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Rift widens as Erie County Democrats prepare to choose a new leader

One of two remaining candidates for Erie County Democratic chairman says he can't trust party officials to count votes and is importing Syracuse Mayor Stephanie A. Miner to supervise committee members gathering today for their bi-annual reorganization meeting.
That's the extent of the division in the local party as Frank C. Max Jr. and Jeremy J. Zellner square off for the party chairmanship during the 10 a.m. meeting in the Hearthstone Manor in Depew. After attorney Marc C. Panepinto withdrew his candidacy Friday, a showdown was brewing between outgoing Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan and Max, with Max and his supporters claiming only Miner - co-chairwoman of the state party - could be trusted to count the votes for Erie County party chairman.
Lenihan, meanwhile, said Miner will be welcomed but that his organization can count its own votes.
"We've been running the party for 10 years, and I think we can do it one more morning," Lenihan said Friday, adding that he has received no communication from the state committee about any representative attending the meeting.
Miner was reported to be on her way to Depew, however, after Max appealed to the state party leadership to supervise the vote count.
"We ask the New York State Democratic Committee to intervene and dispatch either [Chairwoman] Miner or Chairman [Keith L.T.] Wright to oversee the meeting," Max said in a letter to the state co-chairmen. "Only through such oversight will the integrity of this meeting be ensured."
He was joined by James J. Eagan, a party fundraiser who was also a candidate for chairman until withdrawing a few days ago.
"We need transparency in the vote count, and the state party is the most neutral in the process," he said, charging that party secretary Dennis E. Ward [also Erie County Democratic elections commissioner] can't be trusted "with his job on the line."
But while Lenihan says any representative of the state party will be welcomed and seated at the head table, he called the potential for any official role for Miner "highly unlikely."
"I view it as a typical day before election trial balloon," he said.
Sources throughout the party reported that Max and Zellner factions were working furiously Friday to cement their support, with both sides claiming to have enough votes to prevail. Both sides were also working to snare the backing of Tonawanda Town Chairman John J. Crangle, a respected suburban leader backed by significant votes and thought to be a key figure in the process. Crangle did not return phone calls for comment Friday.
Ward was also looming as a central player in the saga, especially regarding his future as elections commissioner. Several factions were seeking his ouster from one of Erie County's top patronage posts, even though he controls the county's largest concentration of Democrats in the Town of Amherst.
Indeed, Max complained in his letter to the state co-chairmen about Ward's control of the Amherst bloc.
"Ward ... has unfairly and intentionally manipulated the redistricting process in order to gain an unfair proportional vote that he controls," Max said.
Ward was unavailable for comment Friday.
Rodney S. Capel, executive director of the state Democratic Party, said in a statement provided to local party officials late Friday that Miner will oversee the meeting.
"We are open to help with this process in any way we can," he told The Buffalo News earlier, adding that even a state official's "presence" at the meeting could help allay any concerns over the process.
Meanwhile, Lenihan said Panepinto had informed him earlier Friday that he was withdrawing from the contest, setting up a Zellner vs. Max showdown. Though no one has addressed the race officially, several sources report that County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz favors Zellner, the chief of staff of the County Legislature and a former executive director of the local party under Lenihan.
Lt. Gov. Robert J. Duffy, meanwhile, has been reported as lobbying heavily for Max.
Lenihan leaves after a decade in party headquarters. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's political operatives sought his replacement in an effort to impose unity on the usually fractious local party.