Niagara County Republican Chairman Henry Wojtaszek has always been a familiar sight around his native North Tonawanda. In recent days, he's also become a regular in neighborhoods all over New York State.
That's because Wojtaszek is charging hard in his effort to become state Republican chairman. Last week he debated rival Ed Cox in Manhattan, and then headed to the fringes of the Adirondacks to woo Fulton County Republicans at their summer picnic.
And after former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani picked up the phone on his behalf a few days ago (joined by close associates of former Gov. George Pataki), Wojtaszek's bid gained some serious stature.
But after all his travels around the beautiful Empire State, Wojtaszek might look to his own back yard. By all accounts, the so-far uncommitted chairman of the Erie County GOP -- Jim Domagalski -- may hold the key to the Cox-Wojtaszek faceoff.
"The linchpin is Domagalski," one top statewide Republican said last week.
At 44 and after only three years as Erie GOP chief, Domagalski has earned the right to be a key player. He proved a major factor in the election of Republican Chris Collins as county executive in overwhelmingly Democratic Erie County. And his now famous "process" successfully navigated through a horde of congressional wannabes following Congressman Tom Reynolds' retirement. That process ended up sending his guy -- Chris Lee -- to the House of Representatives.
Still, Domagalski finds himself in a tight spot this week. Wojtaszek is a longtime friend and ally, but complicating the situation is Collins' support of Cox (a Manhattan attorney and son-in-law of the late President Richard Nixon).
Collins, you see, is running for governor. He is betting that if Giuliani opts out, the party will turn to him. So the Collins camp has thrown in with Cox, with the idea that an upstater running for governor fares best with the support of a Manhattan-based chairman.
In the meantime, Domagalski watches and waits. He insists he feels no pressure, and that he will let his committee members select a successor to retiring Chairman Joe Mondello of Nassau County.
"I think Henry would be an excellent state chairman, and I think Ed Cox would be an excellent state chairman," he said a few days ago.
Some say that if the battle between Cox and Wojtaszek gets too pitched, or if a stalemate develops, the party might turn to Domagalski. Domagalski doesn't really care to be state chairman, but some savvy party soothsayers say the stars, moons and planets just might align that way.
Still, the fact that Domagalski has not joined most other Western New York chairmen in support of Wojtaszek is more than obvious around the state. And the reality is that Cox claims about 60 percent of the weighted vote (the Onondaga County GOP joined him on Thursday).
All of this does not mean the Wojtaszek bid is over. It does mean that Wojtaszek needs to gain some major defections.
"Some of the Cox people have to break those commitments in order to make this a long-term deal into September," one top Wojtaszek backer said last week. "Something has got to pop in the next few days."
Wojtaszek keeps working at achieving exactly that. Whether Giuliani continues his efforts or whether he simply "fulfilled the obligation" with last week's calls remains to be seen.
But the former mayor of New York has yet to call Domagalski.
Giuliani might want reacquaint himself with the 716 area code and give him a call. As the Erie County chairman bides his time, his stature as a key to charting the future course of the state GOP only grows.