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They screamed, chanted, jumped out of their seats and pointed fingers at each other.

Then they waved signs, argued with party officials and gave speeches into microphones suddenly gone dead.

But Erie County Democrats eventually voted Wednesday during their reorganizational meeting in Shea's Performing Arts Center. And when the votes were counted, G. Steven Pigeon was re-elected to a third term as chairman of the Erie County Democratic Committee.

In what most observers called the most raucous gathering of local Democrats in memory, Pigeon beat back a not-quite-enough challenge from County Clerk David J. Swarts -- but at a price some fear could mean a long-term split in the party.

As the votes were tallied early this morning, Pigeon claimed victory by a healthy margin in the party's weighted vote system. During several procedural votes decided by voice and standing in the theater crowded with about 1,500 Democrats, Pigeon appeared to control the meeting by an approximate 60 percent to 40 percent ratio.

That was good enough to win, and good enough for him.

"We're winning by a large enough margin to back up what I've said all along," he said as his victory became apparent. "The vast majority of this party is united.

"The numbers don't lie," he added. "Now I want to reach out to those who were against us, especially labor."

Pigeon faces a huge task in uniting a party with a reputation as possibly the most fractious in the state. It has split into Pigeon and Swarts factions ever since the big Democratic defeats of November. But the
chairman's predictions that Swarts did not have enough of a following to mount a successful challenge appeared to be proved with the final count early this morning.

Swarts spent most of the evening hunched over tally sheets adding up the thousands of votes resulting from the weighted-vote system. This morning, he said it remains possible he will legally contest several procedures that prevented a secret ballot -- a move he claims would have changed the outcome.

But he also said his serious challenge to Pigeon should make the chairman aware of significant divisions in the party.

"The fact still remains that there are many, many people in Erie County who the chairman must recognize want a style of leadership that is much more inclusive," Swarts said. "I hope that healing process begins."

Swarts said Pigeon did not receive a mandate. He pointed to huge anti-Pigeon votes in Amherst, the Town of Tonawanda, West Seneca and some parts of the city. That, Swarts said, demonstrates that party divisions will continue without some new efforts on Pigeon's part.

"They won a battle, but the war could continue," he said. "But there is also a great opportunity for healing."

Top Swarts supporters such as Amherst Chairman Dennis E. Ward expressed no real optimism about unity.

"If he wins and can't get the party all back together, it's just going to be war for two years," Ward said. "And the real chore we have is to make certain our own internal grudges don't rub off on our candidates."

Ward said the re-elected chairman has to "step up to the plate" to make that happen. "But I don't believe he's capable of it," Ward said.

That kind of sentiment prevailed throughout the night, beginning with in-your-face politicking along Pearl Street before the meeting that was fierce and bordering on the physical. Sharp, loud exchanges were heard as delegates jostled signs in each other's faces.

Though the meeting was scheduled to begin at 7 p.m., careful scrutiny of the arriving crowd delayed the start time by about 45 minutes.

Democratic committee staff members, supplemented by a private security firm, Shea's security and Buffalo police, trained their eyes on photo identification and official credentials for those entering the building -- and ultimately the theater.

At least one person boisterously complied with a request to leave before the proceedings began.

Swarts supporters carried signs reading "Secret Ballot" and chanted the phrase over and over throughout the evening.

But Pigeon began to gain the upper hand with quick voice votes and rulings by a no-nonsense Laurence F. Adamczyk, the Democratic elections commissioner and party secretary presiding over the meeting. He immediately ruled that party statutes and election law prohibited a secret ballot, driving a stake through the heart of the Swarts camp's best hopes.

Swarts supporters such as Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger, D-Kenmore, and attorney James M. Shaw again and again tried to address the meeting. Adamczyk let them speak to make official motions but ruled them out of order on several occasions, leaving both speaking into dead microphones.

While Swarts reported excellent tallies in suburbs such as Amherst, Tonawanda and West Seneca, Pigeon racked up big numbers in Buffalo and Cheektowaga. Several sources said Mayor Anthony M. Masiello's forces had become particularly active in encouraging the Pigeon vote over the past several days, helping to develop a larger-than-expected vote for the chairman in the city. Indeed, the mayor's increased cooperation with Pigeon was highlighted by the election as party vice chairwoman of Joanne Cavalieri, Masiello's top political aide.

News Staff Reporter Janice L. Habuda contributed to this report.

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