Throughout his political career, Steven M. Casey remained mostly loyal to his mentor G. Steven Pigeon, a former county Democratic chairman and political agitator. They cut deals together. They saw themselves as kingmakers. They antagonized many of the same enemies.
In recent years, they sometimes worked with another political operative, Republican Christopher M. Grant, who served as chief of staff to Chris Collins when he was Erie County executive. Grant still works as chief of staff to Collins, now a congressman from Western New York.
State and federal authorities searched the homes of Grant, Casey and Pigeon on Thursday as part of a criminal investigation believed to involve election and campaign finance irregularities.
Casey left City Hall in 2014, but even out of public life, he and Pigeon continued to intersect. Casey, 48, now heads up a developer’s effort to build a huge complex of homes, stores and attractions in West Seneca. Pigeon, who got his start in West Seneca, serves as the lobbyist for developer Scott R. Congel’s megaproject.
While working in City Hall, Casey was dubbed the “shadow mayor” as he played two roles for Mayor Byron W. Brown: chief political strategist and first deputy mayor, a perch from which he directed the wheels of government. Casey hired and fired and determined the Brown team’s public messages. Casey set the mayor’s daily schedule and decided which outsiders would receive face time with Buffalo’s chief executive.
Casey enforced orders and settled scores. He also helped advance the political careers of politicians he found useful, because they might attain powers that would assist Brown, or they might pester Brown-Casey-Pigeon enemies. Casey, for example, helped Common Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr. run regular Democratic primary races against then-Assemblyman Sam Hoyt of Buffalo. In 2012, he encouraged Charles M. Swanick to run against then-State Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, a Buffalo Republican. Grisanti won the race.
In the 1990s, Casey was a run-of-the-mill political aide. While working for then-County Executive Dennis T. Gorski, Casey designed a political mailer that proved disastrous for the Gorski re-election campaign of 1999. The mailer, which riffed on a picture of a baby with a bowl of spaghetti spilled over his head, was held up by Republican rival Joel A. Giambra as a slur on Italians. The complaint gave Giambra traction, and he denied Gorski a fourth term.
Casey’s career as middling operative changed with Byron Brown. They met when Brown was a state senator, and Casey went to work for him. Casey managed Brown’s successful mayoral campaigns in 2005, 2009 and 2013 by winning the all-important Democratic primary, which is decided by a shrinking number of Democratic voters. Casey’s departure from City Hall last year was interpreted in some circles as proof that Brown will not run again.
While a state senator, Brown hired Pigeon after he was ousted as party chairman. Brown later fired him, showing that the senator was willing to do what was needed to curry favor with the new party chairman, Leonard R. Lenihan, and win the party’s mayoral nomination. But when Lenihan refused to go with Brown’s choice to assume his vacant Senate seat, the feud was on. And the Casey-Pigeon bond was strong.
In 2010, Casey, Pigeon and Grant engineered a deal to install Buffalo Democrat Barbara Miller-Williams as chairwoman of the Erie County Legislature, even while she lacked support from most of the Democrats who formed the Legislature’s majority bloc. Casey, Pigeon and Grant grabbed votes from two Democrats in their camp and instructed the entire Republican caucus to lift Miller-Williams into the Legislature’s top spot. From there, she ran a coalition friendly to Collins.
Why would the Democrat Casey go out of his way to give the Republican Collins a docile majority?
Because the Legislature chairwoman hires and fires the Legislature’s patronage appointees, so Casey, Pigeon and Miller-Williams – not Lenihan – would select the new Democratic hires. Further, the Legislature chairwoman would nominate two of the three commissioners running the Erie County Water Authority; so Casey and Pigeon could better place people from their flock into authority patronage jobs.
Casey was so willing to frustrate Lenihan and Democratic headquarters that he passed nominating petitions for Collins when he ran for re-election in 2011. Collins lost to Mark C. Poloncarz, a headquarters-aligned Democrat.
“I always found Steve very easy to work with, very focused on getting the job done,” Grant said for a Buffalo News profile about Casey in 2012.
In 2006, Casey told a Buffalo News reporter that he had just one boss — his wife. Years later, when another interviewer asked if it was true that Brown grew livid at the remark, Casey said the mayor had not been angry at all.