If Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo seems obsessed with all things Buffalo in the months leading to his re-election campaign, those familiar with the governor point to his rejection by the voters of nine western counties in 2010.
Perhaps that’s why Cuomo is turning to G. Steven Pigeon, one of his oldest – and most controversial – Western New York allies, for fundraising, politics and even policy, according to several sources.
The former Erie County Democratic chairman is taking on more assignments from Cuomo and is telling political leaders here of a larger role, according to at least half a dozen highly placed sources with knowledge of the situation.
A total of about 10 people interviewed for this article did not want to be identified, citing Pigeon’s controversial history and the governor’s penchant for keeping such matters within a close circle of advisers. And some say they doubt Pigeon’s claims of closer ties to the governor.
But there may be no more telling sign of a key role for Pigeon than his new and close relationship with former Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, the regional economic-development official from Buffalo who represents the governor in many matters here.
Pigeon and Hoyt personified political enmity during their respective days as party chairman and assemblyman, but observers now say the mere fact that the longtime archfoes are working together for Cuomo’s interests is significant.
Filling the Zellner vacuum
“The only way Sam would even talk to him is because he’s told to,” said one local Democratic leader who is familiar with the situation and asked not to be identified.
Also telling is that Hoyt would not comment for this article. Neither would the normally talkative Pigeon.
And while Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi would not discuss Pigeon specifically when questioned by The Buffalo News, he did not deny the suggestion that Pigeon plays a role for the governor.
“The governor has many friends in Buffalo, from the mayor to the county executive to Sam Hoyt to Steve Pigeon,” Azzoparadi said.
Pigeon’s larger profile may also stem from other roles such as major campaign donor and the $50,000 check he presented to Cuomo’s birthday fundraiser at Manhattan’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel last December.
Other Democrats say a senior official for the governor has told members of the Cuomo administration, including Hoyt, to have regular contact with Pigeon. They say that Pigeon has joined conference calls and meetings and that his involvement transcends politics to include economic-development matters.
One major Democrat said local officials “employed by the State of New York” are aware of Pigeon’s enhanced position for the governor.
“He’s going to be his top political person,” the Democrat said of Pigeon’s role for the governor in Western New York. “Steve is telling people that.”
Pigeon’s role now fills a vacuum created by the Cuomo team’s lack of a relationship with the Erie County Democratic organization headed by Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner, according to many sources. And because the governor remains determined to win the one region where voters rejected him in 2010, Pigeon’s influence will be especially large, they say.
It all occurs as Cuomo looks to build his own local organization apart from Erie County Democratic Headquarters, hoping to win as much of New York State as possible next year to bolster a potential presidential bid.
“The governor is clearly fixated with Western New York; he wants to do better here,” said another Democrat familiar with the situation. “But he’s not going to deal with Zellner. So where does he go?”
“The governor clearly doesn’t have any use for the current Erie County Democratic Party organization,” said a state lawmaker who asked not to be identified, indicating that the situation opens possibilities for political operatives such as Pigeon to get the governor’s ear.
Pigeon’s admittance into Cuomo’s confidence should come as no surprise.
As Erie County chairman in 2002, he emerged as one of the few state leaders who endorsed Cuomo’s first but ill-fated bid for governor. The majority of local and statewide party leaders backed then-State Comptroller H. Carl McCall in a hotly contested primary.
And as Cuomo faced several opponents in the 2006 Democratic primary for state attorney general, Pigeon backed him over Denise E. O’Donnell, the former U.S. attorney for Western New York. While most Erie County Democrats supported the hometown candidate, Pigeon went with Cuomo at significant personal expense. O’Donnell is the mother of Pigeon’s longtime political associate Jack O’Donnell.
‘Flavor of the month’
More recently, Pigeon worked overtime during this primary season to defeat candidates backed by Zellner, no friend of the Cuomo political team. He contributed or lent about $96,000 of his own money to an independent committee called the WNY Progressive Caucus, now the subject of complaints before the Cuomo-appointed Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption.
Not everybody buys into Pigeon’s claim of an enhanced role in local politics on behalf of the governor, let alone the local policy assignment some say he has assumed.
Though some in Democratic politics say Cuomo maintains only tepid relations with County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, the county’s top Democrat said he sees no need for a larger Pigeon role, since he regularly discusses policy with the governor and high-ranking aides such as Howard B. Glaser and Joseph Percoco.
“Steve is very good at self-promotion,” Poloncarz said, adding that he witnessed a recent conversation between Cuomo and Pigeon at Ralph Wilson Stadium that he did not hear but that he did not believe to be pleasant.
One major Democrat said that many others have taken on such a role with Cuomo, only to be left behind.
“He’s the flavor of the month,” the Democrat said. “There’s no doubt he definitely talks to them. The question is whether he can sustain it.”
Still another Democrat observed few people outside Cuomo’s inner circle in Albany remain privy to his political thinking. Only Hoyt, they say, has even penetrated the “outer circle.”
“They don’t empower any one person to do anything,” he said. “And he hasn’t empowered anyone [in Western New York] but Sam.”
One state lawmaker, speaking on condition of anonymity, questioned the level of influence Pigeon really has with the governor.
“I wonder if it isn’t more Steve Pigeon. My impression is, Pigeon sort of overstates his influence in everything, though I’m a little surprised the governor pays as much attention to him as he does,” the lawmaker said.
The lawmaker said Cuomo is reaching far and wide to secure as many people to help his re-election effort in Western New York as a result of his failure to take control of the Erie County Democratic Party with his own people.
Through a long political career dating from his teenage years, Pigeon has managed to consistently insert himself into the vortex of local, state and even national Democratic politics. He distributed printed material for Mario M. Cuomo, father of the current governor, during the 1982 campaign in which he won his first of three terms as governor. And he volunteered on presidential campaigns as far back as Gary Hart’s in 1984.
Pigeon worked in Washington following Bill Clinton’s election in 1992, and ushered a young businessman named Anthony R. Nanula onto the local scene in the 1990s. Nanula went on to become a state senator and city comptroller.
After gaining support from then-County Executive Dennis T. Gorski and then-Mayor Anthony M. Masiello in 1995, he reigned for seven tumultuous years as party chairman.
Pigeon may have gained his greatest statewide notoriety for helping engineer a coup that briefly ousted Democrats from the State Senate majority in 2008 with the support of billionaire B. Thomas Golisano, for whom he worked several years as a political adviser. New York City media reported in 2010 that he was involved in a probe of then-State Sen. Pedro Espada Jr., for whom he worked in Albany, though no charges were ever filed.
No question about ‘access’
And Erie County’s Democratic and Republican elections commissioners filed a joint complaint in 2008 alleging that Pigeon was illegally coordinating campaigns with Golisano’s independent committee, Responsible New York, although that complaint was never acted upon.
Still, Pigeon has not only survived but prospered in various political roles, most recently serving as a business adviser to former presidential candidate and retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark.
Another Democratic leader said that he is unsure of Pigeon’s marching orders from Albany but that there is no question he has “access.”
This leader also said Pigeon and Hoyt are meeting with local people to prepare for Cuomo’s 2014 campaign.
“Steve is telling people he’s the guy; there’s no question about that,” the Democratic leader said. “I just don’t think it’s as strong as Steve says it is.”