For the last two years, many in the Erie County Democratic Party viewed Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner as a temporary leader – a youngster with tenuous backing, a bridge between predecessor Leonard R. Lenihan and whoever was to follow.
But Zellner imprinted his own stamp on the local party Saturday, cementing his grip on upstate’s biggest Democratic organization with a convincing victory over Mark A. Manna, the challenger who had the support of a Buffalo mayor, a state senator and a former Erie County chairman.
Zellner demolished Manna, 69 to 31 percent, in the vote for the party’s chairmanship, and, for the moment at least, dismissed any notion that he would prove another victim of frequent warfare between rival factions of the party.
“We always have had a divided organization in Erie County, and we always will,” Zellner told reporters following his victory. “My job now is to push to unite this party.”
That remains a tough assignment. Manna entered the contest just last week but was buoyed by organized support from top Democratic figures like Mayor Byron W. Brown, Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy and former Chairman G. Steven Pigeon – not to mention several powerful unions.
The Amherst council member launched a “peace and progress” campaign that started with considerable power but seemed to fizzle over the past few days.
Zellner had some strong backers in his corner, too, including County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz and Rep. Brian Higgins, and they swung into action, while Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s political operation adopted a “hands off” attitude.
During the recent primary campaign, the 36-year-old Zellner established for the first time a working relationship with the Cuomo political forces after years of being ignored at best and subjected to open hostility at worst.
“I believe this is a referendum for unity,” Poloncarz said after the vote, “and it was by a very large margin.”
The county executive praised Manna for “speaking to the Democratic Party,” noting that he is trying to foster his own unity efforts by congratulating Kennedy on his recent primary victory despite his own support for challenger Betty Jean Grant.
“In the end, the chairman will continue being the chairman, and we need to work to elect Democrats and not get into these squabbles,” Poloncarz said.
The meeting Saturday proved relatively tame, compared to some of the raucous affairs of the past. Though Manna threw a few barbs Zellner’s way, both refrained from personal attacks and were viewed in conversation during the long vote-counting process. And when it was all over, both went to the podium to congratulate each other and hold clasped hands aloft in a traditional victory pose.
But in his opening speech to the packed banquet room, Manna tried to make the case that Zellner had failed elections despite the county’s overwhelming Democratic registration advantage.
“Controlling failure has brought us these continuing 15-year-old battles and waste of resources on ridiculous primaries against Democrats,” said Manna, a United Food and Commercial Workers Union representative. “A real leader finds a way to succeed despite what is placed in his way.”
Even before the meeting convened, though, Manna seemed resigned to a fizzled effort. He said he did not have enough time to organize a successful effort.
“Four days ago, I had zero and it took him two years to get the votes he had,” Manna said after the vote. “Had I had even a couple of weeks, I could have gotten my message out.”
Manna also held open the possibility of another attempt at the chairmanship in 2016 should he be further disappointed in Zellner’s efforts.
“Will his tone be retribution or will he extend the olive branch?” Manna asked. “If proper leadership is not shown, two years comes around very quickly. And I won’t wait until four days before next time.”
The four-day campaign for such a major post seemed to be recognized by everyone involved as a huge drawback for Manna.
“This is a reach,” City of Tonawanda Chairwoman Gayle L. Syposs said during the voting. “To pull off something like this in four or five days? That’s the lunacy of it.”
And Cheektowaga Chairman Frank C. Max Jr., who unsuccessfully challenged Zellner in 2012 and who backed Manna on Saturday, said he was disappointed, despite the backing from unions and major political figures.
“It’s going to be up to him,” Max said of Zellner and of chances for reconciliation. “He’s got to show leadership.”
Zellner’s new leadership will be put to the test immediately as he prepares for Monday evening’s judicial nominating convention that will select five candidates for State Supreme Court. Zellner said he will discuss the situation with the other seven Western New York Democratic chairmen in a conference call today, and then enter into possible talks with Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy regarding cross-endorsements.
While speculation has swirled around cross-endorsements for months, most observers felt Zellner needed to survive Saturday’s vote in order to control the judicial nominating convention and make deals for bipartisan backing with Langworthy. Following his decisive showing Saturday, Zellner is expected now to make a strong case for controlling the Democratic end of the judicial nominating process.
One name entering judicial speculation continues to be Erie County Democratic Elections Commissioner Dennis E. Ward, who on Saturday ended a long stretch as secretary of the county committee by not seeking re-election. He was replaced by Jennifer L. Hibit, the Poloncarz chief of staff, seen as another sign of the county executive’s growing influence on the party.
Ward’s decision not to run could also preview a potential cross-endorsement for him this year, though both Zellner and Langworthy insist no deals have been made.
“It’s going to go down to the wire,” Zellner said Saturday.
Meanwhile, the Working Families Party on Friday announced their nominations as John Delmonte, Susan Eagan, Dan Furlong, Debra Givens and Jeanette Ogden.