In defense of Steve Pigeon and American democracy

BY MATT RICCHIAZZI

One of the most accomplished political activists of his generation, former Erie County Democratic Party Chairman G. Steven Pigeon has long been a target of entrenched special interests and party hacks. Today, he is fighting for his freedom as a vengeful Attorney General has smeared his name and relentlessly pursued the most minor of campaign finance technicalities as a premise to manufacture criminal charges against him and State Supreme Court Justice John Michalek.

Our campaign finance laws have become so over regulated that a politician can send someone to prison for merely participating in our democracy. Political speech — for good reason — should be the most protected and free of all speech. But campaign finance technicalities have become so cumbersome, convoluted, and protective of incumbents and party bosses that one must be a professional political operative to avoid inadvertently breaking the law.

If this were happening to an activist in China or the former Soviet Union, we would be screaming about human rights violations and rallying to protect pro-democracy activists. That it is happening here at home should frighten us all, and says something profound about the fragility of our democracy.

While Bob McCarthy at The Buffalo News has needed a villain to spark interest in his mediocre writing over a career that has lasted too long, Buffalo itself has needed a hero.  Rather than holding up Pigeon as a beacon for a better future, he was relentlessly tarred and feathered by establishment media who are deep in the same pockets as our politicians.

At age 17, when Pigeon volunteered on the campaign that elected Mayor Jimmy Griffin on a minor party line in 1977 – he made lifelong enemies with the bossism at Democratic Party headquarters.  Former Chairman Joe Crangle and his supporters stewed in resentment towards him that, over the decades, has come to define the local party’s organizational culture.

In 1984, when a 24 year old Pigeon managed Gary Hart’s presidential primary campaign in Upstate New York, he again bucked local party bosses to champion an outsider’s cause – further riling Crangle and his largely unthinking patronage apostles.

With other reformers — like the late David Rutecki — he organized the Frontier Club that was key to electing County Executive Dennis Gorski (a surprising and remarkable coup on the local political scene at the time). That same year when Pigeon was elected to the County Legislature in 1988, he often found himself a target of Crangle, who saw Pigeon as the chief architect of the opposition faction of Democrats who sought to oust the party machine and reform the local party. They were successful in installing James Sorrentino as the county’s new chairman.

When Pigeon became county chairman himself in 1996, he ran the party with an openness and respect for various factions of the party that had been unseen under Crangle. He accepted all of Crangle’s operatives and patronage loyalists into the party fold, and didn’t push out key staff as many expected. He even supported the reelection efforts of Buffalo Mayor Tony Masiello and County Clerk David Swartz (two Crangle loyalists) in a peace offering that stunned many longtime observers.

The pettiness that characterizes so much of the region’s political culture relented under his chairmanship – but Pigeon continued to be lambasted by Crangle’s cadre of political compatriots with the unyielding help of The News’ McCarthy.

And in 2009 when Pigeon architected a takeover of the State Senate from a Democratic Party that had run amok, beholden to liberal downstate interests, then-Senate Majority Whip Eric Schneiderman vowed revenge against Pigeon for the loss of his majority. In fact, he viscerally threatened revenge to Pigeon’s face outside of the Marriott Hotel in Albany (in front of several witnesses who are willing to testify to such under oath).

Pigeon’s backing of Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice against Schniederman (who nearly defeated him in the 2010 Democratic Primary for Attorney General) only deepened the feud.

Now Attorney General Schneiderman (perhaps the most politically motivated and self-interested prosecutor in the history of New York State) is making good on that deeply disturbing promise that is so fundamentally destructive to our democracy.  And, to do so, he is teaming up locally with the old Crangle machine that now again controls party headquarters.

When you hear of Justice Michalek’s expected indictment in the next few weeks, know that his only crime was asking a lifelong friend to help setup an interview for his son for a job that he didn’t even get.

If an activist and attorney of Pigeon’s caliber can be taken down so easily – and on such contrived charges – then who among us is to stop party bosses and vengeful politicians from doing the same thing to you or me?

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