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Water Authority Shenanigans

Thirteen years ago, the beginning of the end of Steve Pigeon’s chairmanship of the Erie County Democratic Party began with a desperate overreach: Joel Giambra had turned Republican and defeated a Democratic incumbent, Dennis Gorski; in the absence of strong central leadership, the Democratic caucus in the Erie County Legislature was growing rebellious. In an effort to shore up his power over patronage jobs and lucrative contracts, Pigeon—abetted by Chuck Swanick, then chair of the Erie County Legislature—sought to have himself appointed a commissioner to the Erie County Water Authority, replacing businessman George Hasiotis. Ironically, Pigeon had played a party in ousting a previous party chairman, Jim Sorrentino, from the authority’s board of commissioners just a few years earlier, arguing at the time that the era of powerful party bosses had come to an end.

On second thought, maybe it wasn’t the beginning of the end for Pigeon. It may have been the middle of the end. Regardless, Pigeon—who in the end tried to hold power as closely as the chairman he’d once fought to depose, Joe Crangle—held on to the chair for a tumultuous couple of years, before being replaced by Len Lenihan in 2002. Lenihan was brought in as a peacemaker, a compromise candidate acceptable to all party factions. For much of his tenure, Lenihan ably performed the role.

Last week, the Erie County Water Authority again became the backdrop for a sleazy political melodrama, the conclusion of which is sure to be indigestible. Attorney Chris O’Brien, who was appointed a commissioner to the authority early this year with the backing of current Erie County Democratic chirman Jeremy Zellner, resigned unexpectedly. More time with the family, he said, but it quickly became clear that he’d been asked to leave in order to make room for a new appointment. (And probably was pleased to do so: O’Brien is a good guy with a busy law firm to run who doesn’t need this kind of politics.) The first candidate to surface: Zellner’s prdecessor and mentor, Lenihan, who continues to provide guidance to Democratic headquarters. Lenihan later dismissed speculation that he’d be nominated for the job, but the sources of that rumor were solid, and it made a kind of terrible sense: In January, the incoming Erie County Legislature will have a Republican majority and a Democratic minority slightly less compliant to Zellner’s leadership than the current Democratic caucus, whch employs him as its chief of staff. So party headquarters has between now and the end of the year to consolidate as much control over patronage positions, purchasing, and contracts as possible.

That’s not much time: The deadline for submitting letters of interest in the position to the chair of the Erie County Legislature is Friday, November 15. We’re told the existing Democratic caucus will approve whomever Zellner supports.

For now, it seems likely that there are enough votes among the five Democrats remaining in the Legislature after January 1 to make Zellner chief of staff to the new minority. Other Democratic staffers at the Legislature, no doubt, are polishing their resumés.

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