To some Erie County Democrats, the ideal way to heal lingering wounds from the most recent election was to name a new county chairman who was a well known and experienced office holder, from the suburbs, and who would be accepted by just about every faction in the party.
That would be Dennis T. Gorski, the former Erie County executive. But when they made him the offer, his reply was a firm “no,” even though he mulled over the offer for several days, according to several sources.
“It’s not going to happen,” Gorski told The Buffalo News. “I suspect some people think I would be the resolver of differences as the county chairman. I’m not interested in doing that.”
While Democratic committee members will not even consider the question of the chairmanship until next September and current Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner insists he’s not going anywhere, the attempt to find new leader underscores the divided nature of the party and the desperate search by some to find a chairman to double as “healer.”
Gorski, 69, surfaced as a respected Democrat who would most likely prove acceptable to all party factions despite a reputation during his days as county executive of battling former Chairman Vincent J. Sorrentino and even former Chairman G. Steven Pigeon, whom he anointed to take over the party helm in 1995.
Now, the new efforts to woo Gorski were ascribed to Pigeon, who lately is thought to have the ear of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s political strategists and who was not available for comment on Saturday. Political sources who are familiar with the situation and who asked not to be identified because they hold no official standing said Gorski considered the offer but eventually declined.
Zellner said Saturday nobody has approached him about leaving Democratic Headquarters or about assuming any other job for a “soft landing.”
“The only soft landing I want is to continue to lead this party,” he said.
Nevertheless, Zellner faces an uncertain future as the chief of staff to the County Legislature, which pays $79,000 annually, following Republican victories earlier this month that will result in a GOP-led majority come January.
He has encountered even more opposition in recent weeks because of a string of losses on Election Day and his lack of a strong relationship with Cuomo’s political operation, where sources say he is viewed as not up to the job and incapable of uniting the party just as the governor’s re-election effort gets under way.
Several town chairmen have announced plans to call for a vote of “no confidence” in Zellner during a meeting scheduled for Tuesday in Lackawanna, though not even its sponsors expect the effort to succeed.
“There may be some disaffected town chairs ... but I have a strong suspicion that will be deeply, deeply challenged,” Zellner said, adding that those behind the efforts to bypass the normal process of electing a chairman should be “ashamed of themselves.”
The chairman also noted that Cuomo’s political operatives proved unsuccessful in previous attempts to control the Erie County leadership, and that locals are determined to chart their own course.
“It doesn’t belong to any one or two elected officials, it belongs to the committee members,” he said, pointing to Pigeon as the impetus behind efforts to replace him.
Other town leaders privately say the search will continue for a consensus candidate, though it may take months for the process to play out. And at least for now, the county’s chief Democrat – County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz – has not sought any alternative candidate (including Gorski) and continues to back Zellner, according to his political advisors.
“Mark has worked with Jeremy, even if he is not happy with the outcome of the elections – that may not all be Jeremy’s fault,” said a Poloncarz ally who is not authorized to speak for the county executive and who also asked not be identified.
“In September, when it comes time to talk about the chairman’s race, there will be a discussion,” the ally added. “But it’s not his priority at the moment.”
Cheektowaga Chairman Frank C. Max Jr., who unsuccessfully challenged Zellner for the chairmanship in 2012 and says he will run again in 2014, said he remains confident that he will prevail next year.
“This was all a trial balloon because they see the writing on the wall,” he said.