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SORRENTINO FACES TOUGH DECISION IN CRITICAL RACE PARTY CHAIRMAN MUST SELECT COUNTY EXECUTIVE CANDIDATE

Vincent J. Sorrentino acknowledges there are times lately when he awakes at 3 a.m., stares into the dark, and wonders what he's going to do.

As chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party, Sorrentino is by all accounts agonizing over whom to support in the 1995 race for county executive. His decision most likely will determine who receives the backing of Democratic leaders and significantly shape the course of this year's campaign.

But as he weighs the pros and cons of County Executive Gorski or a contender like County Clerk David J. Swarts, the chairman admits he faces one tough dilemma.

"Other than getting married, this is probably the toughest decision I've ever had to make," he said this week.

Gorski, Swarts, and another candidate -- Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger of Kenmore -- will begin the formalities Saturday when they interview with the party's executive committee. Then Sorrentino will decide sometime before another executive committee meeting on April 8.

Most observers see his choice boiling down to Gorski or Swarts. Sorrentino will not declare an open primary.

"If I threw it open, it wouldn't be leadership," he said. "I'll do what I think is right and live with that."

In the meantime, the candidates and their surrogates vie for the chairman's ear.

Gorski, the man who installed Sorrentino as chairman in 1988, last weekend stated his case in a two-hour heart-to-heart discussion with his estranged ally.

Gorski emphasized his record and Sorrentino discussed poll results showing him in deep trouble. The chairman said he also told Gorski he is not worried about patronage jobs as much as improving the community, and that he's concerned about communication in the top echelons of government -- referring to Gorski's well-publicized rift with Mayor Masiello.

"We can't have contention between elected officials, we need them to work together," he said. "And I'm encouraging Tony to sit down with him, too."

But Sorrentino also recognizes Gorski's strength in terms of money and organization, and that a divisive primary could ensure a Republican victory in November.

"Ultimately, I've got to make a determination if (Gorski's) candidacy is not in the best interest of the party, or if he can't win," Sorrentino said. "Yet on the other hand, there's no doubt he's got a good record and money. If he pools my (party) money with his resources and there's no primary, he might just pull it out. That's what I've got to measure."

Swarts says his conversations with Sorrentino have been candid, and also acknowledges that the chairman's decision will determine the endorsement.

"It isn't undemocratic; it's just the way it is," he said. "Some may be critical of the process; I'm not."

The clerk says he has shared with Sorrentino his ideas for new leadership in Erie County, ways for the city and county to work more closely together, and the need for "new directions."

"He knows where I'm coming from and what I'm doing," Swarts said.

Gorski, meanwhile, points out he ran without party backing in his first countywide race in 1987, defeating the party nominee (now Deputy County Executive James P. Keane) and incumbent Edward J. Rutkowski. And he makes it clear he will run in a 1995 primary if necessary.

The case for his endorsement hinges on his abilities as a manager, he says, citing a litany of accomplishments.

"When you look at Erie County, you see a government that is well run," he said. "That, quite frankly, is my argument."

That also prompts him to ask why the process has gone this far.

"Yeah, I'm a little disappointed about the whole notion of fighting for our party's nomination," he said. "But I'm a realist, and I know it's part of the democratic process."

All this weighs in Sorrentino's mind as he approaches his decision -- a moment that he and his closest advisers acknowledge has not yet arrived.

He dismisses the notion that he wields an inordinate amount of power as Democratic chairman. Both Gorski and Swarts count several executive committee members in their courts already, he said, adding the April 8 vote will not be unanimous no matter what his decision.

Still, he acknowledges his decision will probably determine the nominee.

"I've got a responsibility to do what I feel is in the best interest of the party," he said. "I don't think that's being a boss or having too much power. It's doing what I was elected to do."

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