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Robert McCarthy: Political mischief, and other primary scraps

It was a low-turnout primary election with few surprises but lots of twists and turns. Here are a few:

• Jeremy Zellner feels good about his organization’s performance in Tuesday’s primary election. The Erie County Democratic chairman may be stretching by including candidates backed by town committees, but points to 15 out of 16 endorsed victories.

“It tells me our organization is strong and united,” he said.

April Baskin, the endorsed Democrat in the County Legislature’s 2nd District, emerges as Zellner’s top victory after beating three other candidates.

• Democrats did not fare so well in several minor party contests. They supported an unsuccessful challenger to Republican county clerk candidate Mickey Kearns (a Democrat now registered by Democratic Headquarters as an official archenemy) in the Independence Party. Other minor party challenges and write-in drives also failed.

Zellner cites Democratic clerk candidate Steve Cichon’s strong write-in effort on the Independence line, but in the end, it was unsuccessful.

• Kearns also faced a challenger on the Conservative line, who Republicans and Conservatives say was encouraged by Democratic Headquarters. As a result, the serious rift between Erie County’s Democratic and Conservative parties only widens.

“Absolutely they were behind it,” Erie County GOP Chairman Nick Langworthy said of write-in campaigns and other minor party challenges. “There was lots of mischief.”

• Indeed, both major parties engage in minor party “mischief.” New York’s “fusion” system encourages it on sham lines labeled Independence or Reform or Women’s Equality. But they often prove important for candidates seeking any possible advantage, and so they spawn vicious – and expensive – battlegrounds.
Even Zellner acknowledges it.

“None of them stand for anything,” he said of several minor parties. “It’s just more evidence that the fusion system of voting is broken in New York State.”

• Still on minor party machinations, Byron Brown’s mayoral victory at least spares the Conservatives from exercising another of New York’s embarrassing political twists. Local Conservatives inserted a “placeholder” candidate on their mayoral ballot this year because they could no longer support longtime ally Brown, now chairman of the state Democratic Party. They correctly surmised he would win the primary against another longtime friend, Mark Schroeder.

But had Schroeder won, Chairman Ralph Lorigo was prepared to nominate his placeholder candidate – attorney Anita Howard – to a State Supreme Court candidacy in the Bronx or some other place where nobody ever heard of a Conservative – then substitute Schroeder on the party’s mayoral line. Besides the unpleasant alternative of death, it’s the only way to remove a candidate from the ballot at this late date.

Everyone, including Lorigo, can now avoid defending another sparkling gem of New York election law.

• Brown’s organization is still basking in the big primary win over Schroeder and Betty Jean Grant. Sources say the campaign is sending thanks to many of the city’s Democratic allies, but none to Brian Higgins and his team.

The South Buffalo congressman may have officially supported Brown, but the mayoral sources say their requests for help in the primary were ignored.
“The mayor is very disappointed in Brian,” one source said. “What was the point in reaching out?”

Higgins was unavailable for comment, but the Politics Column knows that City Hall’s version of the primary’s history is not shared in the congressman’s camp.
The Brown-Higgins relationship was cemented by the congressman’s 2005 endorsement of the mayor’s first run. It took place, significantly, in the living room of Higgins’ South Buffalo home.

As it turned out, Brown did quite nicely relying on his own forces. Higgins seems to have survived without the Brown operation, too.
But since those warm and fuzzy days in the congressman’s living room, it is fair to say the relationship has “evolved.”

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