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Lenihan to Step Down, Again

For the second time in about a year, Erie County Democratic Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan is announcing his decision to step down from the position he has held for a decade. Now the talk among political observers is all about who will fill his shoes.

We hear that as recently as last week Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz favored Fran Warthling of Lackawanna; from other quarters, we heard he might advance Jeremy Zellner, chief of staff at the Erie County Legislature and Lenihan’s former second-in-command. (We also hear Zellner believes he could be chairman and remain chief of staff. Imagine that: a chairman whose day job is controlled by the majority on the Erie County Legislature. That would be fun.) Still others say Zellner is a straw man; Warthling is truly Poloncarz’s guy.

Another faction of Democrats, formerly affiliated with Sam Hoyt and now led by Assemblyman Sean Ryan, favor attorney Marc Panepinto. Cheektowaga town chairman Frank Max has been waiting in the wings for a long time. Other contenders include Erie County Water Authority commissioner Jack O’Donnell, a disciple of former county chairman Steve Pigeon; Buffalo attorney Peter Reese; Tonawanda chairman John Crangle, who was to have been Lenihan’s successor last summer; and former Buffalo mayor Tony Masiello, who was recently overheard suggesting that he intended to take the job. Masiello, it is said, has the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s political team.

Here’s a tip to the Erie County Democratic Party: Why not choose a chairman whose first response to a simple inquiry from a reporter is to tell the truth—not fabricate an elaborate story that ultimately won’t match up to the facts? That kind of behavior creates a negative story where none originally existed. Yet that’s exactly the strategy employed by Lenihan and county Democratic election commissioner Dennis Ward when we asked about getting updated voter information a month ago.

We were seeking the information based on complaints we were hearing from candidates wanting to run for various committee seats against incumbents, but who were unable to get useful data from the Erie County Board of Elections. Such information would be used to go out and collect signatures in the redrawn districts. On Friday, June 8, we were told by the BOE that the information wasn’t complete, and couldn’t be given out—only to learn later that it had already been given to Democratic Party headquarters, converted into walk sheets, and handed out to incumbents a day before my inquiry. We paid $40 for a bunch of information that we didn’t even receive until several days after our request.

And, it turns out, we weren’t alone.

At the time, Lenihan said, “There is no conspiracy here. This is simply getting stuff done when we can. The difference is, we’re asking for it as it got done. It wasn’t a matter of us trying to hoard information or anything like that.”

Ward told us that the Democrats had filed FOIL requests for everything they received.

To test this, we decided to file a FOIL requesting to see all the Freedom of Information requests made to the Erie County Board of Elections dating back to May 1. Two weeks later, we received a letter saying that our request was being granted.

We went down to inspect the files and found that, dating back to May 1, there had been 38 FOIL requests made with BOE. None of them were from the Erie County Democrats, and none had been granted any earlier than our original request for materials.

So how did that voter information—information that was not made available to this reporter nor to 37 others who’d requested it—make it into the Democratic Party leadership’s hands early, so they could put together the lists that were distributed to their incumbents on June 7?

Calls to Lenihan and Ward asking for an explanation as to how this could have happened were not returned.

Democratic headquarters received privileged information from the BOE without so much as filing a FOIL request. Thirty-seven other schmucks besides ourselves, including Democrats from factions out of synch with headquarters, were unable to get similar treatment, even after filling out the paperwork and paying the BOE for the same materials. The manufactured delay gave incumbent Democrats friendly to headquarters a week head-start to collect signatures on petitions.

Maybe that’s not a big deal. But it illustrates the kind of behavior that precludes any lasting peace among local Democrats, which in turn is likely to make the campaigns to succeed Lenihan fractious.That is, of course, if he actually retires this time.

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