Over the years, the Buffalo home of Anthony and Donna Gioia has hosted some of the most famous Republicans in state and national politics for glitzy dinners raising millions of campaign dollars.
Few hosts can top guests such as these around their dining room table: former President George H.W. Bush, presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain, House Speaker John A. Boehner, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Gov. George E. Pataki and former Sen. Alfonse M. D’Amato – to drop just a few names.
But now Gioia and fellow GOP donor Patrick M. Lee – along with three former Republican congressmen – are staging a very different affair at the Gioia home on Meadow Road. This one on Dec. 16 costs a personal contribution and/or a pledge to raise a total of $10,000 for Rep. Brian Higgins.
Yes, that Brian Higgins. The Democrat. The one from South Buffalo.
After decades of Republican fundraising that quite possibly ranks the former ambassador to Malta as the most successful political money man in Western New York history, Gioia says he harbors not even a particle of guilt over collecting money for a Democrat the GOP has long ached to defeat.
“When someone does such a good job, we shouldn’t care about the stripe of his party; we should just support him,” Gioia said. “He is so committed to what is right for Western New York. I couldn’t ask for anything more from this guy.”
The host committee for the event next month hardly resembles the labor leaders and Democratic pols who normally stage Higgins fundraisers, although several Democrats have signed on.
What distinguishes this event is the array of Republican co-hosts, including former Reps. Jack F. Quinn Jr. of Buffalo, Amo Houghton of Corning and Thomas M. Reynolds of Clarence, now a Washington lobbyist who at one time headed the national panel whose purpose is to elect more Republicans to the House.
And Lee has his own connection to the Republican-led House as the father of former Rep. Chris Lee, R-Clarence. Besides his son, the elder Lee also has raised money for Romney and emerging Republican stars such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
It all seems to rank as more than politics and strange bedfellows. These bedfellows border on the bizarre.
Even Reynolds, who once crisscrossed the country weekly to raise money for his GOP colleagues in the House, said he had no problem signing on.
“I think Patrick and Tony took a look at him and think Brian is doing a fine job, and I certainly have watched him and think he’s doing a fine job,” Reynolds said, adding that he never before has lent his name to a congressional fundraising effort for a Democrat.
Higgins was first elected to the House in 2004 by a razor-thin margin against then-Erie County Comptroller Nancy A. Naples, a close friend of the Gioia family. Higgins has never encountered serious opposition since. And following reapportionment after the 2010 census, he now operates from a super-Democratic district with an enrollment advantage of 160,000 voters.
In addition, Higgins has about $455,000 on hand already, according to Federal Election Commission records – reinforcing his standing as essentially invulnerable to a Republican challenge next year. Now he stands to gain well into six figures as a result of the Gioia-Lee affair, which also includes a $1,000-per-ticket event at the Buffalo History Museum in conjunction with the $10,000 dinner at the Gioia home. (Individuals are limited to $5,200 in primary and general election cycles but can pledge to raise more from others).
Higgins said he appreciates the bipartisan support, lauding the Gioia family’s philanthropic efforts for many local institutions, especially Roswell Park Cancer Institute. He also praised Gioia’s record as first chairman of Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.
“In 2005 and 2006, when very few people were willing to join the fight, Tony stood up for his community, sharing my vision for Buffalo’s future that resulted in the historic New York Power Authority settlement that is transforming Buffalo’s waterfront this very day,” Higgins said.
“It has been my experience that our region’s needs – from the waterfront to Roswell Park Cancer Institute and so many other areas – come first with Tony. I’m grateful to count Tony Gioia among my supporters, but I am prouder still to call him my friend.”
Not all Republicans are thrilled with Gioia and Lee’s generosity toward a member of the opposition. None would speak for attribution because of the pair’s powerful position in the fundraising community, but one influential Republican questioned why they have gone to such lengths to help Higgins.
“I’m greatly irritated by it,” the Republican said. “There’s no candidate against him, and that’s all the more reason why it’s not necessary.”
With Higgins occupying a safe Democratic seat and with plenty of money in his campaign treasury already, it amounts to overkill, the Republican said.
“Brian is just going to give it to Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Headquarters, anyway,” the Republican said, referring to the House Democratic leader from California and hinting that Higgins will be free to funnel his excess money toward other Democratic campaigns across the country.
Gioia said he has heard the criticism but feels he has earned the right to raise money for whomever he wants, especially after making Buffalo the center of national Republican fundraising for upstate New York. He also said he personally revealed his efforts for Higgins to Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, who registered no objection.
“Let any Republican put up the money to the level I have, and then they can criticize me,” Gioia said. “I don’t need to apologize to anyone for my loyalty to the party. Besides, I’m an American first.”
Gioia acknowledged that he disagrees with Higgins on many aspects of national policy and politics but was first impressed with the congressman while chairman of the harbor agency. Since then, Gioia added, the community has benefited from Higgins’ efforts on the waterfront and his work on behalf of Roswell Park, which the Gioia family has supported for many years.
“There was talk a while back about some type of merger for Roswell,” Gioia said. “I talked with Brian about it. He was informed and an advocate for keeping it independent. It’s been a critical catalyst for the Medical Campus and by far the best thing we have going for us.”
Gioia, who still maintains strong relationships with many of the national GOP’s top officials and fundraisers, said his new commitment to the Democratic congressman does not signal any change in his own philosophy. He said he is simply working for someone he believes in.
“I’m still a very strong Republican, and that won’t change until the day I die,” Gioia said. “This is just an exceptional guy who’s doing an exceptional job.”