Casey have won their November general elections easily - Buffalo's heavy concentration of registered Democrats means the real contest occurs in the Democratic primary. Because Brown can dominate in his strongholds of Ellicott, Fillmore and Masten, he can afford to do just well enough elsewhere. For example, Brown in 2009 defeated Mickey Kearns in Ellicott by a better than 4-1 ratio, or about 3,600 votes - buffering a 3,000-vote loss to Kearns in South, Kearns' home turf.
A 2013 surprise?
The surprise that could block Brown/Casey from a third term ?might come not from an opponent but from the FBI, if it alleges mayoral involvement in wrongdoing, or if some new scandal with staying power rocks City Hall.
Already, FBI agents are tracking the city's use of tens of millions of dollars in federal aid. They have obtained the indictments of two City Hall inspectors, charging them with falsifying inspection reports on the failed asbestos removal project at Kensington Heights, the hollow and forlorn apartment buildings overlooking the Kensington Expressway.
Also still in play are accusations by Cleveland developer NRP Corp., which accuses Brown/Casey and Councilman Demone Smith with a pay-to-play conspiracy over a government-sponsored housing project. Brown has called the allegations "without merit," but a federal court judge refused to dismiss NRP's lawsuit and called the accusations of racketeering plausible.
A former economic development official with the city, Timothy E. Wanamaker, convicted of using about $30,000 in federal money for personal travel, has agreed to provide agents with information about other unlawful City Hall activity in exchange for leniency when he is sentenced. But Wanamaker apparently had little to say, and the government withdrew its offer. His sentencing, rescheduled several times, is now set for Nov. 13.
Wanamaker's offense was simple: He would travel on business to conferences or meetings around the country, then linger a few days more on the taxpayers' dime. On one such trip, to Las Vegas in 2007, Wanamaker flew out with Brown/Casey, and after they left he ran up $1,700 in expenses on his government-provided credit card for no government purpose, according to federal prosecutors.
Neither Brown nor Casey asked Wanamaker why he was staying behind. He was cheating the taxpayers right under his bosses' noses.
"How the heck would I know what he was spending on his credit card?" Casey responded when The Buffalo News asked him about the trip in December of last year. But Wanamaker's expenses were covered by the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp., a recipient of federal money, and Casey for a time was a BERC board member.
In another triumph for Brown/Casey, Democratic Party Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan has decided, after 10 years in the post, to not seek re-election when the party committee convenes next week. The Brown/Casey grievances against Lenihan seem to date to 2006, when Brown wanted the Democrats to endorse Antoine M. Thompson to assume the mayor's former seat in the State Senate, and Lenihan rebuffed them.
In 2009, the county Democrats did not endorse the incumbent mayor as he headed into the primary. Brown/Casey, who were a part of efforts to undermine Lenihan on several fronts, control a bloc of votes in the county Democratic committee, making them important to any person aspiring for the chairmanship.
According to several sources in the Democratic Party, Brown and Casey made it clear to Gov. Cuomo and top state Democrats that they wanted Lenihan to move along. Party sources say that a defining moment came the day before Election Day in 2010, when Brown introduced Cuomo at a rouse-the-party-faithful event in the family life center at St. John Baptist Church on Michigan Avenue. Cuomo barely acknowledged Lenihan there.
When considering that the next New York governor and the state's highest-ranking Democrat were giving Lenihan the cold shoulder, the writing was on the wall.
Today, Lenihan has an opinion about Casey, but doesn't want to say anything that could be interpreted as sour grapes. After all, he survived for nearly two more years after the Cuomo snub and left on his own timetable - as his term ran out.
"I have been in the job 10 years, I have health issues, I'm 62 years old," Lenihan said earlier this summer. "I just felt this was the right time to move on and turn the party over to new leadership."
For his part, Casey is not gloating about Lenihan's departure. He says Lenihan was elected to serve a term and had every right to complete it. He doubts that the outlook for Byron Brown will change, regardless of who serves as Democratic Party chairman.
On the job
Steve Casey wears two City Hall hats. He manages day-to-day operations, and he's the political operative who works to tilt the playing field to his mayor's favor. When Masiello was mayor, those roles were filled by two people, but the Brown team consolidates them with Casey.
Casey protects Brown's back. He ensures that the mayor's appointees donate to the campaign (though election records show that Casey has not given to the "Brown for Buffalo" fund in a few years). He decides who gets access to the mayor, and he settles scores.
