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Democratic battle lines forming

Cheektowaga Democratic Chairman Frank Max was slated to host about 550 of his closest friends at the Creekside Banquet Facility Saturday for his annual fund-raising breakfast, and tops on his agenda was the endorsement of Mayor Byron Brown for re-election.

What possible interest would Cheektowaga Dems have in Buffalo politics?

Plenty. That's because Max, who lost last fall's election for Erie County Democratic chairman to Jeremy Zellner, is making it quite clear he will again seek the post in 2014.

In fact, you might consider Saturday's event in Cheektowaga the unofficial launch of a Max-led “shadow party” in Erie County.

“I hope Jeremy doesn't get the furniture dirty up there [in Democratic Headquarters] because I'll be sitting in that chair next year,” Max said last week.

That's how it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be in Erie County Democratic politics. Different factions will claim their own loyalties and chaos will reign, even when emissaries dispatched from Albany try to impose order on those unruly Erie County types.

Since his defeat last fall, Max has worked hard to wield influence by uniting Brown's city forces with some suburban leaders. With the Brown endorsement on Saturday, he makes it clear that those seeking countywide office must not only seek the nod of Headquarters but of his organization, too.

Even Zellner recognizes that fact, even if he doesn't like it.

“There have always been factions here,” he said. “But I won't stand for other people saying they are the party. I don't know how much credence people will give to that.”

Already battle lines are forming. Zellner and Co. are lining up behind Bert Dunn for sheriff and incumbent Legislator Tom Mazur of Cheektowaga. Max will back Dick Dobson for sheriff and former Cheektowaga Councilman Rick Zydel for the Legislature.

But how each faction handles Brown's candidacy for re-election will provide real insight into how Democratic politics functions around here. While Max's Cheektowaga Dems should theoretically have no say in a city election, the mere fact that they are now backing the mayor points to their evolution into something more than a town committee.

“We're willing to help him,” Max said, adding that while he hopes Zellner will also endorse Brown, it should have already been done.

The new chairman, meanwhile, is working hard to establish party authority by opening new digs in Larkinville and raising money. All this as the political forces of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ignore his existence, and Brown's types shrug their shoulders and say they'll soldier on with or without the party.

Zellner offers his own take on the Max Factor. He blames it all on former chairman Steve Pigeon, the way lots of Democrats have for lots of years. Longtime Pigeon associate Jack O'Donnell doesn't escape his blame either.

“He's aligned himself with Pigeon and O'Donnell and those crazy people,” he said. “They've never been successful at running an insurgency and they never will.”

Zellner still says he is willing to back Brown and devote party resources to him, but he also expects City Hall to support his endorsed candidates in return. The Brown and Zellner camps remain in communication, though it appears not lately.

Now it remains to be seen whether the mayor will buy into the Zellner program that might mean backing candidates near and dear to Max.

“He has not contacted my office about an endorsement,” Zellner said. “But I don't think it's too much to ask the mayor to work with the party if we endorse him. I'm not going out of my way to support a guy if he's not even interested in asking for it.”

When former Comptroller Carl McCall used to visit Buffalo, he would always joke he never knew where to set foot lest he set off a land mine. It appears nothing has changed.