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Lenihan endorsement of Keane expected to split Democrats

When Leonard R. Lenihan, chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party, paved the way Wednesday to name James P. Keane as his candidate for county executive, he didn't just kick off a major primary battle.

He also ignited an expected explosion within the party -- the most divisive feud since then-County Executive Dennis T. Gorski and then-County Clerk David J. Swarts split the Democrats in the 1995 county executive primary.

West Seneca Supervisor Paul T. Clark now will launch a well-financed effort against Keane, already sounding the same "anti-boss" theme that Gorski aimed at the endorsed Swarts a dozen years ago.

"I'm not surprised I didn't receive the endorsement," Clark said Wednesday. "I'm not an insider, and they're all insiders. I believe I'm too independent."

Still, Lenihan's move breaks a major logjam and already has produced a torrent of new developments:

* Keane, now retired after holding a number of public positions, called the endorsement a significant boost to his effort and predicted he will retake the office for the Democrats in November.

* Amherst Council Member Daniel J. Ward, the party's candidate in 2003, said he would drop his bid this year, fulfilling a promise to support the endorsed candidate.

* County Legislature Chairwoman Lynn M. Marinelli said she remains in the race but would meet Wednesday night with her supporters to plan her next move.

* Keane marked major progress toward snaring the endorsement of the Conservative Party, which is split between Keane and Clark. But the Conservative Party leaders now are thought to be significantly influenced by Lenihan's decision.

Still, Lenihan declined Wednesday to confirm his decision to back Keane, but he made it clear that he could not support Clark because Clark had backed Joel A. Giambra, a Republican, in the 2003 election for county executive.

Lenihan noted that Clark headed a Democrats for Giambra organization, that his brother -- Timothy M. Clark -- still works in the Giambra administration and that his research shows voters desire a break with an administration they view as failed.

"People want change in county government, and Paul is too close to Giambra to make that case," Lenihan said. "We looked high and low for one syllable of him being critical of Giambra's financial management, but [certified public accountant] Paul Clark couldn't come up with one thing."

Lenihan called Clark a "good man" and said he hoped any ensuing primary battle would not split the party.

"I would rather we go into this united, no question," Lenihan said. "But there does come a time when a primary is the only way to settle such a matter."

Lenihan's move culminates a long courtship with Keane that along the way featured a serious dalliance with County Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz. Throughout the search process, the chairman did not hide his preference for a "fresh face," with sources close to him indicating he felt both Keane and Clark brought too much "baggage" to the effort. Several sources cited that as the reason for his serious interest in Poloncarz.

But Poloncarz, who took office less than 16 months ago, said Monday he would not run because he felt an obligation to concentrate on his post as comptroller. His decision also followed what several knowledgeable sources said were Lenihan's unsuccessful efforts to persuade Clark or Keane -- or both -- to drop out and clear the way for Poloncarz.

Indeed, Clark said that even after Poloncarz withdrew, Lenihan discussed the possibility of the deputy county executive post in a Keane administration.

"It was mentioned as a possibility," Clark said. "All kinds of things were discussed.

"The insiders want to keep making deals and offering jobs," he added. "But the voters are sick of it, and I would not be a party to it."

Clark also noted he has already won the Independence Party line and will be on the November ballot no matter what the outcome of the Democratic primary in September.

Lenihan said only that he pointed out the irony that Keane became Gorski's deputy several years after losing to Gorski in the 1987 primary for county executive.

"It became part of the conversation of others with him, but not by me," Lenihan said.

Clark also noted that, while the chairman believed Clark might prevail over a Republican opponent in November, Lenihan felt Keane had the best chance to win the Democratic primary.

While he acknowledged that he eagerly sought the Democratic endorsement, Clark said his attacks on Lenihan and the process do not result from "sour grapes."

"I wanted independent leadership and not party bosses [making the decision,]" he said. "I hoped they would embrace an outsider like myself."

Lenihan, however, pointed out that Clark has eagerly sought the party nod, contributing thousands of dollars to headquarters and "calling every other day for six months."

Marinelli, meanwhile, still sounded like a candidate Wednesday, noting she never was confident about winning over "the back room boys."

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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