The rise and fall of Steve Pigeon
The rise and fall of Steve Pigeon
More than two dozen pictures of Gerald Steven Pigeon hang on the walls or rest on the tables and well-stocked bookshelves throughout his lakeside condominium. In most of them he sports a dark suit and brightly colored tie. In many he is standing next to someone of great power or wealth. There are pictures with Bill and Hillary Clinton. Barack Obama. Billionaire B. Thomas Golisano. Dick Gephardt. Ted Kennedy. Eliot Spitzer. Charles Schumer. Andrew Cuomo. Even Roger Stone, attending Pigeon’s 50th birthday party.
The only exceptions are family photos, many featuring his young nephews Landen and Grant. Sometimes the two types collide, like the picture of former President Clinton holding Landen during a Buffalo Sabres game in Golisano’s box – the team's then-owner and Pigeon’s most reliable employer. Dozens more sit in storage in the basement of the building. Pigeon has no more room for them.
While his current living conditions would be considered luxurious by most, the view of Lake Erie from his new place is partially blocked by the smaller buildings that dot the grounds of the posh, downtown condo community he has called home more than two decades. He now resides on a lower floor in the Pasquale at Waterfront Place, an 11-story building owned by his longtime on-again, off-again buddy, the mercurial Carl Paladino. Pigeon used to occupy the 10th floor penthouse at the neighboring building, Admiral’s Walk.
The penthouse, where he hosted power players such as Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, was more than twice the size of his current place, giving Pigeon far more room to display his photo collection. So, too, has he lost the space that the trappings of his professional life used to offer. He also parted ways with the Rochester law firm Underberg & Kessler.
All this unwanted change for Pigeon has come about since 2015, when state and federal law enforcement agents raided his penthouse. His position with the law firm was terminated a few weeks before a search warrant on his home was served in May of that year, ending a professional relationship that had lasted well over a decade.
Just over a year later, state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced a nine-count indictment on charges of bribery and extortion against the power broker. In that set of charges, Pigeon stands accused of providing Sabres tickets and trying to help the son of then-state Supreme Court Justice John Michalek, who resigned after pleading guilty to taking bribes, get a job in exchange for professional favors. Pigeon, an attorney, had business in front of the judge over the time period he is alleged to have been doing Michalek favors.
In April, Schneiderman brought four more counts, accusing Pigeon and two allies of illegally coordinating with candidates in the 2013 election cycle. According to the court documents, Pigeon, along with Kristy Mazurek and Dave Pfaff, coordinated with candidates, arranged photo shoots and were raising and spending money on their behalf, despite being barred from doing so as an independent expenditure committee.
A month later the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of New York brought a charge of soliciting an illegal donation for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2014 re-election bid from a foreign donor. Pigeon is accused of helping a Canadian client, who was interested in pushing the state to allow online gambling, buy a ticket to a Cuomo fundraiser using a foreign entity, a violation of federal election law.
For Pigeon, the charges threaten the life he has worked tirelessly to build. Long the center of controversy in the often brutal world of Western New York politics, Pigeon could end up in prison because of the charges, a fact that is not lost on him. He and his co-defendants have all pleaded not guilty. His attorney persuaded the judge to suppress Pigeon’s emails – which included key evidence in the case – and that ruling has put the trial on hold.
But even if he is cleared of all the crimes he allegedly committed – and the rumor mill says there could be more charges coming – the damage has already been done to his reputation. It’s doubtful that officeholders and donors would be eager to immediately work with him again. As many of the people he has warred with over the years wait to see if these charges will finally end the career of a man who has time and again been accused of playing dirty, Pigeon continues to proclaim his innocence.
“I know I didn’t break the law,” Pigeon told City & State in a recent interview, “and I believe I’ll be exonerated.”
“They revel in having a bogeyman. Here’s why: They can’t win countywide.”
