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Robert McCarthy: Conservatives at odds with one-time allies

In most states, it’s hard to get fired up over the fortunes of a minor political party like the Conservatives.

Erie County Chairman Ralph Lorigo’s Conservative squad counts only 13,173 soldiers, after all, hardly a threat to the massive armies commanded by the Democrats and Republicans.

But this is New York – one of the few states that allows Democrats and Republicans to also gain the Conservative nod without belonging to the minor party.

So in many cases the tiny Conservative Party provides the difference in an election, wielding political influence far beyond its small registration. Influential kingmakers. The tail that wags the dog.

But a realignment may be under way in Erie County. In the late summer of 2017, few Democrats are welcome at Conservative Headquarters as Lorigo trades barbs with his Democratic counterpart – Jeremy Zellner.

“The relationship between our two parties has never been at a lower point,” Lorigo said a few days ago.

On this, at least, Zellner agrees.

“Democrats are tired of a party run to pad the pockets of Ralph Lorigo and his son, Joe,” Zellner said, referring to Legislature Majority Leader Joe Lorigo.

Lorigo takes umbrage at what he calls Zellner's "personal attack."

Since the Conservative Party’s founding in 1962, its local members have latched on to Democrats as well as Republicans, even though Democrats are usually perceived as more liberal.

Think longtime Democratic legislators like State Sen. Bill Stachowski or Assemblymen Dick Keane and Paul Tokasz. Current Democrats like Assemblymen Robin Schimminger and Mickey Kearns still brandish a “C” behind their names, often to counter the perpetual GOP effort linking upstate Democrats to those crafty legislative chieftains from big, bad New York City.

Indeed, former Democratic County Executive Dennis Gorski may have institutionalized the partnership 30 years ago when he won the first of three terms on the Democratic and Conservative lines. The late Conservative Chairman Billy Delmont even landed on the 16th floor inner sanctum of the Rath County Office Building as a top Gorski assistant.

But now Lorigo is fuming over this year’s petitioning process. He claims Democratic operatives misrepresented themselves as Conservatives while carrying petitions for the Conservative opponent of Kearns – an official pariah at Democratic Headquarters after the Democratic assemblyman accepted the GOP line in his run for county clerk.

“They have a hatred for Mickey,” Lorigo said. “It’s personal on Jeremy’s part.”

Ideology is also at work here, according to the Conservative chairman. He says Erie County’s blue-collar, ethnic voters remain fundamentally conservative. The GOP controls three countywide offices, he points out, as well as the County Legislature. Under Zellner and Democratic County Executive Mark Poloncarz, Lorigo says, the party continues its leftward drift.

“And in a 2-to-1 Democratic county, they’re losing,” he said.

Zellner says Lorigo’s main aim is to promote his son, Joe, and be “kingmaker for judges he appears in front of.” And he says things have changed. Assemblywoman Monica Wallace won last year in Cheektowaga/Lancaster, long viewed as a stronghold of the ethnic, blue-collar, conservative voters cited by Lorigo.

“We’re fielding strong candidates who don’t have to bend their knee to Ralph Lorigo,” he said, also citing the victory of Democratic District Attorney John Flynn last year without the Conservative line.

Erie County politics has evolved since the Gorski days. Maybe that’s what makes it so interesting to watch.

• Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, left Buffalo Wednesday with about $70,000 in campaign funds gleaned from a Saturn Club fundraiser run by local Republicans.

• If you see George Borrelli, longtime author of this column and retired political reporter for The Buffalo News, congratulate him on the 90th birthday he celebrated Thursday. He might even offer his latest take on politics, of which he remains a devoted student.

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