Erie County Democrats are expected to recommend former party Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan as the next Democratic elections commissioner, current Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner said Tuesday.
Lenihan, who turns 66 today, who was party chairman for 10 years before resigning in 2012, is a former Legislature chairman and county personnel commissioner who has a master’s degree in public administration. He looks to succeed a longtime ally – Dennis E. Ward – who in September gained a bipartisan nomination for State Supreme Court that virtually guarantees his election in November.
Several sources said the recommendation will be made to Erie County legislators Friday following a meeting of the party’s Executive Committee on Thursday evening. The final decision will be up to County Hall’s Democratic legislators, who normally follow the recommendation of the chairman, though it remains to be seen how the idea will fly in the divided party.
The recommendation is spearheaded by Zellner, a longtime Lenihan protégé who late Tuesday said he believes that the appointment will be supported in the Legislature and that the party organization is excited about the choice.
“He’s a solid organization person with years of service to county government and to the county party,” Zellner said.
Several other potential candidates have been mentioned in recent months, including Deputy Commissioner Arthur O. Eve Jr., son of former Deputy Assembly Speaker Arthur O. Eve; and attorney Michael J. Keane, son of the late Assemblyman Richard J. Keane, D-Buffalo.
The Buffalo News reported Oct. 14 that Ward gave Eve a raise from $79,115 to $93,101 annually on the afternoon before he received the cross-endorsement for judge. Ward explained the raise recognized that Eve would be acting commissioner until a permanent appointment was made, and said there was no quid pro quo for Eve’s support at the judicial nominating convention on the same day.
Zellner said last week that “it would be hard for me to walk away” from Eve for the commissioner’s post, since he is a veteran board employee who represents a significant bloc of the city’s Democratic organization. But now Zellner is backing his old boss for the $106,877 post.
Zellner said Eve indicated Tuesday that he wished to stay as deputy commissioner so he can continue coaching duties at SUNY Buffalo State, where he is involved in the basketball program, as well as head his Unity political club. “As deputy he can take time to go to his games because the commissioner is in charge,” Zellner said.
The move also raises questions about reaction within the organization of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. Lenihan never maintained close relations with the Cuomo forces, who attempted to oust him as county Democratic chairman in 2011.
Now Zellner has recommended an old Cuomo nemesis for the county’s top patronage post, even after the chairman recently worked to patch up old differences with Albany. Sources even reported the governor’s local operatives were busy working out of Democratic Headquarters while preparing for tonight’s gubernatorial debate in Buffalo.
Some questions already are being raised on the statewide front, especially by James J. Eagan of Colden, secretary of the state Democratic Committee controlled by Cuomo.
“Lenihan is a friend, and I believe he is a good and safe choice for the party; he’ll do a great job,” Eagan said late Tuesday. “However, it seems the party has difficulty bringing in new people with fresh ideas. I’m just not sure this is the spark our local party so desperately needs.”
Zellner said he does not believe the appointment causes any problem in the Cuomo camp. “I don’t think they care at all about this,” he said. “What’s in the past is in the past.”