Every September on Primary Night and every November on Election Night, there's a span of about 90 minutes that only those in the politics biz can fully appreciate. It's that twilight zone between when the polls close at 9 p.m. and the moment the results are apparent -- usually around 10:30 p.m. It's when those running for office pace the floor and bite their fingernails as they wait to learn whether they go to bed that night a winner or a loser.
Erie County Democratic Chairman Steve Pigeon may have lived that 90-minute limbo more intensely than anyone else last Tuesday night. As he watched the returns flash across the computer screen, he could see Republican county executive candidate Joel Giambra raking in the bragging points as he swept to landslide victories in both the Republican and Independence primaries.
With every sign pointing to tough sledding ahead for his political patron -- County Executive Gorski -- Pigeon knows his own future as leader of upstate New York's largest Democratic organization also hangs in the balance. Most observers believe that as Gorski goes, so goes Pigeon; that their political fates are intertwined.
But what some of those observers failed to observe was Pigeon subtly striking out on his own in last week's primary. Earlier in the year, the chairman engineered a major gamble by paving the way for his close pal, Anthony Nanula, to leave the State Senate and begin a run for the semi-obscure office of city comptroller.
It's a great place to hang out if you're into crunching numbers and issuing audits. It's also a great place to polish a resume for a state comptroller run -- a goal that the Pigeon/Nanula tag team has pursued for several years.
And with that move, Pigeon had to summon substantial political guts. There was certainly no rapture in the Gorski camp over the prospect of a Buffalo-based Italian-American drawing more Italian-American voters to the polls in a year he faces someone named Joel Giambra. And reports continue that some Gorski-ites resent the highest priority label that Pigeon has hung on the Nanula effort this year.
That didn't stop Pigeon. Realizing that Nanula's Senate career was going nowhere after a major tiff with Minority Leader Marty Connor, the two engineered a return to Buffalo for the comptroller's spot. And during that 90-minute limbo Tuesday night, Pigeon could only hold his breath as he watched the Nanula dice he had thrown spin and spin and spin until -- finally and without much to spare -- they turned up the right numbers.
"It was tricky, but I think Anthony did very well," the chairman said about Nanula's 1,300 vote victory over Herb Bellamy Jr.
By clearing the Democratic field of at least four other comptroller candidates, Pigeon paved the way for Nanula to kick in tens of thousands of dollars for a weekend advertising blitz. That campaign overwhelmed even the heavy black turnout most believed would pave the way for a Bellamy victory in the primary.
In the end, as in 1994, when he spent $580,000 to win Mayor Masiello's old Senate seat, Nanula moolah and its ability to finance massive advertising carried the day -- just as Pigeon gambled.
But there's more involved. Pigeon would never acknowledge it, but some surmise he is planning for the day when Gorski may no longer be around to sustain him as the area's top Dem. The comptroller's office is not exactly the Rath Building in terms of power and patronage, but so far it ranks as a success that allows Pigeon to sell the idea of a Buffalonian someday making the state ticket.
That, goes some thinking, permits him to make the case if Gorski is toppled and life as we know it ends. "He's resigned to losing Gorski," said one confidant. "Now he can at least point to Nanula."
Now that he can breathe a little easier, Pigeon says he will remember who was with him and who was against him in Nanula's effort. He is bitter about those who say the party didn't produce much this year.
"Those are the same people who complained after I won with Schumer and Spitzer last year," he said. "They'd complain if I produced the second coming of Christ. They're the same people who tried to hurt Anthony Nanula in the primary. They should start running; I know who they are. They should be concerned, because they were exposed as not party people. They're just against the party no matter what."
A lot can and will happen over the next six weeks as Gorski and Giambra battle for political control of Erie County. Gorski may very well rally the county's 120,000 Democratic plurality; Council Member Kevin Helfer will certainly pose a strong challenge to Nanula in the general election.
But by the time the twilight zone fades at 10:30 p.m. on Nov. 2, Erie County's political landscape could undergo a major redesign. Survivor that he is, Chairman Pigeon is already adapting.