Denny Farrell, the veteran Harlem assemblyman who is no stranger to these parts, knows all too well what lies ahead for new state Democratic Chairman Byron Brown – the mayor of Buffalo.
Farrell led New York’s dominant party from 2001 to 2006. And after Brown was named to the same post a few days ago – essentially by Gov. Andrew Cuomo – Farrell can predict that along with the prestigious title comes plenty of headaches.
“For me, a session would end and I would have to drive out to Buffalo or someplace, go make a speech, jump back in and do my other job,” he recalled. “I burnt out a couple of cars that way.”
A tough assignment awaits the mayor, even if Democrats remain in charge of most of Albany and all of the state’s big cities. His main assignment: implement Cuomo’s needs and desires. That just might mean furthering the national ambitions most observers believe the governor still harbors.
On the other end of the spectrum, it could also mean ordering new paint for the walls in Manhattan’s state Democratic headquarters. Such is the level of hands-on detail for which Cuomo has become famous.
That’s why some are already portraying Brown as a “figurehead,” someone who will head the party in name only as Cuomo calls the shots. Farrell says that’s part of the deal. Even he faced that situation when Republican George Pataki ruled Albany.
“For me, it was Shelly,” he said, referring to former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and the control he wielded for years.
But Cuomo’s selection of Brown transcends their friendly relationship and mutual devotion to liberal Democratic politics. The governor chose the mayor of the state’s second-largest city to reflect the progress he believes state policies have fostered here during his five and half years as governor.
“More than anything, he’s from upstate,” Farrell said of Brown. “Our problem is upstate. New York State’s problem is upstate. So this is a good sign.”
But questions surround how strongly upstate will support Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. In last month’s Democratic primary, most observers credited the efforts of Brown’s own political machine in barely carrying Erie County for the state’s former senator. The efforts did not go unnoticed.
The last gubernatorial election, meanwhile, underscores Farrell’s contention that economically struggling upstate still presents a problem. Even with a program spewing $1 billion into Western New York, and even with Buffalo’s Kathy Hochul as his running mate, Cuomo eked out only a slim Erie County victory in 2014.
Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion plan seems to suffer more each day with revelations of financial problems plaguing SolarCity and its $750 million in state largess for a new plant at RiverBend. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s questions surrounding Cuomo cronies and whether they benefited from the plan aren’t helping.
But the governor will continue to highlight a Buffalo skyline dotted by construction cranes, just as in his 2014 re-election bid and just like Brown seeking a third term in 2013. Cuomo will attempt to show upstate is not forgotten, with Brown at his side.
If Clinton wins the presidency this year, the idea will serve him well running against Carl Paladino or another strong Republican in 2018. If Clinton loses, watch for a 2020 national slogan something like: “If we can do it in Buffalo, we can do it anywhere.”
Meanwhile, Brown faces busy days ahead. His first major assignment looms in Philadelphia and the July Democratic National Convention. He will assume a major profile there as head of Clinton’s home state delegation, a first for a New York chairman since another Buffalonian – Paul Fitzpatrick – performed the same duties for FDR back in 1944.
Farrell presided over the party for five years – a long stint for modern-day chairmen who seem to quickly wear out or flame out. So he does not see Brown’s assignment as one that will last forever.
Still, Farrell offers this piece advice for the rookie chairman from Buffalo: “He should do the good job he’s always done. Just continue.”