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Democrats discussing Masiello to head party

Anthony M. Masiello's name is entering more conversations about a potential leader of Erie County Democrats as new questions arise over the future of Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan.

Lenihan's term as leader of upstate New York's biggest Democratic organization does not expire until September, and he has made no indication he will bow to Albany pressure and turn down a sixth two-year term.

But there is no question that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's political team is seeking a change, despite Lenihan's successful defiance a year ago and his efforts to elect Mark C. Poloncarz as county executive last November.

"I'll have some things to say in a couple of weeks," Lenihan said, noting he will announce his plans well ahead of the September reorganization meeting and not just before it, which has been his practice in the past.

Meanwhile, sources throughout the various factions of the Erie County Democratic Party acknowledge the discussions surrounding Masiello. They point out that the former mayor -- now an Albany lobbyist -- has maintained good relations with most local Democrats as well as with Cuomo.

Some question whether he could function as both chairman and lobbyist, while others point to his recent sponsorship of a fundraiser for Republican State Sen. Mark J. Grisanti of Buffalo as a serious sticking point.

"No comment," Masiello responded when asked about interest in the post.

Many Democrats believe Lenihan would win another term should he decide to run again. But they point out that pressure from the same statewide Democrats who tried to broker Lenihan's exit last summer continues -- and is intensifying.

"It's heating up, and I can assure you it's coming from the second floor," said one top Democrat close to the situation, referring to the governor's office at the Capitol.

"Nothing has changed," the source added. "People are getting frustrated."

Another source with ties to the state party said other priorities lie on Albany's political "to do" list, but he made it clear the objective remains for a change of Erie County leadership and that Lenihan is sure to be discussed when the state party convenes in Albany on Thursday.

"There is momentum on this," the source said, adding he expects Poloncarz to be involved in any decisions.

"The county executive has been given the task of making sure the party goes forward," he said.

Poloncarz was unavailable to discuss the situation Friday.

Lenihan has never ranked as a Cuomo favorite after he backed Buffalonian Denise E. O'Donnell for attorney general in 2006 and never climbed aboard Cuomo's gubernatorial bandwagon until late in the 2010 cycle. His poor relations with Mayor Byron W. Brown and lack of relations with Rep. Brian Higgins -- both Cuomo allies -- caused top party operative Charlie King to attempt to broker Lenihan's departure in 2011.

Lenihan announced his resignation and was even feted at a massive farewell party in August, but he changed his mind the next day and remained at Democratic Headquarters -- only to see his stock rise with the election of Poloncarz.

Some local party sources don't care whether Erie Democrats are close to the governor or not. But others support Cuomo's desire for a united party in Erie County, which he lost along with eight other western counties to Republican Carl P. Paladino in 2010.

They also point to the relative lack of appointments for Western New Yorkers, which they also see as a partial result of the nonrelationship between Cuomo and Lenihan. Lenihan said he did not attend the governor's recent record-breaking fundraiser at the Hotel @ The Lafayette because he was not invited.

"If a chairman is not directly involved in a pipeline [to the governor] on a regular basis, there's a problem," said one of the sources with knowledge of the situation.

If Masiello does not pursue the chairmanship, other names mentioned in party circles include attorney Marc C. Panepinto, who is seeking the Democratic nod to challenge Grisanti; Cheektowaga Chairman Frank C. Max Jr., and Tonawanda Town Chairman John J. Crangle.

Still, nobody is doubting that Lenihan has shown in the past that he can survive even if he defies the party operatives surrounding the state's top Democrat.

"If there's one lesson we've learned, it's that there's really nothing we can do unless Len decides," said a state party source, "even if Mark [Poloncarz] told him to go."