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How Donald Trump’s promise to make the Buffalo Bills great again explains his presidential bid

Buffalo Bills Coach Rex Ryan introduces Donald Trump during Trump's rally in Buffalo on Monday night. Trump's bid for the Bills in 2014 previewed much of his 2016 campaign strategy.
Buffalo Bills Coach Rex Ryan introduces Donald Trump during Trump's rally in Buffalo on Monday night. Trump's bid for the Bills in 2014 previewed much of his 2016 campaign strategy.
(Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

BUFFALO, NY — Frank Dawidowicz doesn't need Donald Trump to tell him America has fallen from its greatest days. He's reminded of it everyday.

Dawidowicz, 59, lives just a few blocks from where he grew up: in the shadow of Buffalo’s Grand Central Terminal — an immensely ornate, 17-story art deco train station, built in the 1920s for a city expected to have a population in the millions. (It's now down to about 250,000.)

The terminal has sat essentially unused since the 1970s, a vast husk on Buffalo’s east end that Dawidowicz looks at like a taunting reminder of the city’s heyday.

"We live in no-man’s land now," Dawidowicz says. "It’s absolutely heartbreaking. My parents and grandparents would cry if they were alive to see it."

Mark Hogan/Creative Commons on Flickr
Buffalo's Grand Central Terminal, abandoned since the late 1970s. (Mark Hogan/Flickr's Creative Commons)

We’re sitting at the East Side Inn, a bar about three blocks from the defunct train station. It's the only sign of activity for at least a square mile, and a few patrons occasionally trickle in and out throughout the afternoon.

Dawidowicz can easily tick off a long list of rich people who have screwed Buffalo — the steel factory owners who left town, the Sabres owner convicted of a multibillion-dollar fraud scheme, the executives at ATI Metals who he says have forced him to be locked out of work and on unemployment for most of the past 28 weeks.

But he thinks Donald Trump is a different kind of rich guy. As proof, he points to Trump's bid to buy the Buffalo Bills in 2014 — an effort that reflected the billionaire's genuine commitment to help build the city, Dawidowicz says.

"Trump would never have moved the team away," he says. "He actually cares about Buffalo."

How Trump's bid for the Bills previewed his presidential run

Facing prominent rivals in a competitive race, Donald Trump tried to woo Buffalo by promising to start winning again and prevent jobs from going elsewhere.

It was 2014. Trump's presidential bid was still more than a year away, but the billionaire was jockeying for a prize perhaps just as important to Buffalonians: their beloved Bills football franchise.

"If it were me, I’d keep the team in Buffalo," Trump told a local radio station at the time about his $1 billion offer to buy the team. "I think it’s something that’s really vital to the area — it would be catastrophic, in my opinion, if Buffalo lost the Buffalo Bills."

Donald Trump (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Trump ultimately lost his play for the Bills, getting outbid by fracking multibillionaire Terry Pegula. But Trump’s flirtation with the Bills football team isn’t just another one of his failed business dealings, like Trump Steaks or Trump Magazine. Instead, it now looks like an early trailer for the feature film of his presidential run — full of fearmongering, grand promises, and personal attacks when things went sour.

On Tuesday, voters in New York will head to the ballot box for the Republican primary. More than anywhere else in the state, this Rust Belt slice of western New York is expected to overwhelmingly support Trump — and push him closer to the White House than he's been at any point before.

The several dozen Trump supporters I've spoken to here don't love everything about him. But they speak of his push to buy the Bills much as they speak of his push for the presidency — as a powerful businessman's heartfelt effort to save their team, their city, and their country from all the forces working to tear them apart.

Why some Trump supporters in Buffalo are desperate for a successful builder

Judy Pukalo remembers Christmas Eve 1982, when the Bethlehem Steel Company announced that its plant in South Buffalo would cease nearly all of its steel production. About 10,000 people — including her husband, a foreman — were out of work essentially overnight.

"I'll never forget that," says Pukalo, 72. "All we had was my minimum wage job."