All of Pigeon’s problems, he claims, stem from the efforts of his foes in local and state politics to paint him as an enemy of the Democratic Party, only concerned with advancing the interests of his benefactors and willing to eschew ethics and break laws to meet his goals. They have constructed that image of him, Pigeon says, to deflect from their own issues and electoral failures. Over the years, Pigeon has been accused of the normal dirty tricks, nothing new in a city nicknamed “Beirut on the Lake” for its bare-knuckle style of politics. Nasty, sometimes misleading mailers were distributed by Pigeon-led groups. But Pigeon and his candidates have been targets of mudslinging as well.
Pigeon has set up at least a dozen different fundraising organizations that have raised more than $5 million, with much of that activity coming after he lost the Erie County Democratic Committee chairman post in 2002, a major turning point in his political career. His local Democratic rivals have often complained to the state Board of Elections that the complex web of consulting firms and campaign committees were a scheme to obfuscate untoward and illicit paths around election law, an allegation he has always denied.
“They revel in having a bogeyman,” Pigeon said. “Here’s why. They can’t win countywide. They haven’t been able to do what they should be able to do, except in the county executive’s case.”
But Len Lenihan, who succeeded Pigeon as county chairman, said Pigeon was mischaracterizing his relationship with the party and downplaying his own electoral shortcomings. Under Pigeon, the party had become extremely fractured, in part because of Pigeon’s thin skin.
“Steve didn’t really have the temperament to be an effective countywide chairman,” Lenihan said.
There was a time when Pigeon looked likely to end up in some lofty post in the White House or on Capitol Hill. He worked for candidates in every presidential election from 1972 to 2012, starting as an volunteer for George McGovern’s campaign efforts in Buffalo and eventually bundling donations for the Clintons and Obama. A friend of the Clintons – one of the pictures in his collection shows him with Golisano and Bill Clinton in the driveway of the Clinton’s home in Chappaqua – with connections across the country, he had long sought to move beyond Buffalo. And he did make it to Washington, D.C., serving as an executive assistant to Donna Shalala, who was secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under Clinton.
“All this local stuff, to me, was what I did between presidential campaigns,” Pigeon said.
But he never really left. While holding that job, he was also vice chairman of the Erie County Democratic Committee.
Despite his aspirations, he never could seem to completely sever himself from the politics back home. It was partly a fondness for his father’s hometown, the place he had lived since the family returned when he was 12 years old. It was partly deep feelings of resentment and anger about being wronged by his rivals and seeking to set things straight. It was partly his feeling of obligation to some of the people he grew to know and love through politics and a desire to help them when they were being attacked because of their association with him.
The party has rejected candidates for posts on boards or other jobs based on their links to Pigeon, not on merit, Pigeon said, including the party’s refusal to endorse a sitting judge like Bob Whelan, and its unsuccessful move to block Frank Sedita III from becoming Erie County district attorney.
“If you’re going to do that, every time you have a race you’re going to get a primary,” he said. “And, if you get past the primary, the party is going to be split.”
While it’s unclear what role the many primaries between Pigeon-backed candidates and those favored by the party establishment have played in their troubles, Democrats have struggled in recent years to win seats in districts where they hold significant voter registration advantages. Erie County is nearly 2-to-1 Democrats to Republicans, yet Republicans sit in the county comptroller’s office and the county sheriff’s office, and they hold a state Senate seat in a district with a similar partisan composition.
But Pigeon, too, had his own struggles as chairman. He lost the county executive’s office, the sheriff’s office and the majority in the County Legislature.
Pigeon claims he has worked to bring primaries against party candidates because his successors have failed to reach out to him, something he says he was able to do with his predecessor Vincent Sorrentino and tried to do with his longtime foe Joseph Crangle, the county chairman before Sorrentino took over.
As Pigeon sees it, it’s the duty of the county chairman to unify the party.
“My view is bad politics deserves bad outcomes,” he said.
Lenihan insists that he did reach out to Pigeon after becoming chairman, inviting him to the first big fundraising event after he took over.
