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SORRENTINO READY FOR KINGMAKER ROLE DEMOCRATIC BOSS PREDICTS VICTORY FOR MASIELLO, NEW ERA FOR PARTY

It was Election Night 1992, and the victory celebration Erie County Democrats planned in Ellicott Square had shifted across the street to Republican headquarters in Pettibone's Grille.

The Republican Jack Quinn had just pulled off a major upset, beating County Executive Gorski in an overwhelmingly Democratic congressional district.

And with that upset, Chairman Vincent J. Sorrentino's grand plans for a new and powerful Erie County Democratic party organization were dissolving.

"This sure hurts the ambition of a lot of people," a dejected Sorrentino said that night, putting himself at the top of the list.

But in his next breath, the Hamburg attorney set in motion a series of events he hopes will spawn a dominant Democratic organization for Buffalo and New York State.

State Sen. Anthony M. Masiello, he said, would be his candidate in the 1993 mayoral election.

As the campaign unfolds six months later, Sorrentino must now deliver.

"This is going to be a real test," observed Michael V. Haselswerdt, chairman of the political science department at Canisius College.

Sorrentino says he's ready, although charges of political "bossism" are expected to hound him and his candidate.

As head of Western New York's dominant political party and master of hundreds of patronage jobs and dozens of political careers, Sorrentino is carefully cultivating his kingmaker role.

"I think we win with Masiello," Sorrentino says, "and then everybody comes home."

Vincent James "Jim" Sorrentino is a relatively new player in Erie County politics, arriving with the Gorski triumph over Edward J. Rutkowski in 1987. That victory propelled Democrats into control of the county executive's office for the first time ever.

The product of Buffalo's tough Swan Street neighborhood where he was born 54 years ago, Sorrentino brings with him a philosophy of "inclusiveness" that has propped him atop upstate's strongest Democratic organization. He frequently points to new representation he introduced for minorities, women, and various elements of the Democratic Party.

But if Jim Sorrentino is guided by a philosophy, it is strong adherence to the principles of the Democratic Party. Good government, he says, results from following those principles.

And while he has never won elective office, he believes he makes his contribution through a strong party organization.

"Basically, I believe a strong party is helpful to the community," he said. "You need to get people working together in all areas of government. And someone with influence in those areas can bring about a cooperative spirit for community needs."

For many years, Sorrentino confined himself to Hamburg town politics and a few outside activities like his passion for harness racing, which today extends to ownership of 11 horses.

In the early 1980s, however, he started traveling in higher circles. While others were backing the favorite for governor -- New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch -- he was a lonesome supporter of the lieutenant governor, Mario M. Cuomo. And when Cuomo won, Sorrentino became part of the new governor's local patronage committee -- the "Dirty Dozen."

The relationship with Cuomo has since cooled -- mainly because Sorrentino is often bypassed on major patronage appointments from Albany.

Still, he has become a major player in local and state politics, relying on an easygoing leadership style that differs from his legendary predecessor -- long time party boss Joseph F. Crangle -- a one-time adversary who once again seems welcome at party headquarters.

"I was a cheerleader, he's more low key," Crangle said.

Friends and observers agree that Sorrentino is a behind-the-scenes type who shies away from whipping up the crowds. But he is a master at the art of political networking.

That networking drew candidate Bill Clinton to Buffalo twice last year -- including a "forum" in Shea's Buffalo Center that featured all the Democratic presidential aspirants.

And the same style has filled party bank accounts to more than $200,000 -- especially after this month's fund-raiser that attracted 540 New York State Democrats paying $300 each.

Indeed, Sorrentino has been riding high in recent months. He was named a vice chairman of the statewide party last fall, recently got ally Patrick H. NeMoyer named U.S. attorney, and thinks Masiello has a shot at guiding the city through the post-Griffin era.

"If we were riding a roller coaster, I'd say we're still on the way up," Sorrentino says of his five years as chairman.

But like all roller coaster rides, ups, downs and bumps occur along the way. This fall's ride will be no exception, as those left behind come gunning for the man they label "Boss" Sorrentino.

The chief gunner so far is Eugene M. Fahey, the Common Council's majority leader and Masiello's main challenger in the Democratic mayoral primary.

While Fahey's sights are set on Masiello, he also rails against Sorrentino's "bossism," targeting the chairman as a campaign issue and predicting that a Masiello administration would be under the thumb of a "suburban lawyer from Hamburg, N.Y."

"The party is in danger of being taken over by the special interests," Fahey said, "and Sorrentino's chairmanship is a reflection of that."

Fahey smarts most from this year's Democratic endorsement process. Though he made his pitch before the party's Executive Committee on Jan. 14, Sorrentino's candidate prevailed 41 to 0.

"He made up his mind on election night before there was any discussion at all about what was best for Buffalo," Fahey says. "That left me with no choice except to say this system stinks."

Fahey is not alone in his criticism. Sorrentino still is trying to duck shots from old political enemies and some members of the black community.

Deputy Assembly Speaker Arthur O. Eve, possibly a contender for mayor, says he retains "cordial" relations with the chairman. But he, too, bristles at the endorsement process, claiming he never had a chance in the face of the Masiello juggernaut.

