In his new role as chairman of the New York State Democratic Party, Mayor Byron W. Brown found himself immersed in national politics as never before during Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful quest for the presidency.
He led the New York delegation to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, campaigned for Clinton in far off places like Florida, helped organize and address rallies closer to home in Pennsylvania, and tasted politics on a far larger scale than the familiarity of running for office in Buffalo.
So after all that, was he as surprised on election night at Donald J. Trump’s victory as the rest of a stunned nation?
"I was surprised, and then again I wasn’t," he said in an interview with The Buffalo News. "I had a feeling all along that certain assumptions could not be made. And the campaign had become so nontraditional, that even on election night, I thought anything was possible."
Brown left the Clinton campaign convinced that the basics of running for his old Common Council seat from the Masten District should apply to national campaigns, too. And for the Democratic Party to rebound from its national drubbing on Nov. 8, he now thinks new attention should be paid to the tried and true.
"From being in those two states, I had concerns," he said. "I did not always feel that what the masses of volunteers and staffers were doing was most effective."
Hand-picked by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo last May to lead New York’s Democrats, Brown’s home state never wavered in its support for Clinton – New York’s former senator and a Westchester County resident. While other reliable Democratic states like Pennsylvania or Wisconsin turned to Trump, New Yorkers stuck by Clinton with a plurality of about 1.7 million votes.
But in other parts of the country frustrated Democrats have been venting. They complain the party ignored traditional New Deal constituencies like rural whites and other working class people that Trump successfully wooed. They think the Clinton campaign concentrated too much on social issues while failing to connect on bread and butter concerns as successfully as Trump.
But Brown refuses to go that far. He believes Clinton offered a hopeful message built upon strengthening the economy and creating jobs. He also rejects any notion that the former secretary of state "was not a good candidate."
"In my view, Hillary Clinton was an excellent candidate," he said.
Nor does he accept the criticism that the campaign failed to offer an effective message, especially as expressed by top Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
"Why did all the working people, who have always been our base, turn away?" Manchin asked in the New York Times a few days ago.
Brown insists the party and the candidate had the right message. He questions how it was delivered.
"I don’t think the party lost touch and certainly the party [had] bodies and money," he said. "I just don’t think the message effectively got out."
And while he insists Clinton represented the party’s best candidate for the White House, he questions the second spot. He would have preferred a minority running mate to energize a minority base that failed to turn out in similar numbers as it had for Barack Obama – the nation’s first African-American president – in 2008 and 2012.
"While Tim Kaine was a strong candidate and spoke Spanish, I would have selected a Hispanic candidate," he said. "There were many good choices, but I think Sen. Cory Booker or Labor Secretary Tom Perez would be phenomenal choices."
In retrospect, Brown said Clinton offered a fine message. It focused on the economy, and offered ideas to repair crumbling infrastructure and create jobs. But he cites "challenges" in its delivery.
"I don’t like to play Monday morning quarterback," he said. "I would have spent more resources on getting the message out than focusing on the opposition."
The Clinton team has been criticized for negative ads portraying Trump as unfit for the presidency. Brown conceded the strategy proved enticing, but it had not worked before.
"The lesson learned was that the opposition had just gone through the Republican primary in a very crowded field and won," he said.
Is there anything Brown admires about what Trump and his team accomplished?
"He won," he said. "I would say their campaign never stopped working or accepting that they could be defeated."
Now, as chairman of a key Democratic state, Brown said he sees the need for changes. He believes training for staff and volunteers must intensify to achieve "maximum contact with voters."
"We see here in New York State that there has got to be constant outreach and touches with the electorate," he said. "That presents an opportunity to more effectively train your volunteer base."
He has no favorite in the contest for a new Democratic national chairman, featuring Canisius High School graduate Perez and Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota.
"Beyond the fact that he is from Buffalo, I have had the opportunity to spend time with Tom Perez and think that he brings a working class background, and is a warm and down to earth individual who is a tireless worker." he said. "But I’ve learned...not to move too quickly. It makes sense to look at the whole landscape."
Brown said he now watches Washington with the same caution as the many others critical of the president-elect’s early moves. The state chairman will seriously perform his partisan role, he promised, but will sit back and watch, too.
"I certainly have concerns like many others," he said. "But I also am one who has been trained to support the president of the United States and root for the president of our nation to do well and be successful. That’s my approach."
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