“He was angry and he never quite got over everybody he was angry at,” Lenihan said. “My job was to pull the party back together after I became chairman and Steve, he was not interested in those efforts. He was more interested in settling scores with people he felt didn’t treat him fairly.”
It became clear that Pigeon was not interested in reconciliation, running primaries against endorsed candidates and actively supporting Republican candidates, he said.
“I did not reach out to him after that because I viewed him, basically, as adversarial,” Lenihan said.
FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES
Bill Clinton – Pigeon raised money for and worked on his presidential campaigns and introduced he and Hillary Clinton to B. Thomas Golisano, who gave one of the founding gifts for the Clinton Global Initiative in 2005.
Hillary Clinton – Pigeon worked on and raised money for her failed 2008 presidential bid, was on her federal health task force when she was first lady and had started to raise money for her 2012 campaign before his legal troubles.
Barack Obama – Pigeon raised money for both of Obama’s presidential runs after he defeated Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primary, including securing a $1 million for the 2008 Democratic National Convention from Golisano.
Ted Kennedy – Pigeon worked his New Hampshire primary effort, returning to Buffalo to work on the 1980 presidential campaign. In New Hampshire he was one of only a handful of volunteers and met Kennedy a number of times.
Charles Schumer – Now the most powerful Democrat in America, Schumer likely would not have won his U.S. Senate seat in 1998 without Pigeon’s help. As one of the only county chairs to support Schumer, he helped him win Erie County and defeat incumbent Alfonse D’Amato.
At any point before becoming the subject of a criminal investigation, Pigeon could have cut the cord. He had the smarts, the connections and drive to be working at some gaudy Washington lobbying or law firm. He could have been managing congressional campaigns – or soaking up cash working for even bigger players. He could have been a figure remembered, both fondly and with disdain, by local Western New York politicos, flying home when he felt the urge for some wings and a Sabres game.
In hindsight, Pigeon says, he should have left. Had he not fought so hard and made so many enemies in Buffalo and Albany, there is little chance he would have faced the scrutiny and subsequent legal trouble that now hangs over his head.
Some of his closest friends and mentors urged him to leave the local scene behind over the years. But, as he was fighting his battles, sometimes at the lowest levels of the political ladder, it made sense to him, he said.
“You always get back to ‘all politics is local,’ kind of,” Pigeon said. “Even though I always had that national view, as every year went by you’d get sucked more back in.”
Instead, he has packed up some of his belongings, reorganizing his life as he fights to clear his name, charges stemming from campaigns for small-time offices and a long-standing relationship with a judge persisting.
“The people who loved me the most, care about me the most, were constantly telling me to get out of local politics,” Pigeon said. “I should have.”
“My view is bad politics deserves bad outcomes.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find many people who demonstrated passion, that unyielding, endless curiosity toward their craft, that the young Pigeon did, even before his teenage years. For him, there has been little else besides politics worth his attention since he was 12 years old.
Fresh off a move from Chicago in 1972, the youngster was pouting in his new home in suburban Buffalo – he had not wanted to leave his friends – when his mother made him take a trip with her to the grocery store. On the way, he saw a campaign office. The minute they returned home, he jumped on his bike and peddled back to the headquarters of Vincent Graber, who was running for the Assembly. The new kid in town, he spent the majority of his summer stuffing envelopes and doing literature drops on his bike.
“I spent every day at those headquarters,” he said.
While he had never been so deeply involved in a campaign, this was not new to him. Pigeon is of political stock on his mother’s side, which exercised statewide clout from their suburban St. Louis outpost back in Missouri. One uncle was a leader in the state legislature and a local labor official. Another served on the state’s highest court. During summers of his earliest memories, he heard insider politics being discussed at the dinner table and helped with campaigns on trips from Chicago, where his father worked as an air traffic controller.
