Back in 2013 and the days when Erie County Democrats rated nary a blip on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s political radar, an event at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo marked a new low for upstate New York’s largest Democratic organization.
Chairman Jeremy Zellner found himself mixing with the big ballroom commoners for a Cuomo fundraiser, while Democratic “grown-ups” hobnobbed with the governor in an adjoining inner sanctum.
Zellner, like predecessor Len Lenihan, was on the outs.
Maybe it’s something in the Cuomo DNA. The governor’s father – the late Gov. Mario Cuomo – once in the 1980s referred to former Erie County Democratic Chairman Joe Crangle as a “non-person.” Crangle’s alleged offense, which he denied, was criticizing Andrew Cuomo, then an aide to his father.
Lenihan, meanwhile, never gained Andrew Cuomo’s favor after siding with hometown candidate Denise O’Donnell for attorney general in 2006. Cuomo won that effort. Lenihan felt the aftermath, especially after Cuomo became governor in 2011 and his operation desperately – and unsuccessfully – tried to replace him at the Erie County helm.
So it’s more than significant that the governor will now highlight a Feb. 16 Chairman’s Council event for Zellner and his Erie County Democrats.
“It’s a strong statement that he supports Erie County Democrats,” Zellner said a few days ago, acknowledging a “first” for Cuomo.
All of this stems from an evolution. First, Kathy Hochul of Buffalo joined the governor’s team as lieutenant governor. She has always been close to Headquarters and wields real influence on the Capitol’s second floor.
Then Mayor Byron Brown entered the governor’s inner circle as state Democratic chairman. Though never close to Zellner, Brown recognized the basic truth that Cuomo will be better off with a supportive Erie County organization than without it. Buffalo Deputy Mayor Betsey Ball, long a part of Cuomo’s Albany insiders, has also played a role.
Sam Hoyt, the governor’s economic development honcho in Buffalo, is also known to offer his observations on the local political scene.
There’s more. The departure of indicted former Chairman Steve Pigeon, once close to Cuomo and Brown, paved the way for other voices. Ditto for the absence of former Cuomo aide Joe Percoco – now under indictment in the major statewide corruption probe.
“How’s your friend Jeremy Zellner?” Percoco once snarled to a reporter in the midst of the effort to oust Lenihan.
The Templeton Landing event on Feb. 16 also hints at the governor’s next steps. Many expect that he will run for a third term. But most observers also believe Cuomo is eyeing the White House, especially with Clinton’s exit from the scene.
That’s why it will prove interesting who Brown supports for chairman when the Democratic National Committee convenes in Atlanta on Feb. 23. Seven Democrats are competing, among them is former Labor Secretary Tom Perez of Buffalo.
A few days ago, Cuomo said he was staying out of the election for Democratic national chairman. But his state chairman – the mayor of Buffalo – will cast one of 447 votes in the contest. And it remains a sure bet that Cuomo’s hand-picked state chairman will be in sync with his governor.
Brown has not said how he will vote. But insiders indicate he is talking with Perez, a top-level candidate, whom it is hard to imagine is not wooing the mayor of his hometown. Gaining New York’s backing would prove huge for Perez, who last week picked up the key endorsement of former Vice President Joe Biden.
Sen. Chuck Schumer will also have a say in the process. As minority leader of the Senate, after all, he is now the nation’s top elected Democrat. He is backing Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison.
But Brown is Cuomo’s guy in the party. His vote will reflect the governor’s thinking in a party desperately seeking direction.
And the bet here is that Cuomo would not mind providing it.