CLEVELAND – When Donald Trump claimed victory in the New York Republican presidential primary back on April 19, strains of “New York, New York” surrounded his grand entrance into the Trump Tower lobby in Manhattan.
And during the Monday session of the Republican National Convention, New York delegates presented one of the fiercest defenses against a last-ditch effort to derail Trump’s nomination.
It’s all part of a Trump plan revolving around the strength of his home state to get him the nomination.
“The real turning point was New York,” observed State Republican Chairman Edward F. Cox. “Indiana was the exclamation point,” referring to that state’s May 3 primary victory by Trump.
Now, even if prospects for a November victory in New York appear dim, Trump has solidly molded a state party in his image. No anti-Trump elements lurk around the New York delegation, down-ballot hopefuls such as Senate candidate Wendy E. Long echo his themes, and the party has unquestionably coalesced behind the brand of politics he has stamped on the once-staid New York GOP.
“The game plan has always been to bring people together,” said Assemblyman David J. DiPietro, of East Aurora. “You don’t hear anything here about Cruz or Kasich or anyone,” referring to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John R. Kasich. “We are totally solid.”
There should be no doubt about Trump’s influence in New York. He prevailed in 61 of 62 counties with 61 percent of the vote. Some of his top campaign lieutenants hail from the state, and top statewide figures such as Buffalo’s Carl P. Paladino operate in the same mold.
Cox said Trump seems to have tapped into something among New York Republicans.
“It’s all this political correctness and things getting in the way of getting the job done,” he said. “It’s the way America is disrespected in the world, it’s the SAFE Act, and this political correctness theme is about going against a culture of good, hard work that was America.
“People want to get back to that: Make America great again.”
Paladino may understand the Trump dynamic as well as any Republican in the state. The two have become close political allies in recent years following Paladino’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign that featured much of the same brashness, bravado and political incorrectness that has come to characterize Trump.
While Democrat Andrew M. Cuomo easily dispatched him in the general election, Paladino scored an easy victory, 61.6 percent to 38.4 percent, in his statewide primary against establishment figure Rick Lazio. Paladino won Erie County by 94 to 6 percent.
He recalled a 2013 meeting with Trump when the Manhattan real estate developer was contemplating a run for governor.
“He said, ‘You’re me. I feel the same way you do. I like your approach,’ ” Paladino said. “Then he said, ‘I’m going to run for president.’ ”
Trump passed on challenging Cuomo for governor in 2014, but he eventually displayed the same statewide party strength as Paladino in the 2016 presidential primary.
But not all New York Republicans are happy with the Trump-inspired makeover of their party. Former Gov. George E. Pataki, the state’s last Republican governor and one of only two in almost 60 years, supported Kasich after dropping his own presidential bid earlier this year.
Pataki, a familiar New York figure at conventions for many years, has not shown up at this year’s event.
Former Erie County Republican Chairman James P. Domagalski also started the presidential year as a Kasich supporter. This week, attending the convention in no official capacity, Domagalski said he’s warming up to the idea of Trump as leader of the state party.
He heard the name of former President Ronald Reagan invoked during Monday’s opening session of the convention, he said, but never once heard anything about either of the Bush presidents or the last two GOP presidential nominees – Arizona Sen. John McCain or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Now, he recognizes that Trump has connected in New York and elsewhere like no Republican since Reagan, the last Republican to win the state in a presidential election, back in 1984.
“As a Reagan-Kemp conservative Republican, I recognize the Trump elements of American exceptionalism and leadership that are really starting to resonate with people,” he said, adding a reference to Kemp, the late congressman from Hamburg who was the party’s 1996 vice presidential nominee. “And the people who are advising Donald Trump … are taking the party back to American exceptionalism. That’s exciting to me.”
Like Domagalski, Buffalo’s Anthony H. Gioia – one of the state’s top Republican fundraisers – is also a regular at national conventions, but he is also staying away from Cleveland after supporting Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and then Cruz. The former ambassador to Malta said his government experience taught him that what presidents say and do carry consequences in the world and that he is not convinced Trump’s brash nature would be good for the nation’s standing in the world.
“His comments on NATO are very disturbing, and he is totally wrong on trade,” Gioia said, adding that he will not vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“I’m trying to feel comfortable in voting for him,” he said, “but every time I think I’m there, he does something. I’d like to vote for him.”
Still, the New York GOP will leave here Friday as united as it has been in years. Cox is enthusiastically supporting the Trump bid, as are the leaders of most major counties.
DiPietro, an early backer of Paladino’s entry into the statewide Republican scene, said he has watched the party coalesce around the kind of politics practiced by Paladino and then Trump.
Two fellow members of the Assembly who were not on board with Trump have shown up in Cleveland, DiPietro said, representing the kind of conversion the state party is experiencing.
“There was some infighting during the primary, but that happens in any family,” he said. “But this family is now really tight.”