He and his cousins would wash car windows in parking lots and leave campaign literature under the windshield wipers, letting the owner know which candidate had helped them out.
He met Hubert Humphrey at Lambert Field alongside his uncle Donald Gralike, who served 14 years as a Missouri state legislator. He watched his uncle operate on the floor of the statehouse. While his cousins seemed disenchanted, to him it was like a fantasy camp.
“By the time I’m 11, 12 years old, I want to be a politician,” he recalled.
Nearly every relationship Pigeon forged in Buffalo outside his family was based on politics. All of the friends he made that first summer were the children of politicians and their pals.
It was through his participation in campaigns that he met his first political mentor outside his family, Chris Walsh, then the town Democratic chairman in West Seneca. By the time Pigeon was 15, he was writing press releases and campaign literature for Walsh and had one of his sisters drawing political cartoons. He was essentially one of Walsh’s top advisers, Pigeon said.
He would recruit his friends at school to help him with campaign tasks. Soon after, he got his first taste of political power.
“At 16 years old, I’m able to recommend kids for jobs,” he said, wearing a wide smile.
Before he had earned a high school diploma he had learned the importance of patronage in local politics. He helped his friends – the ones who had helped him with political tasks – get gigs as lifeguards at the town pool and rink guards at the ice rink.
“Most 16-year-olds would say ‘I want my friend (to get the job) because they’re my friend,’” Pigeon said. “I would say, ‘Well, I can get you the job, but you’ve got to help us on lit drops. Your parents got to put a sign on their lawn.’”
Obsessiveness is the trait that binds Pigeon with Roger Stone, the infamous right-wing political provocateur. Even though Stone is a Republican operative who despises the Clintons, he has maintained a friendship with Pigeon since first meeting him in 2002, when they were both working on a Golisano gubernatorial campaign.
“Steve and I are both inherently political animals,” Stone said in a phone interview. “We both eat, sleep, breathe and are mesmerized by politics.”
But to some, that obsession has been the root of some of the more damaging behaviors Pigeon has engaged in through the years.
Even Lenihan admitted that he once found that passion in Pigeon charming. Since their years in the County Legislature, the pair had been friendly. Lenihan still describes Pigeon as a great student of politics and an excellent strategist.
But that obsessiveness, when fueled by anger and a desire for revenge, proves destructive, Lenihan said.
“You can’t take personally everything that is done or said against you,” Lenihan said. “If you do that you’re going to spend your whole life tied up in knots at headquarters.”
“You end up being friends with all, trusted by no one.”
As Pigeon remembers it, he has been pissing off Western New York politicians since 1977. When he was 16, Pigeon became an intern for state Sen. Jimmy Griffin. He ended up doing plenty of work on Griffin’s mayoral campaign, though he was supposed to be working on behalf of Griffin’s state Senate district constituents. The fiery, diminutive politician from South Buffalo was a Democrat but ran on the Conservative line in the 1977 general election for mayor after losing the Democratic primary to Assemblyman Arthur Eve.
To Crangle supporters, support for Griffin was anathema. The nice kid from around the way who had helped them run campaigns turned out to be a traitor.
But Pigeon says he was just a kid who wanted to help his state senator become mayor of Buffalo. His English teacher’s husband, Joseph Martin, worked for Griffin and helped him get the internship. “I wasn’t making a determination at the time of, oh, I want to be against Crangle and the party,” he said.
These first unwitting stumbles into perceived betrayal developed into what came to look like a pattern. As Pigeon explains it, he was unwilling to let cliques and factions, often defined by neighborhoods and ethnicity, dictate his political decisions.
“I’m not part of the Irish clan, I’m not part of the Italian tribe, I’m not part of the Polish tribe,” he said.
