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Lenihan plans exit from elections post; Zellner to succeed him

After more than 40 years as a major player in local government and politics, Leonard R. Lenihan said Monday he will retire as Democratic elections commissioner in mid-March.

And for the first time in almost half a century, a local party chairman – the Democrats’ Jeremy J. Zellner – is lined up to replace him in the county’s top patronage post.

Lenihan, 68, said he never intended to remain as commissioner on a long-term basis and accepted another term last fall to allow the Democratic Party time to prepare for an eventual successor. Now he believes “it’s time” to scale back his activity and concentrate on consulting and community involvement. He has served as elections commissioner since late 2014.

“It’s a full-time job and it requires someone who is full time. I’m hesitant to do that at this point in my life,” he said. “I’ve had 40 years of public service and I have some plans.”

Now an apparent seamless transition faces Zellner as he prepares to assume the Democratic elections post that pays $117,000 annually. Zellner, 38, is expected to gain the full support of the Democratic minority in the County Legislature, which officially makes the appointment. There is a Republican and a Democratic elections commissioner and, traditionally, the full Legislature accepts the recommendation of the party chairman for its respective commissioner.

“I feel very strongly the will is there for this to happen,” Zellner said Monday. “It’s the right thing for the community and the right thing for me.”

He said he will continue as Erie County Democratic chairman, though he will forgo his $70,000 salary in that post. Zellner pointed to major party chairmen in Brooklyn and Westchester serving simultaneously as elections commissioner and party chairman, as well as locally in Chautauqua County. He estimated one in five elections commissioners in New York State also lead the local party, and pointed to the late Raymond Lawley who was Republican chairman and elections commissioner in Erie County during the late 1960s.

Zellner sees no inherent conflict between the two positions.

“I will take an oath to uphold the office,” he said, “and in that job there will be time for politics and time for being board commissioner.”

Zellner also said that though he currently works full time as party chairman, he will be able to juggle both posts. He noted the local organization is devoid of its infamous internal divisions for the first time in generations.

“The party is in a different place; as united as never before,” he said. “I can’t think of an elected official here or across the state who does not support the Erie County Democratic Committee.”

Indeed, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for the first time ever will headline an Erie County Democratic fundraiser at Templeton Landing in Buffalo on Thursday following years of non-existent relations. Zellner pointed to several local victories in the last election and said he feels the party is on the right track.

“So far, everyone is incredibly supportive,” he said. “You would have a hard time – other than from the usual suspects – to find someone who says I am not qualified or that it’s a bad idea.”

Meanwhile, Lenihan has proven a ubiquitous figure in Democratic politics since graduating from Northwest Missouri State University and surfacing in Albany as an Assembly staffer in the early 1970s. He managed Robin L. Schimminger’s initial Assembly campaign in 1976 and then succeeded him in the County Legislature. He eventually became chairman of the Legislature and county personnel commissioner before beginning a 10-year stint as Erie County Democratic chairman in 2002.

“County government has basically been my life for 40 years,” he said.

The commissioner said he has sent a letter to the acting county clerk Monday to officially resign and kick off the succession process. He said he will remain active in politics, possibly resume a consulting business in which he briefly engaged following his exit from Democratic Headquarters, and hopes to serve on community boards.

“I will never leave politics until the day they put me in the ground,” he said. “But spring is coming, and I have some plans.”

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