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Erie County Democrats mystified by leaders’ choice of candidates

If you listened close enough a few days ago, some say you could almost hear the groan of disappointment from Erie County Democratic Headquarters on Seneca Street.

Republican opponents of Kevin P. Gaughan had just revealed that the Democratic comptroller candidate owes the federal government at least $5,000 in back taxes – not exactly what party leaders wanted to hear about the man seeking to supervise Erie County’s $1.4 billion budget.

Some say the groan sounded a lot like the one overheard in headquarters in April, just after party leaders endorsed Bert D. Dunn for sheriff. That’s when text messages Dunn had sent to a friend showed the candidate – appealing for votes in a Democratic primary – had expressed his disdain for President Obama and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

The groan grew even louder when more documents disclosed Dunn registered first as a Republican, then Democrat, then Republican, then Democrat.

And the groan reached a downright crescendo on Sept. 10, when the endorsed Dunn lost to primary challenger Richard E. Dobson by a mere 700 votes.

Now Democrats throughout Erie County seem to be asking the same question about their leaders’ choices: What were they thinking?

At a time when upstate’s largest concentration of Democrats once again finds itself mired in internal warfare, the party limps toward November wounded by disagreements over how to challenge the GOP – especially in the countywide efforts against Republican incumbents for sheriff and comptroller.

“We Democrats have a huge enrollment advantage, but are in a bad spot in both countywide races,” said Marc C. Panepinto, a Buffalo attorney and party activist who competed for chairman last year. “There’s a level of frustration out there.”

Rookie Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner feels the criticism is unfair. He says he knew all about the Dunn text messages and Gaughan tax problems, and backed the two candidates anyway.

He said Gaughan was open about several instances of financial difficulties and never tried to hide anything, while bringing to the campaign stellar name recognition and a reputation for promoting good government.

Party leaders also were aware of Dunn’s text messages.

“We still don’t believe that text message thing was a big problem,” he said. “It was blown way out of proportion.”

And while Republican strategists are now expected to churn out campaign ads jumping all over Gaughan’s tax difficulties as he faces Republican incumbent Stefan I. Mychajliw, Zellner still believes voters will embrace Gaughan over what he called his opponent’s inexperience.

“People who run for office nowadays are people who want to serve,” he said, “and Kevin wants to serve.”

But not everyone is so forgiving.

Longtime opponents of the current party leadership like former Chairman G. Steven Pigeon blame Zellner for his inability to unite the party.

Though Pigeon acknowledged he was instrumental in raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for efforts against Zellner-backed candidates this primary season, he says the new chairman has brought the situation upon himself by failing to reach out to opponents.

“You continue to offer flawed candidates when your No. 1 priority is failing to heal rifts,” he said. “A lot of good candidates don’t want to be part of a party that’s not unified.”

Pigeon pointed to 2012 county comptroller candidate David J. Schenk, whom he called a “good guy” but whose candidacy was insisted upon by Zellner and County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz. He was soundly defeated by Mychajliw, a former television reporter with little financial experience.

And while he has forged close relationships in the past with Gaughan, Pigeon said the job of weeding out candidates with flaws should fall upon the chairman.

That proved especially true, he said, because Zellner was responsible for finding a substitute after the original candidate – Lynn M. Szalkowski – withdrew after being officially nominated.

“It probably wasn’t the best office for him to run for, given his background,” Pigeon said of Gaughan. “If he had asked me, I would have said this is not a good fit.”

Republican sources, meanwhile, feel the Democratic difficulties have strengthened Mychajliw and incumbent Sheriff Timothy B. Howard.

After Dunn last week announced he would continue his candidacy on a minor party line called Law and Order, the GOP and even many Democrats feel the presence of two Democrats, Dunn and Dobson, on the November ballot will only split the Democratic vote.

Now some embittered Democrats feel Zellner was attracted to Dunn’s ability to self-finance his campaign, even while carrying the text message baggage into the effort.

Others say that while Mychajliw lacks credentials, the Republican has made it clear in recent days that he at least owes no back taxes.

Now the GOP appears ready to hammer home their message about Gaughan.

“After repeatedly failing to pay his taxes in full and on time, Kevin Gaughan needs to explain to county taxpayers why they should trust him now to manage their checkbook when he can’t manage his own,” said Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy.

Zone 4 Democratic Chairman Gregory B. Olma is part of the “I told you so” chorus this week after helping to lead opposition to Gaughan’s nomination in July. He says that Zellner should listen to some of the party’s old hands.

“No one with any experience is ever consulted,” he said. “The whole Gaughan thing could have been vetted better.”

Panepinto, meanwhile, said Zellner should not shoulder all of the blame. He noted that he originally recruited Szalkowski – an ethnic, female candidate and certified public accountant – only to have her unexpectedly withdraw.

“She left Jeremy in a lurch,” he said. “So in that situation, picking Kevin Gaughan – even with all his warts – was good as it brought a Democrat with name recognition to match Stefan Mychajliw’s. He made the best of a bad situation.

“People are not laying this at Jeremy’s feet,” he said, “but clearly, when you’re the new chairman of the party, you have to bear some of the responsibility.”