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Robert McCarthy: Peace envelops Erie County Democrats

There was a time not long ago when political transition automatically sparked civil war among Erie County Democrats.

But when Democratic Elections Commissioner Len Lenihan revealed on Monday he would end his 40-year run in politics, the story was relegated to a back page of The Buffalo News. Ditto for the companion announcement that Democratic Chairman Jeremy Zellner would succeed him.

Democrats are at peace. Big patronage job. Politics as usual. Back-page stuff. Ho hum.

But it was still significant. Just as when he left Democratic Headquarters in 2012, Lenihan passed the mantle to Zellner. This time, Lenihan left the county’s top patronage post and its $117,000 salary to his longtime protege, as well as the continuing chairmanship of the party.

Nary a peep of opposition greeted the power consolidation. Few raised questions about Zellner’s new ability to rule on petitions filed by challengers to Headquarters candidates. And nobody complained that Zellner can remain at the Board of Elections as long as he wants, since the commissioner basically serves at the pleasure of the chairman.

That’s because the commissioner is the chairman.

Reaction in the political community was also muted. Republican Chairman Nick Langworthy declined to comment. Even the scarce voices of opposition in Democrat Land were lying low. Where is Steve Pigeon when you need him?

Only Republican Legislature Chairman John Mills, whose body must approve the Zellner appointment, offered any reaction.

“To me, it stinks,” he said. “It’s really inappropriate because you’ve got the party chairman ruling on who makes the ballot. It’s an inherent conflict of interest.

“It’s going to be really tough to stomach this one,” he added.

Zellner is ready for the barbs coming his way. He points out that dual commissioner/chairman roles are common throughout New York. He added that unity among Erie County Dems allows him to perform both jobs.

Zellner sees no inherent conflict between the two positions.

“I will take an oath to uphold the office,” he said, “and in that job there will be time for politics and time for being board commissioner.”

That argument will probably carry the day. The Legislature has always honored the wishes of the opposing party on such matters, even for its minority Democrats.

“It will probably fly because of the past agreements we’ve had,” Mills said. “Who knows? Maybe we’ll break precedent.

“But we’re going to dig into it,” he added. “With everything going on in Albany, the average resident will say this is business as usual.”

And that’s why real opposition is not expected. The day will come when the GOP may want the same arrangement, just as in the late 1960s when GOP Chairman Ray Lawley held both posts.

In Erie County, it’s business as usual.

• • •

• After all those years of gathering at Daisies in Lackawanna, the Saturday breakfast confab founded by the late Conservative Chairman Billy Delmont is still going strong even after moving to Christe’s in West Seneca. That’s why Republican Harry Wilson – the Westchester investor seriously exploring a GOP challenge to Gov. Andrew Cuomo next year – dropped by during his western swing last weekend.

Ditto for Joanna Pasceri, the former Channel 7 anchorwoman and current spokeswoman for the district attorney, a possible county clerk candidate this fall. She is a registered Conservative who might run with the GOP, and who is not saying much at this early date.

But she wasn’t at Christe’s for the corned beef hash.

• Acea Mosey, the Democrat who has wrapped up her own party plus Republican and Conservative backing for surrogate judge this year, has almost certainly scared off any challengers. Her Feb. 9 fundraiser at Kleinhans drew about 1,000 people and brings her campaign kitty to around $400,000, in possibly the most successful local event ever for a judicial candidate.

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