"I know he was the one responsible for removing me from the Water Board," said Warren Galloway of Buffalo, who received a letter in June 2007 thanking him for his 12 years on the board and telling him his services were no longer needed. Galloway, first appointed by Masiello, had questioned whether Brown's choice for board chairman had a conflict of interest because he also served as Sewer Authority secretary. That was enough to end Galloway's tenure. "When you don't agree with the mayor's - or Steve Casey's - positions," Galloway said, "they will get rid of you."
Casey safeguards the relationships that benefit the mayor.
"When I call and need something to happen or to get some information right away from City Hall, he answers the phone and he responds to my calls," said Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, head of the Grassroots political organization that gave Brown his start. The group has since waned in its importance to him. "So in terms of, am I able to work with him? Yes," she said of Casey.
"I always found Steve very easy to work with, very focused on getting the job done," said Christopher M. Grant, who served as chief of staff to Republican Chris Collins when he was county executive. Grant and Casey negotiated, among other things, a deal with which Buffalo took back maintenance of its parks from county government, and together they furthered their own political ends.
For example, while Democrats could have controlled the Legislature in 2010, Grant and Casey fostered a coalition of Republicans and splinter Democrats that gave Collins the Legislature majority he needed. It would be led by Brown loyalist Barbara Miller-Williams, a Buffalo Democrat who within hours after becoming Legislature chairwoman replaced the Legislature's Democratic-side central staff with aides acceptable to City Hall, not Democratic Party headquarters.
When the coalition first met at the Buffalo Club to rehearse the annual reorganization meeting that would elevate Miller-Williams to chairwoman, Casey was there to ensure that all would go off without a hitch, one participant said. Casey says he doesn't recall the event.
In another example of the Casey-Collins alliance, City Hall employees who are operatives in Casey's circle passed Conservative Party designating petitions to help Collins secure that ballot line when he ran for re-election last year against Democrat Mark C. Poloncarz.
Casey adamantly denied passing the Collins petitions himself. But The News told him in an email that his signature as a petition witness conformed to Casey's signature on file at the county Board of Elections. He did not respond to the email nor a telephone message left to further discuss the findings.
Casey prefers to be thought of not as a political chess player but as a government administrator who makes sure his boss' initiatives take hold. His title of first deputy mayor is misleading, because there isn't a second deputy mayor, nor any other deputy mayor.
Former insiders say there's room for only one deputy mayor in City Hall - the 46-year-old Casey, who grew up near Philadelphia, lives now in North Buffalo with his wife and three sons, and seems to work almost seamlessly with Byron Brown.
One deputy mayor, Angela Joyner, left in 2006 after just 125 days on the job. A second deputy mayor, Donna Brown, lasted two years before departing in January 2010.
They are part of a steady exodus of high-ranking city officials overseen by Brown and Casey. Commissioners for police, fire, human resources, economic development, and inspections and public works have been replaced at some point in the mayor's tenure. So have the corporation counsel and the chief spokesman for City Hall.
When Community Services Commissioner Tanya Perrin-Johnson resigned in April 2011 - she had sent emails telling some employees to "volunteer" for Brown's re-election effort - she was the last commissioner remaining of those appointed right after Brown arrived in City Hall in 2006.
While Casey denies it, an array of former city officials told The News that he exerts nearly total control over hiring and firing for appointed posts. Few former city officials would speak for attribution, however, out of fear that Casey could retaliate. Even if the final decision to hire or fire rests with Brown, Casey is always there with an opinion, said one fired employee.
"I know that Steve Casey is the mayor's main man, and he is his political operative," said H. McCarthy Gipson, the former Buffalo police commissioner who was let go after Brown's first term and now works in a high-ranking post for the Thruway Authority. "He is someone the mayor looks to for a lot of advice and guidance. Good, bad or indifferent, the mayor follows a lot of the information he gets from Steve Casey."
For a Buffalo News interview in 2006, Casey joked that he has but one boss, his wife. The statement gave some credibility to suspicions that Casey wields unbridled power in City Hall. Today, he's angry that The News carried the comment, because, he says, he was just joking. He also said he doesn't remember Brown uttering a word of protest to him about it.
Casey will disarm subordinates, reporters or adversaries by accusing them of uttering some compromising statement behind his back. "I hear you told..." the accusation will begin, leaving the person searching their memory and stammering out some possible explanation for the obvious misunderstanding.
At meetings of CitiStat, the city's quality-control panel, Casey is the inquisitor most likely to break from decorum to throw his questions, like a hatchet, at the forehead of the commissioner on that session's hot seat.
