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EVEN HILLARY'S VISIT MARRED FOR PIGEON

It was a big night on Tuesday for Erie County Democratic Chairman Steve Pigeon, at a time when he needed a big night.

The most famous woman in America -- Hillary Rodham Clinton -- was at his side as he presided over historic endorsement proceedings that put her on the road to winning the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate.

Pigeon was justifiably elated, calling the night's proceedings the "proudest of my chairmanship." And though not known for his oratorical skills, he was eloquent in his remarks.

"She already has brought so much attention to this community," Pigeon told about 200 Democrats gathered at the Olivencia Community Center on Swan Street. "Even by running she's improved our area."

But a sense of uneasiness undermines even such lofty events. Though Pigeon and his supporters think such subjects shouldn't be talked about in polite company, some kind of party cleansing must occur before the turmoil plaguing the Erie County organization is settled.

The truth is, the effort by County Clerk David Swarts to topple Pigeon from his chairmanship in the wake of last November's devastating Democratic losses is beginning to cause concern throughout the state. While Clinton's campaign might normally rely totally on the powerful Erie County organization to guide it through its early days, there is trepidation now.

Is it a problem?

"Yes," acknowledged one Clinton confidant.

The difficulty, according to sources close to Clinton, is that New York City-based campaigns such as hers have to be extra careful about every step they take in Erie County. Do they offend Mayor Tony Masiello by showing up at a Pigeon function? Do they offend Pigeon by attending Deputy Speaker Art Eve's event? Will this new group led by Swarts and Company prove to be the ruling faction come election time?

"We have to spread the love around," said the Clinton confidant.

It's a quagmire that is beginning to be noticed around the state, and prominent local Democrats know it. That's why some of those prominent Democrats are trying to end the situation -- favorably for Pigeon. These well-known figures are big-time Pigeon supporters, and work hard to convey the notion that the chairman will prevail when all the committee votes are counted in October. But they also know that until Masiello conveys his support for a chairman with whom he maintains tenuous relations, the sore on the face of the Erie County Democratic Party will continue to fester for all to see. And that means continuing to reveal the problems to big Democratic names like Clinton, Vice President Gore and his challenger, former Sen. Bill Bradley.

That's also why those same major Democratic figures are expected to put a full-court press on Masiello in the coming days. They will argue that his "neutral" stance only lets the anti-Pigeon forces strengthen themselves, and in the process, strengthen the notion that he can be overthrown in next fall's committee contests.

Masiello, a one-time Canisius College hoop star, knows very well how to handle that pressure. But he always defended with four other teammates. In the latest effort, he could experience a tough time in the coming days against a five-on-one full-court press.

There were other developments in this ongoing story over the past few days. It is now an open secret that Pigeon is moving to strengthen his local political position by grabbing that plumest of all political plums -- a $22,500-plus-car seat on the Erie County Water Authority.

All agree success or failure there would indicate an accurate measure of his strength. But he may need some Republican support, and efforts to craft a "package deal" to include a Republican on the authority board continue.

In fact, some Democrats hinted last week that an offer including Erie County Republican Vice Chairman Ralph Vanner might be in the works, especially after Chairman Bob Davis said he didn't feel it would be appropriate to combine that post with a political chairmanship.

But Vanner says "unequivocally no" to the idea, also labeling it inappropriate. In fact, when Republican Bob Lichtenthal leaves the authority later this year to become County Executive Joel Giambra's deputy budget director, Vanner said the GOP may raise the ante in this political poker game.

"We'll look for a business type, preferably someone with an engineering background," Vanner said. "It won't be a chairman or a vice chairman."

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