For years the city government of Buffalo had been corrupt and badly managed, and it seemed to make no difference whether it was run by Democrats or Republicans. In 1881 a group of substantial Buffalonians, seeking a candidate for mayor who was both honest and efficient, hit upon Cleveland, whose record as sheriff was unbesmirched. The current administration was Republican. Cleveland was a Democrat, though unconnected with the then-current Democratic organization. He was not eager for the office but responded to the call to perform his civic duty. He was easily elected.
The reformers sought no more than honesty and efficiency; Cleveland shared their desire, promised to satisfy it, and made good on his promise. In office he devoted himself almost entirely to keeping the fingers of local spoilsmen out of the public till. He did this principally by vetoing measures that misappropriated and wasted city funds, such as a bill giving a street-cleaning contract to a company whose bid was more than $100,000 higher than those of two others. This was enough to bring him statewide fame. Soon Buffalo's "Veto Mayor" was a candidate for governor of New York. Being an upstater, he was independent of the notorious Tammany Hall Democratic machine in New York City. When the Republicans nominated for governor a candidate handpicked by President Chester A. Arthur, the Democrats turned to what one Democratic leader called the "buxom Buffalonian." In November 1882, Cleveland won by nearly 200,000 votes, which in those days of closely contested elections amounted to a landslide.
As with his service as mayor, Cleveland proved to be an enormous, if anything but brilliant, success as governor. His success was the result mainly of his indifference to narrow political advantage. He vetoed a bill lowering fares on the New York City elevated railway because it was a violation of contract. Another measure limiting the hours of streetcar conductors received his veto on similar grounds. Both these bills had wide public support. Yet Cleveland's uncompromising rejection of them, so clearly in disregard of possible political consequences, actually added to his stature in the public eye. His equally uncompromising refusal to grant any patronage to Tammany Hall, despite Tammany's demonstrated ability to swing the balance in state elections, had a similar effect.
Cleveland's achievements as governor were almost entirely negative, but within a matter of months he was being considered a serious candidate for the 1884 Democratic presidential nomination. Of course, more was involved than his reputation for honesty and political courage. Since the Civil War, most of the northern states had voted Republican in presidential elections, and the southern states Democratic. The balance was delicate; victory had depended on carrying a handful of closely contested states—in particular, New York and Indiana. It usually made political sense for the parties to choose candidates from these states because voters tended to favor local men over less-well-known ones. Except in 1880, the Democrats nominated a New Yorker for president in every election from 1868 through 1892.
Although Cleveland fought corrupt machine politicians without regard for party, he was shrewd enough to make solid political alliances with respectable New York Democratic leaders, such as Daniel Manning, a close associate of the aging Samuel J. Tilden, the party's standard-bearer in 1876, and William C. Whitney, another anti-Tammany Democrat. At the national convention in Chicago, Cleveland was nominated on the second ballot. The convention then chose Thomas A. Hendricks, who was a former governor of another key state, Indiana, as the Democratic vice presidential candidate. (Hendricks had run for vice president on the ticket with Tilden in 1876 and was credited with having had much to do with the Democrats carrying Indiana in that contest.)
The 1884 presidential contest was exciting at the time and has fascinated historians ever since. The Republican candidate, James G. Blaine of Maine, was Cleveland's mirror image. Where Cleveland had little previous political experience, Blaine had been Speaker of the House of Representatives, United States senator, and secretary of state. Where Cleveland was blunt, somewhat stiff, unimaginative, and scrupulously honest, Blaine was colorful, hail-fellow-well-met, a font of interesting ideas, and not averse to using his political influence to line his pockets.
Because of this last quality, many Republicans, known as Mugwumps, supported Cleveland. On the other hand, Blaine was popular with Irish-Americans, who usually voted Democratic, because he was thought to be anti-British. Their votes in New York City, where, in addition, the Tammany machine was suspected of giving Cleveland only lukewarm support, might swing the state to the Republicans despite Cleveland's appeal as a native son.
The Democratic strategy was to describe Blaine, who in the face of much hard evidence blandly denied that he had sold political favors, as "the continental liar from the State of Maine" and to stress Cleveland's honesty and efficiency. In this way they hoped to appeal to the Mugwumps and other voters dismayed by Blaine's unsavory reputation and to paper over divisions within their own ranks on issues such as the tariff and currency reform. The Republicans countered by calling Cleveland "the hangman of Buffalo" because, while sheriff, he had personally hanged two criminals rather than turn the task over to an assistant. More important, they exposed his fathering of an illegitimate child: "Ma! ma! Where's my pa? Gone to the White House, Ha! Ha! Ha!" The candidate made the best of this bad situation in typical fashion. "Whatever you do, tell the truth," he advised a friend who asked him how the charge should be dealt with.
Exactly how this and other incidents in an incident-filled campaign affected the result is beyond knowing. Suffice it to say that the election turned on New York's electoral vote, that Blaine did well in Irish-American districts in the state, that there was much Mugwump support for Cleveland, and that Cleveland carried the state by fewer than 1,200 votes. In other words, a shift of 600 votes would have made Blaine president.