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Small Talk

Once a Democrat, always…hey, wait…: Some Democrats seem ready to forgive Bert Dunn, Jr., who is seeking the Democratic Party endorsement in the Erie County Sheriff race, for a text message he sent to an Elma Republican professing his love for Ronald Reagan and his distaste for Obama and Cuomo. Leaning conservative is hardly uncommon for a suburban Western New York Democrat, especially one who is in law enforcement and wealthy enough to finance his own campaign, thanks to the family bicycle business.

Indeed, the Erie County Democratic Party’s executive committee seems likely to give Dunn its blessing over Dick Dobson, the other Democrat challenging incumbent Republican Tim Howard.

In fact, Dunn’s flirtations with Republicans and Republicanism don’t end with solicitation of GOP support in the county’s right-to-farm communities. When he turned 18 years old, in 1988, Dunn registered to vote as a Republican. He switched to Democrat in 1999, then back to Republican in 2005, then back to Democrat in 2010. For the last 16 elections in which he has voted, going back to 1996, Dunn has been a Republican 50 percent of the time—and between 1988 and 1996, he was a full-time Republican. The Dunn family has donated money to the Hamburg Republican Committee, Carl Paladino’s campaign for governor, and to Bert Dunn, Jr.’s Republican opponent, Tim Howard.

The donation to Howard might be explained as career maintenance; campaign donations are one way of getting ahead in the world. But Dick Dobson never donated to a Republican. In fact, he donated to the campaign of John Glascott, the last Democrat to challenge Howard.

So why is Democratic Party headquarters favoring the politically fickle Dunn over the party stalwart Dobson? Dunn’s money is certainly one reason: He can finance his own campaign and help headquarters finance the campaigns of others. He is also far younger than Dobson, which is a fashionable quality in candidates from both major parties nowadays.

A big tent in Cheektowaga…maybe too big…: If last Saturday’s fundraising breakfast hosted by Cheektowaga Democratic Party chairman Frank Max was a meeting of the “shadow leadership” of Erie County Democrats, it is difficult to imagine that the party’s elected leadership will ever find the sun again. The hall at the Creekside banquet hall was filled past capacity; the speaker’s table at the front of the room included Congressman Brian Higgins, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, State Senator Tim Kennedy, Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, and Assemblyman Mickey Kearns, among others. Nearly every Democrat running for anything in Erie County this fall plied the room, shaking hands and handing out cards. (Even mayoral aspirant Bernie Tolbert was there, though Max and his Progressive Democrats organization committed their support to Brown at the breakfast.) In comparison, events run by Max’s rival, the Erie County Democratic Party’s new chairman, Jeremy Zellner, have been wan affairs.

Zellner came to the breakfast, too, though he’d been told not to by Max, whose attorneys continue to contest Zellner’s election to the chairmanship in court. A couple Max supporters told Zellner he was not welcome, then relented: Kristy Mazurek, who somehow balances a career as a TV journalist with Democratic Party factionalism, accepted Zellner’s check at the door and said he could make one gladhanding lap around the room, then he’d have to leave. That’s what he did. The check from “Friends of Jeremy Zellner” will not be cashed.

Former Erie County Democratic Party chairman Steve Pigeon was there with his acolyte, political operative Jack O’Donnell, as were Brown’s chief political operatives, Steve Casey and Peter Savage III. Attorney Marc Panepinto, who ran against Max and Zellner for chairman, came, too. Panepinto used to run campaign for former Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, who now serves as Governor Andrew Cuomo’s chief liaison to Western New York. Hoyt, who once upon a time would not be caught dead or alive in a room with Pigeon, Casey, and O’Donnell, was invited to speak, and offered the governor’s praise for Max’s loyalty and leadership.

There were two prominent Republican elected officials in the room: Erie County Clerk Chris Jacobs, who joked beside the juice bar with O’Donnell, and Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw, who must run for re-election this fall. One not-so-prominent Republican, too: freshman Erie County Legislator Joe Lorigo, son of Erie County Conservative Party Chairman Ralph Lorigo, who also attended. Unlike Zellner, who putatively serves the same political values as Max and his faction, Lorigo was made very welcome indeed. He was paid homage from the podium; the pre-buffet benediction was delivered by Reverend Kevin Backus of Grand Island’s Conservative Party, who threatened to primary State Senator Mark Grisanti last year to punish Grisanti for voting yes on marriage equality.

The obeisance to Conservatives was, in fact, a bit off-putting for an organization called the Progressive Democrats of Cheektowaga. On the other hand, Max and his crew are likely to back Dick Dobson, who seems to be an actual Democrat, for Erie County Sheriff, while Zellner’s executive committee is likely to endorse Bert Dunn, Jr., who appears to be a crypto-Republican. (See item above.)

Notwithstanding Saturday’s strong and diverse attendance, this fall’s elections will demonstrate whether the party’s “shadow leadership” is worthy of the name. If even one of the Max candidates who are challenging Erie County legislators loyal to headquarters succeeds, Zellner will appear weak and further isolated—not to mention discomfited in his day job, which is chief of staff to the Erie County Legislature. If Dunn is endorsed, wins the primary against Dobson, but loses to Republican incumbent Tim Howard, a candidate damaged by scandals surrounding the Erie County Holding Center, Zellner’s chairmanship will be damaged. He needs a big countywide victory to justify his leadership. It would help immensely if he could find a strong challenger for Mychajliw, too, since the GOP is grooming Mychajliw to challenge Zellner’s principal champion, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.

If Dunn is endorsed by headquarters but Dobson somehow wins the Democratic primary and then the general election, Zellner’s chairmanship is in deep trouble.

But if Max’s candidates lose badly, or cause other Democrats to lose—if all this “shadow leadership” does is sow chaos, cost party donors extra money, and hand victories to Republicans like Mychajliw and Howard—then Zellner might catch a little daylight after all.

• Speaking of the Erie County Conservatives, what happens to party chairman Ralph Lorigo if the Wilson-Pakula requirement is ended, as proposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo this week in response to the bribery scandal surrounding State Senator Malcolm Smith? The Wislon-Pakula law requires candidates seeking to run on another party’s line to obtain the permission of the leaders of that party. That has given party leaders terrific leverage to demand favors from candidates, and no one has been more adept at applying that leverage than Lorigo, who has convinced Republicans and Democrats alike that the Conservative Party line makes the difference in close elections in Erie County. Under Cuomo’s proposal, those who believe that would no longer need Lorigo’s permission to run on the Conservative Party line. They simply would collect nominating signatures and run in an open primary for the line.

• Congratulations to the Partnership for the Public Good, the Coalition for Economic Justice, PUSH Buffalo, and VOICE-Buffalo. The four nonprofits have won a $100,000 planning grant from the Open Society Foundations to design a plan to increase low-income and minority communities’ influence and access to economic, civic, and political opportunities in the area. The planning grant is part of the foundation’s new Open Places Initiative, which aims to bring about systemic change relating to equity, justice, and democratic practice.

Buffalo was one of 16 sites asked to apply, and one of eight to win funding. The next step is to propose a plan for building the region’s capacity to bring about long-term change. In late 2013, the foundation will award implementation grants to three to five sites with funding of up to $1 million per year for a minimum of three years and potentially a full decade.

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