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The Not-So-Peaceable Kingdom

"These guys tried a sort of bloodless coup, like they were Bolsheviks," says this veteran Democratic apparatchik.

Here’s a telltale sign that the Pax Democratica in Western New York, if it exists at all, is fragile: In the last week, Democratic loyalists have fanned out across the county carrying designating petitions for Erie County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz, the Democrat who is challenging Republican Erie County Executive Chris Collins this fall, and on whose behalf the three-way deal was negotiated under pressure from operatives for Governor Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo wants nothing more than to see Collins, a possible challenger in 2014, unseated.

Some of Poloncarz’s petitions include the candidacy of Erie County Legislator Maria Whyte, who announced last week that she would run for Erie County Clerk, a post vacated by Democrat Kathy Hochul, who’s off to Congress. Some do not include Whyte’s name.

To those trying to understand the dynamics of the Democrats’ new peaceable kingdom, that’s an indication that the beasts are beginning to gnaw off each other’s legs.

A quick review:

• Late last Wednesday evening, the chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party, Len Lenihan, announced he would resign that post in July to take a job with the state party apparatus, overseeing county executive races statewide. Lenihan’s announcement was the first revelation of a deal struck between three feuding factions of the local Democratic Party: Lenihan’s faction, which includes Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, Whyte, and Poloncarz; Mayor Byron Brown’s faction, which includes Erie County Legislature Chair Barbara Miller-Williams and Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples; and a South Buffalo faction headed by Congressman Brian Higgins, which includes Assemblyman Mark Schroeder and State Senator Tim Kennedy. All three factions include many other elected officials, of course, as well as political machines.

• As part of the deal, a path would be cleared for Schroeder, who had already announced his desire to run for Buffalo City Comptroller, a post vacated by Andy SanFilippo, who recently landed a sweet gig in State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office, the high pay for which will set up SanFilippo nicely in retirement. One big obstacle in Schroeder’s path was Maria Whyte, who had not yet announced her candidacy for the same office but whose intention was clear.

• Until, of course, Hochul won the special election in the 26th Congressional District, leaving the county clerkship open. (A quick aside: how much must the Republican apparatchiks who blew that race for Jane Corwin be loving this latest Democratic intrigue, which is drawing attention away from their incompetence and the very real and spreading fissures in the region’s Republican Party.) Whyte’s was one of several names mentioned for that post. So, in exchange for clearing the path for Schroeder, the Higgins and Brown camps agreed that Whyte could have the clerkship.

• To clean up some unpleasantness between South Buffalo factions of the party, South District Common Councilman Mickey Kearns would be designated as successor to Schroeder in the Assembly. In exchange, Higgins would be permitted to designate Kearns’s successor on the Common Council.

• The chairman of the Tonawanda Democrats, John Crangle—nephew of the iron-fisted Joe Crangle—was designated as the likely successor to Lenihan, at least in the immediate future.

There are a number of attendant rumors in circulation, too, though most of these are rehashes of rumors that break the surface of the pond every few months: For example, either Brown, or Hoyt, or both, will soon leave office for state jobs, precipitating another round of political musical chairs. Brown’s departure would require a special election for mayor in the fall, bringing out the Democratic vote in the city, thus boosting Poloncarz’s chances of beating Collins. Hoyt’s retirement might serve no better purpose than to satisfy Brown and his chief political officer, Steve Casey, whose exit strategy is rumored to be executive director of the Erie County Water Authority, a patronage post with a substantial pay raise.

Let’s leave aside such rumors and look at the primary fault line in this global deal: The three factions involved are all essentially city-based. Suburban Democratic Party chairs and elected officials were left out of the peace talks, despite that fact that in aggregate they represent a greater percentage of the party’s reliable voters. The extra-urban resentment manifested immediately: Lenihan’s resignation was announced on Wednesday evening. Thursday morning, Cheektowaga’s Democratic Chairman, Frank Max, who has long considered himself next in line to Lenihan, woke up the next morning to learn he’d been bypassed. By Thursday evening, supporters of Erie County Legislator Tom Mazur of Cheektowaga were circulating petitions nominating Mazur, not Whyte, for Erie County Clerk. Other suburban Democratic sachems—including Erie County Board of Elections Commissioner Dennis Ward, heretofore a stalwart of the Lenihan/Hoyt faction of the party but left out of this deal—began making mutinous noises, too.

Mazur, who worked in the clerk’s office for years, says he is determined to challenge Whyte for the Democratic nomination for Hochul’s seat. He says he reached out to Lenihan on the matter but never heard back from him, and that Democrats active in party politics throughout the county are confused, wondering if it’s okay to support Mazur’s bid if, as the makers of the deal are saying, the governor is behind Whyte. “There’s a lot of people perplexed, saying ‘Why wasn’t anything communicated?’”

The evidence that a divide is opening between those who prefer Whyte and the global peace settlement and those who prefer Mazur and feel spurned by the tripartite deal is in those Poloncarz petitions: Some ask Democrats to sign for both Poloncarz and Whyte, some only for Poloncarz.

Mazur allows that the most voters don’t understand or care about the Catilinear conspiracies of Democratic pols. But the foot soldiers of the party do care and should not be left in the cold, he says. Ordinary voters should know, too, even if they don’t care.

“If there’s going to be any peace, it’s going to come through transparency,” he says. “If there are going to be any negotiations, there’s going to have to be another summit. And don’t just invite half the people.”

geoff kelly

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