"Sorrentino told me two years ago that Tony Masiello would be his candidate, and I said at the time that was absolutely ridiculous," Eve says. "I have a real problem with that."

Wilbur P. Trammell, the former chief city judge who is also weighing a mayoral run, says the chairman has paid too little attention to African-Americans in areas like judicial candidates. Blacks aren't considered, Trammell charges, even though most of those sentenced by trial judges are blacks.

Trammell also criticizes Sorrentino for reaping the spoils of office.

"He started with no jobs and now he has four," Trammell says.

In addition to his private law practice, Sorrentino already has three political plums, and could be heading for a fourth. He earns $38,000 as Hamburg town attorney; $22,500 plus a car as a commissioner of the Erie County Water Authority, and did earn $10,000 annually as a Peace Bridge Authority commissioner until Cuomo and the State Legislature ended stipends for public service jobs.

In addition, his wife, Marie, is employed by the Erie County Democratic Committee, and Sorrentino is now a finalist for a position on the International Joint Commission (the joint U.S.-Canadian body overseeing the Great Lakes) that could pay up to $57,000 annually -- depending on how much time he devotes.

"If I were to devote all my political time to my practice, I can tell you without doubt that I'd do a lot better," Sorrentino counters. "And you didn't see me run away from the Peace Bridge when the stipends were cut out."

But what about that term "boss?"

Masiello questions Fahey's charges about the party role since Fahey sought party endorsements in previous elections and wanted the mayoral nod this year, too.

"Why is it OK for one candidate to seek the party nomination, and then when he doesn't get it, I'm the bad guy for getting it?" Masiello asked.

If he is elected mayor, Masiello acknowledged, the party chairman will have "input." But Masiello said it is "ridiculous and insulting" to suggest that Sorrentino will call the shots on jobs and appointments.

"The buck stops with me," Masiello said.

In county government, insiders say as many as 300 jobs (including summer jobs) are dispensed through patronage. But Sorrentino claims his hand is not evident in most Rath Building appointments.

In fact, the lack of Democratic Party input into County Executive Gorski's government remains a sore point between the two -- as it is between Sorrentino and Cuomo, political sources say.

Still, Sorrentino and Gorski maintain a cordial relationship, with some saying it will become closer if Gorski -- wounded by his Quinn defeat -- runs for re-election in 1995.

"He's my friend," Sorrentino says. "I'll be there for him."

Others question whether anything has really changed in the Democratic Party since the days of Crangle, whose influence and success often prompted the boss label.

In addition, Masiello -- a Crangle protege -- is now the party's candidate for mayor.

"He was Democratic chairman here for 23 years, was state chairman and came pretty close to being national chairman," Sorrentino explains. "I'd be a foolish chairman if I didn't take advantage of his expertise."

"My experience in political life is this: I support the chairman," Crangle adds. "If I can give advice or be helpful, I will because I love the Democratic Party."

The chairman takes his licks on his track record, too, especially in the mayoral and congressional races. Some party regulars see a maverick Democrat still grinning at them from City Hall and question why Griffin wasn't ousted during Sorrentino's first mayoral effort in 1989.

"His first big race is with Hoyt," says Fahey, referring to the late Assemblyman William B. Hoyt. Sorrentino offered no endorsement in 1989 and threw open the nomination process.

"So what happens?" Fahey continues. "He spends half a million dollars, fractures the party, and comes in third."

Others ask how Republican Quinn could possibly win a congressional district with a 107,000-Democratic edge in 1992, and question how the GOP has been able to make advances in the County Legislature, shrinking the Democratic majority to a thin 9-8.

"I don't yet see the race where his sponsorship of someone has made the difference," says John E. MacCallum, president of the anti-organization Frontier Democratic Club and a Fahey supporter.

But Crangle says his successor is doing well. Neither Sorrentino nor any other party chairman anywhere will bat 1.000, Crangle says. And besides -- he thinks Sorrentino learned from the 1989 mayoral race.

"It was a mistake," Sorrentino admits. "As chairman, I didn't really give any direction. And certainly, people look to you for leadership and direction.

"Now, 55 percent of the Executive Committee is elected," he added. "I'm not saying I don't have influence; I'd be a lousy chairman if I didn't. But it's open and working, and the complaints weren't there two years ago."

Though criticized for his bold style this time around, Sorrentino's supporters feel he is on the right track. Most are satisfied with his mayoral choice, mainly because they see Masiello uniting Buffalo's ethnic factions -- and winning.

"I don't think there are any strong elements out there that are anti-Sorrentino," Crangle says. "And those who are try to create that impression for personal reasons."

And some question whether a Fahey campaign aimed at Sorrentino will make any difference at all.

Still others see a chairman working toward a stronger and a united Democratic Party.

Deborah Merrifield, the founding president of the Frontier Democrats, is now Sorrentino's vice chairwoman and a member of the Democratic National Committee. She became involved in party functions to change the organization, she says, and feels satisfied that the changes are for the better.

As for Sorrentino, he often says he has no burning desire to serve as long as Crangle, become state chairman, or run for some high office.

"I've always had my own livelihood, so I've always had the luxury to do what is right," he says. "So if the process takes me out, so be it. If I ever thought I was a liability, you wouldn't see me around for long."

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