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Tracing Pigeon’s Clinton connection

WASHINGTON – G. Steven Pigeon knew what he wanted as soon as Bill Clinton campaigned his way to the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination.

Already a notoriously pugnacious political operative in Buffalo, Pigeon said at the time that he would work hard to help the young presidential candidate and his wife. Over the better part of a quarter century, he did just that – more so, arguably, than anyone else in Western New York.

Starting in 1992 as a campaign aide, Pigeon made himself into many things for Bill and Hillary Clinton – serving, at times, as a political soothsayer, rainmaker and fundraiser.

But now, as Pigeon faces nine felony counts just as Hillary Clinton stands on the verge of the Democratic presidential nomination, he has taken on a new, unwanted role for the Clintons – as an embarrassment.

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To hear Democratic insiders tell it, Pigeon never made it to the innermost circle of intimates that surrounds Bill Clinton, nor a slightly different group of confidants that surrounds Hillary Clinton.

But Pigeon did chart a path that drew him closer and closer to the Clintons over the years, forging a relationship that ended only when federal and state law enforcement officers raided Pigeon’s home on May 28, 2015.

His path began humbly enough back in 1992, when Pigeon’s first choice for president that year, Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, dropped out of the race as Democrats coalesced around Clinton.

Pigeon quickly joined the Clinton campaign and ended up as its New York director, helping steer the Arkansas governor to a big win in the heavily Democratic state in November of that year. That won Pigeon a spot on Clinton’s transition team, and then a position as a political aide to Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala.

A former Erie County legislator, Pigeon returned to Buffalo in late 1993 and dove more deeply into local politics, a move that culminated in his election as Erie County Democratic chairman in 1996.

For the Clintons, that made Pigeon the go-to guy in Buffalo as Hillary Clinton began contemplating a race for the U.S. Senate from New York in 1999. Newsday reported at the time that Hillary Clinton called Pigeon to discuss the Peace Bridge and other local issues. And Pigeon bragged to The Buffalo News in June of that year that he was summoned to the White House to discuss politics with the president, calling it “a good opportunity to strategize and get involved.”

Erie County Democrats dumped Pigeon as their chairman in 2002, saying he had neglected the very basics of party-building. Rather than blighting his career, that snub only led Pigeon to become a party of one, gravitating toward powerful figures such as B. Thomas Golisano, the Rochester billionaire who ran unsuccessfully for governor as the Independence Party candidate that year.

In 2003, Pigeon emerged as Golisano’s legal adviser in his bid to buy the bankrupt Buffalo Sabres – a move that drew Golisano close to Pigeon.

At the time, Bill Clinton was looking to launch his international effort, called the Clinton Global Initiative, to get rich people to do good deeds. He needed money to do it, though. So, in early 2005, the former president called Pigeon, saying that he would like to meet Golisano. Pigeon quickly arranged a lunch meeting at Clinton’s home in Chappaqua in May 2005.

“The meeting went great,” Pigeon said at the time. “The president laid down his whole vision, and what his strategy should be ... Tom looked at it, and within a couple weeks he said he’d be a chief sponsor.”

The move meant that for nine straight years, the Golisano Foundation served as chief underwriter for the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting in New York, donating somewhere between $10 million and $25 million to the effort, according to the Clinton Foundation website.

By forging the Clinton-Golisano connection, Pigeon found himself closer to the Clintons than ever before.

“I don’t think Steve was ever really a player with the Clintons until Golisano emerged,” said a political source who has long supported the Clintons. “Clinton wanted to meet Golisano, and Steve made it happen. That’s what got them together.”

It all meant that, for a while and on occasion, Clinton, Golisano and Pigeon looked like a power trio, hanging together at Clinton’s annual event in New York and twice taking in Sabres games together in Buffalo.

So it was no surprise that when Hillary Clinton launched her first presidential bid in 2007, Pigeon was right there, signing on as a “Hillraiser” committed to raising at least $100,000 for her campaign.

Hillary Clinton lost that primary campaign to current President Barack Obama, but Democratic sources said Pigeon’s effort for the Clintons over the years formed a bond that continued into the current decade.

“Steve had at least an ongoing dialogue with many powerful political people, including the Clintons,” said one prominent Democratic source who asked not to be identified by name. “Steve was a master at creating an impression of political influence, and people gravitated to him because of that.”

Golisano did not respond to a request for comment, but the New York Post reported in 2014 that he had ended his financial support of the Clinton Global Initiative.

In the meantime, Nick Merrill, Hillary Clinton’s spokesman, did not respond to an email and telephone call requesting comment on the Clintons’ relationship with Pigeon.

That relationship lasted all the way up to early 2015, when Hillary Clinton was launching her second bid for the presidency. Pigeon told intimates in Buffalo that he was primed to travel to Iowa, the first caucus state, to help the former first lady – but that plan changed as soon as law enforcement raided Pigeon’s home, looking for evidence of corruption.

All of this leaves voters to figure out what to make of the connections between an accused felon and the first family of Democratic politics.

Not surprisingly, Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy said voters should make the worst of it.

“When you look at Steve, he was clearly the political figure most tied to the Clintons in Western New York,” Langworthy said. “And the company you keep says a lot.”

Then again, politicians like the Clintons keep company with hundreds of prominent political people, and it’s inevitable that some of them “may not reflect the best on you,” said Dave Levinthal, a Buffalo native who now covers campaign finance for the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit that investigates government corruption.

Pigeon never raised millions for Clinton campaigns or “super PACS,” so he’s clearly not in the highest echelon of Clinton supporters, Levinthal said.

“He’s been a consistent donor, a fairly prominent fundraiser and a political errand-runner, greasing the skids for power brokers to get access to the Clintons,” he added.

But that was then, and this is now.

Federal campaign finance records show that Pigeon gave $8,500 over the years to various Clinton campaigns. Most recently, he gave Hillary Clinton’s current campaign $2,700 on April 16, 2015.

Yet, in what seems like an abrupt end to the Clinton-Pigeon partnership, the Clinton campaign returned that donation to Pigeon on May 29, 2015 – the day after investigators searched Pigeon’s home.

email: jzremski@buffnews.com