Having come from St. Louis, with a French Canadian last name and no family ties to the political realm in Western New York, Pigeon never fit into any of the established factions or subfactions. The fact that his mother’s side was heavily Italian didn’t do the trick. Maybe if they had moved to Buffalo’s West Side, but not in Irish and Polish West Seneca. While this proved advantageous in some ways – his base for fundraising was larger because few people were off-limits, he was always able to make new friends, never stuck in a particular pecking order – people were always somewhat suspicious of his intentions, he said.
“You end up being friends with all, trusted by no one,” Pigeon said.
After becoming Erie County Democratic Committee chairman in 1996, his willingness to swim upstream proved helpful on a number of occasions. He was one of the only county chairs across the state to endorse long-shot candidates for U.S. senator and state attorney general in 1998. Those candidates were Charles Schumer and Eliot Spitzer. They both stand with Pigeon in one of the photos from his collection, shortly after the long-shot bets paid off.
When Schumer took a victory lap around the state, he made a special point of thanking Pigeon during a speech at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, according to a New York Times story. “As Mr. Schumer spoke in Buffalo, he stood next to Steven Pigeon, the Democratic Party chairman in Erie County, who was one of his earlier supporters and who many Democrats speculate may become the next state party chairman, particularly if Mr. Schumer assumes a prominent role in the state party,” the story said.
But those types of gambles would ultimately play a role in his undoing.
Pigeon was able to hold onto the chairmanship because he had the backing of Erie County Executive Dennis Gorski, whom he had helped to elect. As Pigeon tells it, resentments festered during his tenure. Crangle loyalists worked to undermine him. Some of the divisions dated back to his decision to back Gorski for county executive in 1987, creating lasting grudges with those who had supported the other Democratic contenders, Assemblyman Robin Schimminger and James Keane, a member of a prominent South Buffalo political family.
Pigeon critics tell a different story. They claim they were fed up with the negative campaign style and fundraising methods that skirted election laws.
“It couldn’t have been just that Pigeon had offended Joe Crangle,” Schimminger said. “It was a combination of other things.”
Schimminger had worked with Pigeon on Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential bid. They had become friendly and Schimminger was expecting his support in the county executive’s race. While they didn’t clash the way that Pigeon did with his fiercest enemies, they never made up.
In fact, the assemblyman was part of a task force set up within the county committee with the express purpose of dethroning Pigeon, though he claims it was Pigeon’s fast and loose methods that brought about task force and not any personal grudge.
“There was, among the ranks of the party, disenchantment with Pigeon, and thus was generated in the year 2000 this Task Force to Renew the Democratic Party,” he said. “It really was a grass-roots kind of a movement that organized itself and ran committeemen.”
The task force’s first attempt at replacing Pigeon was unsuccessful. But, by the next reorganization meeting in 2002, Pigeon had given up, choosing not to run again. He was replaced by Lenihan, a longtime county legislator.
Pigeon says he knew the end was near the minute his one-time friend turned fierce enemy Joel Giambra won the county executive race. Giambra, who had been a Democrat until that campaign, still had many friends in the party who found a common enemy in Pigeon.
“Once Gorski lost, all the knives came out,” he recalled.
(Photo by Derek Gee / Buffalo News)
To say that Steve Pigeon is polarizing is like saying Lake Erie is large.
His friends see him as a deeply loyal servant to his causes who has been villainized by establishment politicos with Buffalo roots and the press that serves them. Those who know him closely note his wit, his love of reading and his ability to mend damaged relationships as the attributes that make him a man worthy of their affection.
Whelan, the retired state Supreme Court justice who was not endorsed for re-election under Lenihan, said that the constant focus on Pigeon’s fundraising and campaign efforts by the state Board of Elections and law enforcement stem from his many rivalries.
“I don’t think he’s doing much different than so many have,” Whelan said. “His disadvantage is that his profile has been much higher than most. As a consequence of that, the people who have antipathy toward him have been able to extend themselves by speaking ill of him in these various contexts.”
The people with whom he has clashed most often view him as someone only concerned with advancing the interests of his allies, even when that means damaging democracy and undermining his own party.
