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Primary could split the Democrats

Sen. Chuck Schumer couldn't help but revel in the politics of Buffalo a few weeks ago while endorsing Sen. Byron Brown for mayor on the steps of City Hall.

It was all different from a few years ago, he said, when local Democrats were in turmoil and statewide figures dreaded trips to Buffalo. With so many local factions laying so many traps for each other, plenty of political minefields awaited visitors from the east.

But these days Chairman Len Lenihan is at the Erie County helm. And Schumer pronounced all was right with the world.

Now Schumer and other party bigwigs may have to break out their mine sweepers once again. A major split in the party could develop as early as next week should Bob Whelan officially registered as a Lenihan arch-enemy -- win his primary race for Erie County comptroller.

Whelan, you see, is a former Buffalo comptroller and State Supreme Court justice seeking a comeback as county comptroller. He is well-known and well-financed, and is making it a race against two other Democratic candidates -- former Buffalo Deputy Comptroller Rick Pawarski and attorney Mark Poloncarz.

A savvy attorney who held key posts in Sen. John Kerry's New York presidential campaign last year, Poloncarz has become a favorite over at Democratic Headquarters and was promptly endorsed by Lenihan and company. His aggressive airwaves campaign is aimed squarely at Whelan.

Whelan is pushing back against that campaign, crediting Lenihan for an effort he calls "intellectually dishonest and morally bankrupt."

He calls the Poloncarz effort Lenihan's "marquee race," and seems to be only warming up should he prevail on Tuesday.

"He will clearly be emasculated as chairman," Whelan said of Lenihan, should Poloncarz lose. "If you bet the farm on somebody and lose the bet, you lose the farm."

Hmmm. Sounds like fightin' words.

Is Whelan ready to take on the chairman should he beat Poloncarz?

It would be presumptuous to assume anything at this early date, the former judge said. But he is confident enough of his own chances to answer the question like this: "Ask me in November."

All of this stems from the fact that Whelan and Lenihan don't like each other. Whelan remains bitter over the chairman's highly unusual denial of his renomination to Supreme Court in 2003, when Lenihan said Whelan was too close to Republican County Executive Joel Giambra to merit the Democratic nod.

That's exactly the message Lenihan and Poloncarz are reviving in 2005, when Giambra ranks right up there with Hurricane Katrina in popularity. Lenihan says Whelan remains a Giambra buddy (which Whelan vehemently denies), and that his candidacy stems from efforts by former Democratic Chairman Steve Pigeon and his ally -- political financier Hormoz Mansouri -- to undermine him.

"The good news is, I think Poloncarz is going to win," Lenihan countered, claiming that Whelan entered the race at a late date only after Mansouri (Whelan's chief contributor) called him on the golf course in Florida.

"Steve and Hormoz are always after me," Lenihan said.

He also claimed that Giambra and Pigeon are politically tight these days, while pointing to Giambra's recent appointment of Mansouri to the boards of the Erie Community College and the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library.

So if Poloncarz prevails on Tuesday, all this might prove moot. But if Whelan wins and then wins an expected tough encounter in November with Republican John Canavan (with Poloncarz still on the Independence line), some good, old-fashioned Democratic infighting might lie in store.

Note to Sen. Schumer: Call Mine Sweepers 'R Us before your next visit to Buffalo.

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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