The Buffalo-area town of Lackawanna retained a steel plant into the 2000s, acquired by a company based in Luxembourg. Pukalo's sons got jobs in its the blast furnaces.

Hillary Clinton, then running for senator of New York, stopped by the plant for a campaign event. She promised that she would fight to keep it open, and Pukalo still keeps a framed photo of her son with Clinton from the visit. But nobody saved the plant, and it stopped production for good in 2009.

"Both of my boys worked there," she says. "I'll never forgive [Clinton] for that."

construction trump tower
(Mark Wilson/Getty)

Pukalo feared something similar was afoot when longtime Bills owner Ralph Wilson died in 2014 and the team was put on the market. Rock star Jon Bon Jovi expressed interest in the team; Bon Jovi had a group of investors in Toronto, and it was widely feared in Buffalo that he'd move the team to that wealthier city.

"Everyone wanted to move the team out of Buffalo," Pukalo says. "Trump is a Bills fan, and he wouldn't have let that happen."

This is one of the things that came up again and again in interviews of Trump supporters: They've seen a long slide of manufacturing in Buffalo, and they see Trump as evidence that building successful businesses in New York doesn't have to be a thing of the past.

"It's been so sad watching Buffalo dwindling away," says Nick Vicaretti, 64. "But Trump's a builder. He wants to let us build again."

Trump has understood the basic draw of that message since his days of making a play for the Bills. "I have a track record that's pretty much unparalleled," he told the Buffalo News in pitching his bid for the team.

In the interview, Trump emphasized that he once bought a team — the New Jersey Generals, of the United States Football League, which directly competed with the NFL. "The NFL owners respected me for it because I took a dead league and made it hot," Trump said. (Some later blamed Trump for the ultimate demise of the Generals and the USFL as a whole.)

How Trump's failure to "Make the Bills Great Again" explains the problem with his campaign

Many Trump supporters here frame this as the core of his appeal, both as a potential franchise owner and presidential candidate: He's not just the savviest businessman around — he's also the only one personally committed to restoring Buffalo's greatness.

But these concepts aren't the same, and their conflict came out in Trump's characteristic whining after his offer for the team was rejected.

After Trump was outbid, he released a surprising statement congratulating the new owner and wishing the team the best of luck without him.

But that graciousness didn't last very long — 10 days, to be exact. Trump was soon on Twitter again to mock the team's new owner, Pegula, for wasting his money on the team.

About a month later, Trump again took to Twitter as a sore loser. He said that while he would have "produced a winner," he was okay with losing the team because he didn't really want it and the NFL is boring anyway.

Trump's fans in Buffalo clearly understand that the team is something of a financial gamble. It's why they feared someone would move it to Toronto in the first place: They know there are more rich people in the Canadian city, and they know that someone looking to maximize his profits might move the team there for more money.

While competing for the Bills, Trump sidestepped the distance between his financial interests and Buffalo's by arguing that they were actually in line: He promised to both make the team thrive for him and keep it in the city.

Trump may have failed to get the Bills, but he still has Buffalo

This can help us understand Trump's campaign for the presidency, and at least part of his appeal in Buffalo. Like his bid for the team, his presidential run has been buoyed by a host of grandiose and unrealistic promises — to restore manufacturing jobs, to eliminate America's trade deficit, to spur wildly unrealistic economic growth — that appear to magically resolve fundamental differences.

As with his bid for the Bills, it's impossible to know if any of these really matter to him as long as he just remains a candidate. But until that moment actually comes, Trump's supporters in Buffalo can continue to project their hopes that a billionaire real estate magnate really has the little guy's interests at heart.

Trump's business smarts would have let the Bills thrive in Buffalo as owner, and they would keep jobs in Buffalo if Trump becomes president, says Jerry Rojek, 72, a native of South Buffalo.

"We’ve been shrinking and shrinking and shrinking because they keep moving the jobs away," Rojek says. "We need a businessman who can make the ... money flow to cities like Buffalo."


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