There is probably only one member of the New York City Council who received a handwritten note from Donald Trump and a personal invitation to the inauguration. But there is surely only one with the power to coordinate a phone call between the shell-shocked mayor of New York and the future president of the United States days after Trump’s victory rocked the country, if not the planet.
“It’s both a blessing and a burden,” said Councilman Joe Borelli, the Staten Island Republican who set up the post-election phone chat between Trump and Bill de Blasio. “A lot of my Democratic colleagues with real concerns have reached out to express what it is they think Trump could do to help their constituents. And frankly, I can’t reach out to the White House every time someone asks.”
The election of Trump will be remembered as a true black-swan event, a stunning rise to power that looked like a joke — until it wasn’t. The reality television star is unlike any president this country has seen, a mendacious, unpredictable strongman who tramples democratic norms as easily as he fires off tweets. If nothing else, he promises the Republican Party a president who will do much of what they want, if at his own self-determined pace.
In his home state, New York, he has done something else: allowed a select few Republican politicians and party leaders to bask in his newfound status and make an impact in a way they never could before. Their rank includes Nick Langworthy, Tom Dadey, and John Jay LaValle, suburban and upstate county chairmen who backed Trump early; John Sweeney, a former congressman; Chris Collins, a current congressman; and Ed Cox, the chairman of the state party, a neutral player in the primary who nevertheless grew into an enthusiastic Trump booster. (Carl Paladino, the former gubernatorial candidate and Trump’s campaign co-chair in New York, fell out of favor after he told a Buffalo newspaper he wanted Barack Obama to die of mad cow disease and Michelle Obama to live with a gorilla in Zimbabwe.)
No Republican president of the past century has been so thoroughly tied to New York. Trump, who grew up in the wealthy Queens neighborhood of Jamaica Estates, appears ready to run the country, at least part of the time, from Trump Tower in midtown. He has offered endorsements of local Republicans in the past and met seriously with party leaders as he explored a run for governor in 2014. When he ran for president, he did it on a shoestring budget, relying on free media and comparatively few political operatives. Many Republican officials initially saw Trump as toxic and leaped on the bandwagon too late to curry favor with him, since Trump prizes unflagging loyalty above just about anything else.
“Trump didn’t have a big corporate staff. There’s a wide playing field now,” said one Republican operative unaffiliated with him. “You don’t have a Republican governor in New York who has staff he can pick from.”
In this new world order, Borelli is one man who stands to benefit. One of three Republicans in a 51-member City Council, he served previously on the state assembly, where Democrats also have an unassailable majority. In March 2016, he was the first sitting elected official in the five boroughs to endorse Trump. At the time, the billionaire was a front-runner in the Republican primary, though he was not assured victory. On one hand, the endorsement took a certain degree of political chutzpah, since even most New York Republicans didn’t want to be too closely linked with someone so incendiary. But Borelli was reading his district, too: The South Shore of Staten Island is deeply conservative, and Trump ended up capturing 57 percent of the borough’s vote in November.
After endorsing, Borelli became a sought-after commentator on CNN and Fox, a privilege City Council members are rarely, if ever, afforded. His defense of the candidate on the airwaves earned him one of Trump’s legendary handwritten notes, complete with a signature that looks something like a seismograph reading. “I know for a fact he watched me many times,” Borelli said.
Other Republicans, once obscure or fallen from grace, have been given a new lifeline under Trump. One of them is Sweeney, the former Albany-area congressman. Dubbed “Congressman Kick-Ass” by George W. Bush, Sweeney was often described as a rising star before he lost his congressional seat to Kirsten Gillibrand in 2006. Dogged by ethics scandals while in Congress, he was also arrested twice after he left office for driving while intoxicated.
In 2015 Trump decided to run for president, and by the fall he had taken Sweeney’s old district by storm. Sweeney said that he felt the Republican establishment’s messaging had gone stale and that he was drawn to the idea of a political outsider shocking the system.
“When I first came on board, I had doubts whether he could survive,” Sweeney said of Trump. “Then I went to the first rally and saw people standing in line for four hours to go in, and I knew something was going on out there.”
Sweeney, an attorney by trade, ended up running Trump’s campaign in New York, and helped him comply with election laws. He organized a rally that drew fifteen thousand people in Albany. Hillary Clinton won the state comfortably, but Trump was competitive outside of the metropolitan areas.
