Leonard R. Lenihan leaves office soon after nine years as chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party. Following local Democratic tradition, those nine years have been fraught with petty squabbles, power plays and appalling nonsense perpetrated by some of the organization's biggest names. The Democratic Party nationally casts a big tent, so friction occurs in other party camps. But not to Erie County's degree. Years ago, party figures elsewhere dubbed this end of New York "Beirut on the Lake."
Lenihan was not a constant combatant. He did not look to pick fights. But state party leaders eased him out in a stab at peacemaking that yielded mixed results. More shuttle diplomacy has proven necessary.
Ordinarily, this page would bypass comment on intra-party strife because the ranks have ways to work out their differences. It's not that political parties are unimportant. They put the candidates in front of voters. But more worthy of comment is how politicians of any stripe perform for the general public once in office. The spats and personality clashes within the Erie County Democratic Party have become one long-standing public insult. The general public has been poorly served.
From a 5,000-foot view, the fact Democrats usually hold majorities on both the County Legislature and Buffalo Common Council, and that a Democrat occupies the mayor's office, would appear to give the incumbents nearly unfettered ability to implement policies that can further lift Greater Buffalo out of its doldrums. But Council Democrats are split into two camps. Similarly, County Legislature Democrats have been split for most of the past two years, giving a smaller Republican bloc more influence than their numbers should allow. The Legislature chases its tail, when not giving the county executive a rubber stamp.
The Democratic incumbents, if rowing in the same direction, could have shown the public the strength of their policies. What transformative programs can they implement? What consolidations might they employ, at least for the city and the first-ring suburbs facing common urban maladies? Instead, the Democrats have left a trail of petition challenges and nasty party primaries. Sadly, they are not competing over whose ideas will best serve the public good. They are out to show which politician is mightier. In short, they are fighting not over policy but over power for power's sake.
The state party's executive director, Charlie King, sought a truce by securing Lenihan's resignation and moving Sam Hoyt out of his state Assembly seat and into a non-elected state post. With his two adversaries out of the picture, Mayor Byron W. Brown can act as a statesman by seeking peace with the entire Council and working with members toward a better government. Instead, the mayor seems unlikely to break from his well-worn pattern: To decide his next move based on what's best for Byron Brown, not on what's best for Buffalo. Another party heavyweight, Rep. Brian Higgins, could strive to unite the forces. But the herd of South Buffalo Democrats has long considered itself the local party's wheelhouse. From our view, Higgins has yet to help.
The two-party system can serve the public by creating competition over the best approach to governing. In Erie County, with 134,000 more Democrats than Republicans, one party is freer to make its mark through the power of its ideas. Should those ideas fail, the voters would then supplant the incumbents with a new crop of candidates, from any party.
That's the way it could work.
Instead, the Democratic Party has delivered internal melodrama, lots of noise and the same old, same old. The current crop of Democratic office-holders should ask themselves, is that what drew them to politics? Or was their goal to make the community better?
If the latter, it's time to focus on that rather than on who swings the biggest club.