"I'm just curious why this wouldn't have been noticed by your inspectors who are out every day in each district," he asked City Hall's inspections commissioner, James Comerford, in discussing the dilapidated fence around a commercial property that had triggered a resident's complaint.
In one session painful to watch, he grilled Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr. about his management because city firefighters were continuing to collect a large amount of overtime wages. Brown sometimes pulls his first deputy off his CitiStat victim, but on that day in February, the mayor was worked up, too: "My concern is the management and the commitment of people in this department to manage the overtime," the mayor said, as Whitfield struggled for a defense.?
"Byron, there is a cancer in your Cabinet. Its name is Steve Casey," Karla Thomas wrote in a letter to Brown that she had published in local newspapers in October 2010. Like Brown, she was active in the Grassroots political organization, and she served as his human resources commissioner before being fired when it was revealed the city was still paying insurance premiums for dead retirees.
"His presence in your camp," she said of Casey, "has derailed the direction of your purpose. It has inflicted pain and confusion on innocent people and employees, and brought organized chaos to your leadership. His quest to become powerful through your anointing must be stopped."
Thomas' letter came off in some circles as overwrought, but it also captured some of the disappointment about Brown that can be found in neighborhoods that helped launch his political career, and with the voters who felt connected to Buffalo's first black mayor. While Brown/Casey have hired more blacks than the Masiello administration, their Cabinet includes only one black commissioner, the fire department's Whitfield.
"In his first campaign for mayor, I was one of Byron's biggest supporters," said Betty Jean Grant, a Buffalo Democrat who currently heads the County Legislature, employs Karla Thomas in her district office and might have scored a stunning Democratic primary upset against State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy, who is aligned with the Brown/Casey team. The absentee and affidavit ballots will determine the winner.
"Many in the African-American community were elated when he announced that he was running, because they felt that finally the area where they lived and had invested in would be included in the overall scheme of the city's vision for improvement," Grant continued. "I think Mayor Brown has not followed through as much as the community believed that he would, and he could have. People look at other mayors and their focus on the city. Of course they are the mayor of all areas, but they took a particular interest in the area where they originated from...
"I think the East Side was waiting for their chance to be included," she said. "Up to now, I just don't see it happening."
Casey, though, sees a bigger picture for Brown.
"He was elected citywide to be the mayor," Casey says. "He's everybody's mayor. He's not just one community's mayor. The mayor is the mayor. We run him in the whole city. Every part of the city is in consideration at all times."
When interviewed, Casey wanted to talk about the Brown team's accomplishments, not politics. He mentioned "lowering taxes over 15 percent since we've been here," but without noting the city relies heavily on state aid. "The control board is going away," he said, but the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority has really gone from control status to a softer advisory status - a milestone, nonetheless.
But he also offered tangible quality-of-life initiatives: the continuing demolition of blighted structures, gun buy-backs, an anti-graffiti unit, creation of the 311 call center for residents, a new recycling program, the "clean sweeps" that target litter and debris, and Brown's guarantee that potholes will be filled within 48 hours of a resident's complaint.
"From my perspective he's doing fine," Peoples-Stokes, the Buffalo assemblywoman close to Brown, said of Casey. "If the mayor has a good track record - and he does - it's because of the people who work around him."
But when asked if Casey is the key to Brown's success, she disagreed.
"I think that Janet Penksa may be more of a key to the mayor's success, if you want to have a key person," she said. Penksa is the second finance commissioner of the Brown administration, a former high-level aide in the State Assembly and later a lobbyist.
"She is not a deputy mayor, but she's the budget person. Her Albany expertise has helped the mayor tremendously. I wouldn't say that Casey is the key. Maybe he is the key politically."
Rumors surface from time to time that Casey might leave City Hall, that he's on the verge of something else.
"I'm blessed to be in a job that I love. I am very happy where I am. As long as is willing to have me here," Casey said, "I am very content.''
Flash back to the historic election night of 2005, when returns showed Buffalo had elected its first black mayor. The seasoned hands of Grassroots gathered at the Golden Nugget, waiting for their favorite son. The hours passed, but finally, one attendee recalled, Brown and his wife arrived with an entourage of about 10 people, all of them white.
Brown made a speech to thank some notables for their contributions to his success. In his first tribute, and perhaps as an indication of the years to come, Brown thanked one person in particular for that night's sweet victory, Steven M. Casey.