There was a time when Byron Brown was not much interested in talking politics – not with nosy reporters anyway.
The mayor of Buffalo had a city to run – streets to plow, garbage to collect, a waterfront to develop.
But much has changed since Gov. Andrew Cuomo selected him as state Democratic chairman in 2016. Now Brown presides over not only the state’s second largest city, but one of the nation’s most significant Democratic organizations as well.
Now he’s only too happy to ruminate on politics. In fact, he revels in it.
“I’ve been enjoying the opportunity to talk to Democrats across the State of New York and really have enjoyed interacting with the governor even more in this role,” he said a few days ago. “It also gives me the opportunity to share statewide the story of Buffalo’s renaissance.”
This is the buttoned up Brown who previously never strayed off his mayoral message. But these days he hovers in Cuomo’s election year orbit. Now he talks up not only Buffalo wherever he goes, but Cuomo too.
“I think the governor is in a very strong position,” he said. “He’s well resourced [with about $30 million in his treasury] and viewed as a progressive leader not just in the State of New York but across the nation.
“His polling numbers are the highest since 2014,” he adds in true chairman-speak. “The governor is an incredibly focused, hard worker who should not be taken for granted.”
Brown occupies a unique perch in national Democratic politics. With the possible exception of California, he leads the nation’s most potent Democratic party. New York sits solidly in the blue column, and has not elected a statewide Republican since George Pataki in 2002.
The last bastion of GOP influence – the State Senate – hangs on to its majority via a tenuous agreement with renegade Democrats.
And to top it off, the Republican president of the United States is persona non grata in his home state. Donald Trump wields little influence in New York. So Brown can whale away at will.
“The president has not been good at all to his home state,” Brown said. “If you look at his poll numbers across the state and nation, they are the lowest in modern history at this stage of a presidency. It will be very tough for Republicans to win with Donald Trump in this election.”
Those around him agree the mayor has embraced Cuomo’s assignment. Even if the nuts and bolts are left to staff, the mayor drops in at various county functions and preaches the Gospel according to Andrew.
“He’s a good fit; he enjoys it,” said one mayoral confidant who asked not to be identified.
The same observer said Brown “arrived” in his new role 18 months ago during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. That’s when he criss-crossed the city to attend a women’s gathering here, a Queens delegation party there, mediate an intra-party dispute somewhere else.
NYC Dems eyed him warily at first. It’s always tough to convince that crowd that someone from the hinterlands can handle such a job. Indeed, Brown marks the first Buffalonian to lead the state party since Joe Crangle more than 40 years ago.
But the observer familiar with Brown’s chairmanship thinks he has won them over.
“In that role you have to be respectful of people and competing factions,” the confidant said. “He has this ability to connect with people of different opinions within the party.”
Brown starts this election year in good stead. Cuomo is heavily favored for re-election, as are Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Comptroller Tom DiNapoli and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
The chairman is careful to emphasize the task at hand for 2018, but doesn’t mind including Cuomo in the 2020 conversation.
“When you look at all the mixed messages and inconsistencies, people are already looking for a change in leadership,” he says. “Gov. Cuomo is a proven leader who I think could provide that leadership.”
Who knows what lies ahead for Cuomo? Ditto for his state chairman.