Erie County Democratic Committee Chairman Jeremy Zellner described Pigeon as a person obsessed with running the show, consequences be damned. “It’s all about strengthening himself and it was all about power and control,” Zellner said.
Mark Sacha has been working doggedly for years to bring to light what he argues are a series of underhanded and illegal fundraising techniques Pigeon has deployed over the years. Sacha, who worked for the Erie County District Attorney’s office and investigated complaints about Pigeon before being fired by Sedita in 2009, says he was terminated because his boss didn’t like that he was going after Pigeon, a longtime ally to the DA. The DA’s office said he was let go for misconduct.
After being fired, Sacha continued his quest to expose Pigeon, and in 2013 he lodged a formal complaint with the state’s Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, shortly before Cuomo dismantled it. His testimony may have been a contributing factor in the decision by law enforcement officials to pursue Pigeon.
In public testimony to the commission in September 2013, Sacha said he outlined deeds such as conspiring to exceed contribution limits, the concealing of donors and making false filings in a 53-page memo to Sedita on his investigation into allegations, all of which the district attorney never acted on.
Sedita, though named to Cuomo’s anti-corruption panel, was not present for Sacha’s testimony.
“Ladies and gentlemen, prosecuting the powerless is easy,” Sacha told the assembled members of the commission. “The real test is when you’re asked to prosecute or investigate the powerful.”
Always neatly dressed, often in one of his custom dress shirts – G.S.P. stitched into the left cuff – a fine jacket and loafers, his salt and pepper hair carefully parted and looking as though it had just been cut, Pigeon carries himself with a confidence that is present, but not overbearing. His speech demonstrates a clear, sharp intelligence, but has an element of Buffalo Italian that helps him avoid sounding bookish or pedantic. Friends describe him as charming and funny, attributes they say have been key in his quest to build his network of powerful people.
But there has been some debate about the true scope of his influence. Undoubtedly, he has managed to get close to powerful people, and not just for photo opportunities. He helped raise millions of dollars for the Clintons over the years – for campaigns and their foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative – and served on Hillary Clinton’s health task force, her major initiative as first lady. He has personally donated more than $60,000 for Cuomo over the years, and was one of the only county chairs to support his unsuccessful 2002 gubernatorial primary bid. He served a series of wealthy benefactors, helping them carry out their business, political and philanthropic agendas.
First was Anthony Nanula, the scion of a local supermarket fortune whom he helped become a state senator and Buffalo comptroller. Then came Hormoz Mansouri, a political donor whose engineering and design firms have done millions of dollars in government work, with whom Pigeon remains close. And finally, Golisano, the man who is now keeping Pigeon afloat, continuing to give him work as he dangles in legal limbo.
As Pigeon has worked to curate his reputation as a man with access, there have been constant efforts to undermine that image. Political insiders, almost always on background, have for years whispered about his propensity for embellishment.
Pigeon, who first started working with Andrew Cuomo doing work for his late father Mario Cuomo, has at least half a dozen pictures with the governor dating back 30 years.
“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,” one unnamed state lawmaker told The Buffalo News in2013.
Cuomo has been working to distance himself from Pigeon in recent years, an effort that has increased in intensity as the allegations and subsequent charges against the operative grew more serious. Rich Azzopardi, a Cuomo spokesman, said it was a “lie” to call Pigeon a close adviser of the governor in an email to City & State. “The governor hasn’t spoken to him in years and he was last relevant 15 years ago,” when Pigeon backed Cuomo for governor, Azzopardi said.
Still, it’s clear that Pigeon had not been completely out of Cuomo’s sphere of influence. Emails obtained and detailed in a report from The Buffalo News show Pigeon was included on an email list from Cuomo’s economic development representative in Western New York Sam Hoyt that alerted recipients to state job openings as late as 2013.
