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In the running for county exec

Mark Tuesday evening on your calendar as the start of the 2007 election season.

That's when Erie County Democratic Chairman Len Lenihan will convene party regulars, union supporters and contributors in Depew's Hearthstone Manor to hear five Democrats discuss how each would like to become the next county executive.

"The whole idea is to bring together everyone who is interested in running for county executive and give them a forum," Lenihan said last week. "It gives our party leadership a chance to have a look in an informal, friendly, initial effort."

That means that the three main Democratic hopefuls -- former Deputy County Executive Jim Keane, Amherst Council Member Dan Ward and West Seneca Supervisor Paul Clark -- will make their efforts official. All have either announced their candidacies or are raising funds.

But two other well-known Dems -- County Clerk David Swarts and Legislature Chairwoman Lynn Marinelli -- also will be there. Both could be strong contenders, and their very presence on Tuesday adds a new dimension to the race.

Swarts ran for county executive as a sacrificial lamb against Republican incumbent Ed Rutkowski in 1983 and got trounced. He came back in the Democratic primary against incumbent Dennis Gorski in 1995 and lost again. But he has always proven a major force in the Democratic Party, brings instant name recognition, and even starts out with $71,000 in the campaign bank after his November re-election effort.

"A lot of folks have spoken to me in the past couple of years about this, so I have informed the county chairman that I'm interested in participating as an unannounced candidate at the forum," he said.

Swarts' name continues to be mentioned as a candidate for motor vehicles commissioner in the new Spitzer administration. So anything could happen. But if he gets in, he'll be a player.

Marinelli says she will present herself to the gathering as a new generation of leadership in a clear effort to distinguish herself from the craggier and more familiar faces in the race. And she wants to move beyond the red budget and green budget controversies that have dogged Joel Giambra and his reign in the Rath Building.

"Anyone who goes forward as the county executive nominee had better be ready to articulate all the areas of need instead of kicking around the current occupant," she said. "That's so last year."

All of this will prove very touchy-feely on Tuesday, and the Democrats will pledge to each other their undying love and affection. And then, the traditional bitter and party-splitting affair will ensue, reopening all the old wounds that Lenihan has so successfully healed over the last four years.

At least, that's how the script always reads. Lenihan's aim is to write new lines.

He will reconvene the candidates in January, when things start getting really serious, this time before the Executive Committee in preparation for the party's endorsement.

"I would like to see us unite behind one candidate, but a primary is likely, or certainly possible," the chairman said. "But we want to make every deliberate attempt to make people feel good about the process.

"It won't be easy," he added. "We expect that there will be a battle royal this year to win control of County Hall."

***

Some of the best-known names of Republican Albany over the last 12 years are beginning to leave as the Pataki Era winds down. One of local note is Bill Flynn, the one-time top aide to former Attorney General Dennis Vacco who last week left as chairman of the Public Service Commission.

According to Crain's Insider, Flynn will head the energy and telecommunications operation of the Harris Beach law firm's Albany office.

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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