After the campaign, Sweeney was named to the transition team, vetting potential ambassadors, judges, and other high-ranking officials. Those at the top of the pecking order in Trumpland, including Sweeney, belong to the “Tiger Team.” He routinely works twelve-hour days, noshing on chicken salad sandwiches from Trump Tower’s café.
“It would’ve been very easy for me to become an establishment guy, be a Bush guy for example, given my history with the Bushes,” Sweeney said. “You got out on a limb for what you see as change, who you believe in, and it worked.”
Though Sweeney says he is not seeking a job in the Trump administration, the same can’t be said for Borelli or LaValle, the chairman of the Suffolk County Republican Party. The cousin of a longtime Long Island state senator, LaValle forcefully backed Trump in the primary, spinning for him on Fox and CNN. Though it’s a suburb of New York City, Suffolk County has a strong streak of blue-collar conservatism. Trump’s swaggering brand was an easy sell.
For LaValle, Trump was a rarity: a politician who got ordinary, typically uninterested people talking about politics.
“You’d sit in a restaurant and just overhear people talking to each other at adjacent tables. Everybody was talking about Donald Trump,” LaValle recalled. “Even the kids were talking about Donald Trump. It was amazing to watch.”
For party officials in New York, Trump can be beneficial in two ways, beyond offering patronage jobs for loyalists. If he cares to, he can headline fundraisers in the coming years or encourage his rabid fan base to donate to chosen Republican candidates. And, like Bernie Sanders did for Democrats, he can energize voters who might otherwise be disengaged from the political process, helping increasingly beleaguered party machines draw on new reservoirs of manpower.
Cox, the chairman of the state party, hopes Trump can play some sort of role in dethroning Governor Andrew Cuomo next year. When Trump flirted with a gubernatorial run in 2014, he did so with an eye toward whether he could beat Cuomo and then launch a presidential bid from that perch. He made the right decision to pass on the race — it’s highly likely Cuomo would have trounced him.
As president, Trump will make for an advantageous foil to Cuomo anyway. He can pick his spots in individual congressional and legislative races — every House Republican incumbent in New York won last year, proving that Trump wasn’t as poisonous to down-ballot candidates as originally forecast — and focus on districts where he is popular. “He’s going to be helping us as a party,” Cox said. “Our party is on the upswing here.”
If Cox was at one point a reluctant Trump man — he couldn’t commit to clearing Republican opponents from the gubernatorial primary, as Trump demanded — he’s fully in the fold now. His son, Christopher Cox, was considered for an ambassadorship to China, and he is one of the rare Republicans who were once wholly ensconced in the establishment Trump eviscerated but who will nonetheless have a direct line to the president. (Cox was recently invited to Trump’s winter retreat, Mar-a-Lago.)
Other Republicans aren’t sure yet what Trump will mean for the party’s future in New York, where there’s
little hope of controlling a statewide office again and where Republicans have a tenuous hold on the state senate. Bob Turner, the chairman of the Queens Republican Party, has been hoping to re-energize Republicans in the five boroughs by appealing to fiscally conservative Latinos, a tall order when the man in the White House called Mexican immigrants “rapists” and promises a deportation regime even more far-reaching than Obama’s.
But Turner knows the power of Trump too. After Anthony Weiner resigned from Congress in the wake of his first sexting scandal, in 2011, Turner ran in a special election to replace him. One of the Republicans to endorse him was Trump, then known in the political arena chiefly as the guy who waged a racist campaign to prove Obama wasn’t born in the United States. The Donald even recorded a
robocall on Turner’s behalf.
Turner, a retired television executive who once produced Baywatch and The Jerry Springer Show, bonded with Trump in their one meeting: “We were both from Queens, we both had interesting television careers.”
But the WWE-style showman with the authoritarian impulses wasn’t on display for Turner in 2011. “This was a focused, practical guy who wanted to listen. He asked pointed questions,” Turner recalled. “Citizen Trump versus campaign Trump — how much of the persona was showbiz, how much was orchestrated? I don’t know.”
Either way, Turner, a wealthy political outsider who had never held elected office before, won. He vanquished an uninspiring opponent firmly tied to a Democratic establishment that, in retrospect, elevated the wrong standard-bearer.
And there was only one robocall people in the district seemed to remember.
“I had them from Koch, Giuliani, and a number of other people,” Turner said. “Months after the election, I’d run into people and they’d say, ‘I got a call from Donald Trump.’ ”