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Lenihan wraps up Democratic business; Departing chairman reflects on 9-year term

Leonard R. Lenihan is spending his last days as Erie County Democratic chairman still answering phones and receiving a stream of party regulars, even as he packs away all the Kennedy posters and celebrity photos adorning headquarters in Ellicott Square.

After nine years leading upstate New York's biggest Democratic organization, Lenihan will resign sometime in the next few days after lingering party affairs are settled. With more than a year left on his term, an early exit never figured into the plan.

But Lenihan, 62, has played the political game long enough to know his shelf life has elapsed. With strong hints from statewide Democrats close to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo that his services are no longer required, Lenihan is quietly slipping out the door.

But as if as a reminder to those behind his ouster, he is staying around long enough to crow about some things.

"The two times that anyone announced they would challenge me, they never even showed up at the meeting," he said. "If I chose to stay, I would be re-elected."

Still, Lenihan has presided over a largely divided party -- much like many of his predecessors. Statewide Democrats have long complained that visiting Erie County required several stops: Lenihan's headquarters, City Hall for the faction headed by Mayor Byron W. Brown and another for Rep. Brian Higgins' political group.

Lenihan said that he recognizes the awkwardness of the situation and that Cuomo rightly seeks a united party in a crucial county.

"Cuomo came in and threw out the possibility of a new day," Lenihan said, acknowledging that his departure could help heal part of the rift.

"That's just the way it goes; it's not a horrible thing," he added. "The governor is the new general manager, and he wants a new coach."

After a long career as county legislator, Legislature chairman and county personnel commissioner, Lenihan bruised his way into the chairmanship in 2002 after fending off several high-profile opponents. Immediately, he was dubbed "everybody's second choice."

He recalls entering headquarters following the departure of predecessor G. Steven Pigeon to find only empty file cabinets and unpaid bills totaling $250,000. But he said he set about building a party apparatus that concentrated on service to candidates and constituents.

It all led to what he considers meaningful accomplishments:

*Three Democrats now representing Erie County in Congress.

*A Democratic super-majority in the County Legislature in 2005 and 2007.

*Mark C. Poloncarz's election as first Democratic county comptroller since 1974.

*Victories in 11 of 13 State Supreme Court contests after a long string of GOP successes.

He also pointed to successful hosting of special events like the 2006 state convention and rallies for presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004 and former President Bill Clinton in 2005.

But while Lenihan claims credit for the super-majority in the Legislature and for initially backing Brown in 2005, his success has proved far from permanent. A legislative majority friendly to Republican County Executive Chris Collins now rules County Hall, and Lenihan's deep and irreparable split with the mayor is part of the reason statewide Democrats sought his departure in the first place.

Others emphasize a lack of patronage that traditionally served as the chairman's power base, extending even to the Erie County Water Authority, where Lenihan's influence has also waned.

That doesn't seem to bother the outgoing chairman.

"For us it was [spend] more time on service and electing Democrats, less time on spin and patronage," he said. "If the emphasis is strictly on patronage and control, that's not the culture that's going to survive in this day and age."

While the chairman exits in the wake of the unification efforts of Charlie King, executive director of the state Democratic Party, some of the goals sought in that process remain elusive. Party sources say they fully expected an interim appointment for Legislator Maria R. Whyte as county clerk as she seeks the post on the Democratic line this November -- but that has yet to happen.

Brown continues his own political operation, ignoring Poloncarz's campaign for county executive -- a top county and statewide goal. Lenihan, meanwhile, ducks any talk about the state party post he said he was offered when he announced his resignation in June.

Indeed, the uncertainity surrounding his departure -- including the upcoming election to succeed him between Tonawanda Town Chairman John J. Crangle and Cheektowaga Chairman Frank C. Max Jr. -- caused some Democrats to recently ask Lenihan to remain at the party helm.

After two hip replacement operations plus heart bypass surgery during his tenure, the chairman said his health and political reality helped him make up his mind.

"I listened, but in the end, I had the same feeling," he said. "If the governor is willing to put the prestige of his office on the line to help bring unity to the Erie County Democratic Party, who am I to stand in the way?"

Lenihan says he may be involved in consulting in the future and has found gratification in appreciation expressed to him by Democrats like former Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III of Massachusetts. And he remains true to the Democratic politics enunciated by John F. Kennedy when middle schooler Lenihan heard him in Memorial Auditorium in 1960.

He leaves, he said, with gratitude and the satisfaction he has been "faithful to the mission."

"To go from welcoming JFK to Buffalo when I was 11 years old to [becoming] chairman of this party is humbling," he said, "and something I never imagined would happen in my wildest dreams."

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com