I have known Steve Pigeon for more than 30 years. I have never considered him a friend.
Right from the get-go, when he worked as a night watchman at the Small Boat Harbor, he was always scheming and self-promoting. Those are not particularly unusual traits for someone seeking to make politics his profession, but as time went on he seemed to give scheming and self-promotion a bad name.
Steve got himself elected to the County Legislature, but then he lost the seat. He ran to replace long-term Democratic Assemblyman Vince Graber. He lost that seat too.
But he kept pushing to move himself up, and he did. When Chairman Jim Sorrentino wound up on the losing side of the Democratic primary for County Executive in 1995, Steve in 1996 maneuvered his way into the party chairmanship.
Even though he was a Democratic Party leader, Steve helped promote the independent campaigns of Tom Golisano for governor. He still to this day maintains a close relationship with Golisano.
Steve also made good connections with President Bill Clinton, with some assists along the way from Golisano. He was planning to play an active role in Hillary’s campaign until the FBI and State Attorney General’s Office came knocking on his door 13 months ago.
As Erie County Democratic Chairman Steve seemed to relish a mean and vindictive role for himself. He often seemed to pay more attention to hurting people or seeking revenge than to electing Democrats.
Four years into his chairmanship a large group of Democratic Party men and women decided that they had enough of his shenanigans. The Task Force to Reform the Democratic Party, led by then-County Clerk Dave Swarts, tried to take the party back. It was a bitter fight, and Pigeon and his minions used every trick they could to hold the chairmanship. It worked, but nothing got any better.
In 2002 I ran as the Task Force’s candidate for County Chairman to get Pigeon out of the office, and after a while Len Lenihan and Jim Keane joined the race. Len was elected. Pigeon was out of the chairmanship, but not forgotten.
He has engaged in a series of political activities over the past fourteen years that, in the minds of well-versed party veterans, crossed the line of illegality in the way he raised and spent money in campaigns. Mysterious funds paid for commercials for Swarts’ 2002 opponent for County Clerk, Fran Pordum. We dug into that and even briefly got DA Frank Clark to assign an investigator to the matter. It was soon dropped with no follow-up.
Other similar Pigeon activity followed. He often played games with the campaign finances of County Legislature candidates, helping some, like Chuck Swanick and Barbara Miller-Williams, and hurting others like Tim Hogues and Betty Jean Grant. He worked with Republican Chris Collins to grab control of the County Legislature. He helped make Pedro Espada the State Senate Majority Leader, but Espada was soon indicted and convicted on corruption charges.
Pigeon worked to torpedo the election chances of some Democratic judicial candidates. He arranged for his foes to lose their jobs, even trying to hurt the job chances of one of those people by seeing that bad references followed the person wherever he applied for jobs in other parts of the country.
In 2013 Pigeon’s WNY Progressive Caucus once again played games with raising and reporting committee revenues and hiding how the money had been spent. We still don’t have a real accounting of that committee’s activities.
Along the way other people who were hurt by Pigeon, or who were simply seeking justice for his questionable election work, came into the picture: Elections Commissioners Dennis Ward and Ralph Mohr; County Legislators Hogues and Grant; assistant DA Mark Sacha, among others. For the most part their complaints fell on deaf ears. Steve has always been good about maintaining friends in high places, and they have helped cover for him. Andrew Cuomo’s Moreland Commission did not give complaints against Pigeon a moment’s notice. I am sure the 2nd floor in the State Capitol was thrilled yesterday to read the New York Times headline, “Operative Tied to Cuomo Is Accused of Bribing Judge to Get Favorable Rulings.”
So now Steve Pigeon has been indicted on nine counts and faces several years in prison. He has taken down a Supreme Court Judge with him. The charges relate to bribing a judge, extortion, and grand larceny – not election law violations. I believe the election law violations are a very credible problem for him as well, but we may have to wait and see about that.
When the news finally broke Wednesday afternoon, I thought briefly about tweeting “ding, dong, the witch is dead,” but someone else had just recently used that.
Pigeon, of course, is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Those who know him and how he has operated, however, don’t believe he is innocent. The process will now play itself out in a court of law, one that he cannot influence.
But in the meantime, the indictment alone should wipe away any future chances of Pigeon again meddling in Erie County politics. The page has finally been turned.