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Brown returns to Buffalo City Hall with expanded domain

Mayor Byron W. Brown returns to his second-floor office in City Hall on Tuesday suddenly responsible for not only the City of Buffalo, but for New York State’s 5,268,431 Democrats, as well.

Following his Monday nomination at the New York Democratic Party’s executive committee meeting in Saratoga Springs, Brown is poised to be officially installed as state Democratic chairman when the party reconvenes in June. He inherits a strong and debt-free political organization firmly under the control of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, and that’s just fine with the new state chairman.

“The governor and I have a very solid relationship,” Brown said Monday en route back to Buffalo. “Equally important is that this is another opportunity for the governor to say that great things have happened in the City of Buffalo, and more are underway.”

Brown becomes the first Buffalonian since Joseph F. Crangle in 1974 to head the state party, and most observers think that nominating the city’s mayor as chairman only underscores the importance Cuomo assigns to his Western New York economic-development efforts. Although the Governor’s Office has been served with a subpoena and two of his closest advisers are under a federal prosector’s scrutiny in connection with his signature Buffalo Billion program, Cuomo strongly hinted in Sunday evening remarks to party officials in Saratoga Springs that his choice to lead the party stems from progress in the state’s second-largest city.

“He’s run a major city in our great state,” Cuomo said in remarks made available by his staff, “and it is one of the urban turnaround stories in this country.”

Brown steps into a new and far more political role just as Democrats are set to gather in Philadelphia two months from now to presumably nominate a New Yorker – Hillary Clinton – for the presidency. As chairman of her home-state party and as a newly named superdelegate, he is expected to gain widespread attention as a spokesman for the Clinton camp.

Indeed, local observers credit the mayor’s political operation with turning out enough Buffalo voters for Clinton to narrowly fend off a challenge from Sen. Bernie Sanders in Erie County during New York’s presidential primary last month.

“That same approach is what people want to see statewide,” Brown said. “We need to pull Democrats together and emerge from this primary united. This can help.”

Under a strong and hands-on Democratic governor like Cuomo, Brown is not expected to dominate his party’s efforts to the extent of an out-of-power state chairman such as New York Republican Edward F. Cox. But Brown is poised to articulate the kind of progressive political vision Cuomo outlined to party faithful Sunday.

The governor passionately told the Saratoga Springs gathering that New York Democrats initiated a higher minimum wage, stronger family leave policies, one of the nation’s strictest gun-control laws, a women’s-equality agenda, same-sex marriage, and an “economic justice” effort concentrating on upstate.

“I’m tired of upstate New York being second fiddle when it comes to the economy,” Cuomo said. “We saw more investment in the upstate economy than any other administration in the history of this state.”

Brown, meanwhile, said he did not seek the appointment but was approached by Cuomo insiders a few days ago. Once he determined that he could effectively run both the city and the party, he agreed. He believes that his own dedication to progressive ideals and Buffalo’s progress achieved through “collaboration” attracted the governor’s attention.

“This reinforces all the progressive values people think are important in New York,” the mayor said.

Former New York City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn, who in 2013 came in third in the Democratic primary against Cuomo nemesis Bill de Blasio in his successful race for mayor, will now occupy the party’s second spot as chairwoman of the executive committee.

Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner also finds himself in a new relationship with statewide Democrats as a result of the mayor’s elevation to state chairman. For more than a decade, Zellner and predecessor Leonard R. Lenihan were never close to the Cuomo political operation. Indeed, Cuomo’s team tried to oust Lenihan several years ago and virtually ignored Zellner until the governor’s re-election campaign in 2014.

Only in recent months have the Brown and Zellner political operations shown outward signs of unity, with the mayor noting Monday that his official nomination for the chairmanship at the meeting earlier that day was offered by the “great Erie County Democratic Party Chairman Jeremy Zellner.”

“Today’s situation with the mayor being nominated and me doing it says a lot,” Zellner said. “It’s clear the governor wants to work with the county party.”

Although Zellner failed on his own to be elected as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in the April primary, he returned from Saratoga Springs as an at-large appointment. Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, of Buffalo, and Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz received similar designations, while Bryan Ball of the Stonewall Democrats organization and Dunkirk Mayor Willie Rosas were named alternates.

Western New York will lose one presence in the statewide party, however, after James J. Eagan, of Colden, announced his resignation as secretary of the state party. Eagan had loudly criticized Zellner’s organization and a weaker-than-anticipated local vote for Clinton in the primary, and is supporting acting Erie County District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty Jr. in the election for district attorney this year over Zellner’s endorsed candidate, John J. Flynn Jr.

But Eagan said his departure is unrelated.

“I applaud Gov. Cuomo’s decision to support Mayor Byron Brown as party chair, as it provides the state party with strong leadership that capably represents the Western New York interests that I have been representing in my role as secretary,” Eagan said.