Jason Conwall, an Empire State Development spokesman, stressed that the email list was widely distributed and in no way reflected any particular influence or access that Pigeon had with the governor. “Sam Hoyt is a regional representative who routinely informs dozens of contacts in the region – including elected officials from both parties, prominent community leaders and professional recruiters – of openings in order to expand the pool of potential applicants,” he said in an email.
But Pigeon backers and some observers from outside Western New York insist he is the real deal. Whether it be the clout he has continued to maintain in his mother’s native Missouri, his proximity to the Clintons or the piles of money he has pulled together for political and philanthropic purposes, the proof is hard to refute.
For years, articles about his fundraising prowess have grabbed headlines in papers big and small. Just ahead of the 2008 Democratic National Convention, where Obama would be anointed the party’s candidate, The New York Times ran a story about Golisano’s $1 million donation to the convention committee. “We think one of the things New York needs to come back is a strong relationship with the federal government,” Pigeon told the Times.
Golisano had a box at the Denver convention, where he and Pigeon hosted governors, U.S. senators, actors and athletes, while Lenihan and other Western New York Democrats wandered the floor unnoticed, Pigeon bragged to City & State last month.
Hank Sheinkopf, another prominent Democratic consultant who worked on Cuomo’s 2002 and 2014 gubernatorial campaigns, said much of the conflict and work to diminish Pigeon’s stature likely amounts to envy.
“A lot of his enemies are probably jealous,” he said. “His techniques may have been questioned by some, but the influence he exerted was not insignificant.”
To Stone, Pigeon’s ability to get close to people in power has a simple explanation. It’s something he has worked toward.
“Steve is a guy who works very hard at the networking aspect of politics,” Stone said. “Because of that he’s got a lot of wealthy and powerful friends and they appreciate his loyalty.”
“So I hire somebody who knows how to do it better. And that makes me evil?”
If there is one event that has so far come to define Steve Pigeon it has to be the 2009 state Senate coup. Pigeon, then working as special counsel to the state Legislature, cobbled together a new majority to strip state Senate Democrats of their control of the chamber with the help of George Maziarz, Dean Skelos, Tom Libous and two New York City defectors, Pedro Espada Jr. and Hiram Monserrate.
The move would add to Pigeon’s infamy. Democrats had just won the upper house for the first time in four decades with the help of Pigeon’s benefactor, Golisano.
But things had not gone as Golisano and Pigeon planned. Malcolm Smith, the state Senate majority leader they had helped to power, was quick to return to the New York City-centric ways that had frustrated upstate Democrats for years. Golisano, a Rochester area native, had spent millions helping Democrats regain the state Senate majority with the express purpose of getting upstate concerns to the floor. After a meeting in which Smith was reportedly dismissive of Golisano, eschewing the mogul’s impassioned concerns while looking at his phone, the decision was made to take back the power they had sought.
Pigeon argues this was the model for the state Senate Independent Democratic Conference, the group of breakaway Democrats led by state Sen. Jeff Klein that currently shares control of the chamber with Republicans, despite Democrats winning a majority. But Klein and other IDC members never faced the same heated criticism as Espada and Monserrate, not to mention all those who helped plan the takeover that sent the state Senate into a monthlong stalemate.
If Pigeon backers are to be believed, the move may also be a driving factor in the state’s top law enforcement officer pursuing their friend. Pigeon would not discuss the situation, but his friends, most of whom would only discuss the politics of the coup on background, say that Schneiderman, then a state senator from Manhattan, had a substantial amount of influence among state Senate Democrats at the time of the coup. He was livid after they lost power and has had held Pigeon in deep disdain ever since, they say.
Stone was one of the few people to discuss on the record what some describe as Schneiderman’s vendetta against Pigeon. The operative, who helped President Donald Trump – himself a high-profile target of Schneiderman – get elected, claims there is a direct line between the coup and the Pigeon’s legal troubles. “The proceeding against Steve Pigeon is not a legal proceeding,” he said. “It’s a political proceeding.”
