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DEMOCRATIC SPLIT NOT HEALED

Just like Punxsutawney Phil on Groundhog Day, Western New York's pols will officially emerge from hibernation on March 16 at Kevin Keane's annual St. Patrick's Day luncheon at the Buffalo Irish Center.

But until the big day, here's a rundown of what's going on behind the scenes:

While it appeared Erie County Democrats were settling on Cheektowaga Councilman Jeff Swiatek to face Republican Comptroller Nancy Naples this fall, most observers forgot that Erie County Democrats rarely settle on anything. So just to underscore that fact, West Seneca Supervisor Paul Clark is eyeing a Democratic primary challenge to Headquarters' anointment of Swiatek.

"I'm taking a serious look at it," Clark said a few days ago. "I personally think this job calls for a qualified accountant, and I've been a CPA for 25 years, including being a governmental accountant and former town comptroller."

It could prove to be a tough endeavor for Clark. Swiatek is labeled by most Dems as an up-and-comer, and Cheektowaga traditionally serves as a major power base for anyone running countywide.

If Clark follows through on his candidacy, however, the ensuing primary might re-energize the split between Chairman Steve Pigeon and the rebels led by County Clerk David Swarts. Clark was very much a part of the Swarts set last year, and his contingent of West Seneca Democrats has opposed Pigeon since the dawn of recorded history.

Swarts emphasizes that his group, still very much alive, is nowhere near officially endorsing candidates. And he also insists his group is not promoting a primary for comptroller. The Task Force to Renew the Democratic Party eventually will endorse, he says, adding that both Swiatek and Clark will receive consideration.

Still, he charges that Swiatek's main problem is Pigeon.

"Jeff is a fine candidate, but he has a problem of being perceived as Steve's candidate," Swarts said. Pigeon says only that he is solidly behind the Swiatek candidacy.

Legislature update: The normally ho-hum campaigns for County Legislature are taking shape early as Republicans, Democrats and Giambracrats (those Dems recruited by County Executive Joel Giambra) vie for early advantage.

The most volatile at this point is the scramble for the seat now occupied by veteran Democrat Mike Fitzpatrick, who is expected to announce his retirement within the next few weeks. Businessman Mark Schroeder showed up to work the crowd at Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's Buffalo event a few days ago, and former Mayor Jim Griffin's name also enters most discussions about a Fitzpatrick successor.

New to the mix is Joe Kelly, the former Conservative Party chairman who is a recent convert to the Democrats. But the most interesting new entrant may be Maureen Fitzpatrick, the legislator's daughter and an employee of Erie Community College. There are some problems -- such as her North Buffalo residency -- but sometimes those things can be worked out.

Another interesting quirk is a possible GOP candidacy for Griffin. Buffalo Republican Chairman Dennis Ryan says the former mayor doesn't communicate with GOP Headquarters much these days, but Ryan says he'd welcome a visit.

"I'm interested in him," Ryan said.

Interesting developments in other districts include the pursuit of one-time Common Council candidate Sue McCartney by Giambra operatives for the seat now held by Judy Fisher. That would allow McCartney to fit the true definition of a Giambracrat -- a Democrat recruited by former Dem Giambra to run against an unfriendly incumbent in a Democratic primary.

The only kink in that plan is that McCartney does not envision any political involvement this year.

In the 3rd District, however, well-placed sources say Giambracrats may prove more successful in wooing Michael Darby, an energy company employee and former member of Grassroots -- the East Side political club.

Democrats are active, too. They are promoting Boston Town Clerk David Shenk as their candidate against freshman Republican Steve McCarville of Orchard Park. Shenk is thought to have an excellent shot at the important Conservative line as well.

And Chairman Pigeon is a fan of pro boxer Baby Joe Mesi from more than just ringside. Several sources say Pigeon is recruiting Mesi for a primary run against incumbent Al DeBenedetti. Though some friends are telling the rising Tonawanda star that politics and pugilism don't mix, others acknowledge Mesi's skills might prove downright useful in the seventh floor ring of County Hall.