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Delmont death marks end of political era

Every Saturday morning at a cafe called Daisies in downtown Lackawanna, the line formed.

Politicians and politician wannabes recognized the trip to Daisies as a required pilgrimage. It was here that William A. "Billy" Delmont held court each weekend -- the place where countless political fortunes were determined by the diminutive power broker.

Some sought his blessing for town councilman or village trustee. Others recognized the influence of his tiny but powerful Conservative Party in races for county or state legislature. Still others -- even those aspiring to governor or U.S. senator -- simply sought advice from the veteran of Erie County's rough-and-tumble politics.

Delmont's death Saturday at 81, say a host of Republicans and Democrats who dealt with him, marks the end of an era in Erie County. The pols may still make their way to Daisies on Saturdays, they say, but Delmont's influence and his style as urban political boss are not likely to be seen again.

"People went to him for advice whether they were applying for the Conservative Party endorsement or not," said former County Executive Dennis T. Gorski. "He was part of a breed leaving the political scene. Indeed, he was one of the great pillars that go back to the '40s that will be missed."

After more than half a century of political involvement, first as a rare Lackawanna Republican and then as a Conservative, Delmont accumulated his share of friends and critics.

Some cited his appointment as Gorski's senior executive assistant as a reward for the crucial Conservative endorsement in 1991. Others noted that his Lackawanna Front Page weekly newspaper earned him significant income as the official county newspaper.

His post on the board of trustees of Erie Community College, some said, stemmed from George E. Pataki's 1994 gubernatorial victory on the strength of the Conservative line. Still others railed over the disproportionate influence his Conservatives wielded -- the minor party tail wagging the major party dogs.

In one instance, Delmont's enemies turned violent. He was beaten up by three men in front of his Lackawanna home in 1987 in a case that he said "smacks of politics" but that still is shrouded by mystery.

Nobody disputed that Delmont served as the face of the party for generations, or that his nod could make or break a political career.

"Billy was a master politician, not only as chairman or in public office, but through his entire life," said former Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, a onetime Erie County Republican chairman who was sometimes an ally, sometimes a foe.

"This all didn't happen 30 years ago," he said, adding: "He did it in the last election."

Reynolds explained that during his days in Congress, colleagues from around the country were often puzzled by Conservative power in New York -- where "fusion" voting allows for members of major parties to run on a minor-party line without being an official member.

"But that made the difference in the election of George Pataki as governor or Dennis Vacco as attorney general, or could help Dennis Gorski as county executive," Reynolds said. "Everybody wanted to court them unless they had a philosophical aversion to the Conservative line. And those pols were few and far between."

Raymond F. Gallagher, the former state senator and Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority chairman who was a close Delmont friend, said the Conservative honcho belied the image of an old-time political boss. All kinds of politicians -- even those with no hope of the party line -- would often simply seek Delmont's counsel, he said.

His reign, Gallagher added, was far from dictatorial. "His political sense was basically nonconfrontational," he said. "He would try to work things out, because people against him in an election could be with him in the next. He always left open the door in a relationship."

But Gallagher added that Delmont, a former Lackawanna High School quarterback despite his small stature, achieved his share of successes because he throughly grasped both the art and science of politics. Even in his last days, as a plethora of illnesses overtook him, Delmont could dissect victories and defeats by analyzing election results district by district -- who voted for whom and how their aunts, uncles and parents voted, too, he said.

"He did so many things people never saw, but you saw the results on Election Day," Gallagher said. "And he knew who the good guys were too."

Ralph C. Lorigo, chairman of the Erie County Conservative Party for the last 17 years, said he has never run away from the fact that he and Delmont controlled the party together. He called him a "father figure" to him and many others, who preferred the backstage while Lorigo made the official pronouncements.

"Billy was the kind of guy who thought everything could be resolved if people had respect for each other -- by conversations," he said. "It's going to be different now."