Schneiderman’s office declined to comment on the accusations of politics driving the charges against Pigeon. But, a spokesperson noted that the investigation is a collaboration of multiple law enforcement agencies and that the judge presiding over the case has said in court documents that the prosecution has acted in good faith throughout the proceedings.
Pigeon speaks passionately, waving his hands in circles as he recounts the meticulous planning and maneuvering it took to get so many working parts perfectly aligned. He wants everyone to know that he played a role in finding the loophole in the rules that allowed the new coalition to immediately install Skelos as Senate majority leader after introducing a resolution that allowed them to elect new leadership. He was happy to show Malcolm Smith that Golisano was not a man to be trifled with. And he maintains that it was an earnest effort to stop New York City Democrats from ignoring the many pressing issues in the state’s smaller cities and towns.
But he also knew that he had to try to bring order back to the chaos they had caused, he said.
And in the end, despite those efforts, an infamy that had been largely contained to Western New York spread to the state Capitol.
“After the coup, I did everything I could to pull the Democrats back together,” Pigeon said.
Of all the reasons Steve Pigeon lists for being the subject of scrutiny and, now, possible punishment, he rarely points the finger at himself.
He blames the press, repeatedly bringing up stories in The Buffalo News, and in particular those from political reporter Bob McCarthy, as actively working to vilify him while describing similar behaviour from rival politicians in neutral or even approving terms. He believes this was, at least in part, because his rivals were willing to speak on background to damage his character, something he says he would not do.
“In the beginning, I probably should have,” Pigeon said. “But I didn’t believe you run to the press. I believe you have the fight on the field. And I certainly didn’t run to DAs, board of elections, like they do every time there’s a campaign.”
So, too, does he regret leaning so hard into his rivalry with Crangle as a youngster. In particular, he was wistful about the presidential campaign in 1984, and his decision to publicly deride Crangle in what became a heated series of exchanges in interviews with print and television reporters, during which he once described the elder statesman as a dinosaur.
“I wish I wouldn’t have done that,” Pigeon said. “As a 23-year-old kid, it was immature.”
But little else from his past seemed to give him pause. People were only mad about negative campaign ads put out by the companies he hired because they were better than their negative advertisements. His opponents constantly called for investigations into his campaign fundraising and political committee activities because they couldn’t keep up with him.
“So I hire somebody who knows how to do it better,” he said. “And that makes me evil?”
Sitting in his condo, legs folded next to a small, round coffee table, Pigeon reflected on the limitations the charges brought to his formerly fast-paced life.
As someone who prided himself on his work ethic and his avoidance of the press, he now has a great deal of time and reason to spend hours recounting the details of his career. His mind seems like a steel trap for the machinations of politics and he delights in detailing the calculations behind every move, and in relitigating the outcomes.
But there is an uneasiness about him these days, an agitation. He claims to have enough work to keep him busy and his mind off his legal issues, but his demeanor says otherwise.
“I try to deal with it when you have to deal with it, and you let the lawyers do their stuff,” he said.
He’s still working, making regular trips to Rochester to talk with Golisano about his business and philanthropic endeavors. But he is neutered when it comes to his real passion. No one in politics would dare touch him at this point, an impulse he gets.
“I understand why,” Pigeon said. “If I was advising them, I’d say, ‘You’ve got to back off.’”
At least for the time being, his name is toxic to campaigns. That has left him in a kind of political purgatory. But, to him, it’s been more akin to the first leg of Dante’s epic journey. Being sidelined for this last presidential campaign was particularly painful for Pigeon.
“I’m in hell,” he said. “Because I can’t do what I do.”
Corrections: An earlier version of this post indicated that the first time Steve Pigeon angered local politicians was in 1972 when he supported the McGovern campaign. In fact, the first such incident was in 1977, when he worked for Jimmy Griffin. This post has also been updated to reflect that Pigeon donated more $60,000 to Andrew Cuomo. He raised more than that for the Cuomo campaign.