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For Dems, the brawl begins

It seems just like old times.

After five years of peace in the valley of Erie County Democrats, they're back to fighting and screaming and clawing at each other.

All is right with the world.

This return to normalcy stems from Chairman Len Lenihan's decision late last week to back Jim Keane for county executive. And no matter whom Lenihan tapped for the party endorsement, the same fighting and screaming and clawing would have resulted.

For Lenihan, the sudden enthusiasm for his choice is remarkable. He toiled for weeks to discover a "fresh face," someone other than Keane or West Seneca Supervisor Paul Clark. He viewed both as flawed candidates with records that would fuel a fire of negative broadcast commercials.

But County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz recognized that all of Lenihan's encouragement was worthless in the face of the chairman's inability to persuade either Clark or Keane to leave the contest. After all, this was his career they were talking about.

Lenihan may have been right. His polling constantly told him that. But the chairman who was "everybody's second choice" when elected in 2002 was not strong enough to dictate his wishes.

Not strong enough to defy Mayor Byron Brown and Congressman Brian Higgins who were big time Keane guys. Keane knew he had enough strength to refuse any request to back off.

Not strong enough to defy a host of town and zone chairmen who have signed on to Clark and who will not fall in line with the Keane endorsement. And Clark knew he had enough money and support to make the case.

And he wasn't strong enough to summon the forces of Gov. Eliot Spitzer to clear the field of either Keane or Clark. Those folks didn't care about riling up Brown and Higgins either.

The only political figure with whom Lenihan did flex his political muscles was Independence Chairman Tony Orsini, who thought he would control the process by going early with Clark. If Lenihan followed, most observers thought the Conservatives and Working Families parties would too. And four lines against either Chris Collins or Bill O'Loughlin on the GOP line -- in heavily Democratic Erie County -- would have proven hard to beat.

But the fight is now on, and it would have happened no matter which way Lenihan turned. There might be $1 million spent in the primary, and the Dems will be bruised, battered and penniless when it's over.

Sure, the GOP might have a Collins vs. O'Loughlin donnybrook too. But if they do, the bet here is that the winner will emerge energized, with new name recognition and the potential to tap impressed Republican donors.

Many political observers are convinced that Lenihan's enthusiasm for someone other than Keane will come back to bite him should the former deputy county executive prevail. They say he will remember that Lenihan waited a long time to climb on the Keane bandwagon -- as he did in last year's mayoral election -- while major Democratic figures like Brown and Higgins were there all along.

But Keane could not be more emphatic about his feelings for the chairman. He said he thought it was important for Lenihan to explore every avenue and investigate every possible scenario.

"I think the world of him as a human being and leader of this party, and I think the feeling is mutual," Keane said.

So now Lenihan embarks on a great adventure, down a path that will determine whether he ultimately succeeds or fails in the vaunted post of chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party. He's made his choice, he'll now have to fight to defend it, and for a Democrat in Erie County, a good fight isn't such a bad thing.

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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