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Burke emerging as Democratic candidate for Kearns' Assembly seat

Erie County Legislator Patrick B. Burke is emerging as front-runner among four Democrats scrambling to succeed newly elected County Clerk Michael P. Kearns in the State Assembly.

County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner this week would not bestow his all-important blessing on any of those seeking the Kearns seat. But his praise for Burke seemed to reflect general sentiment among party leaders in the heavily Democratic 142nd District.

“I’m very impressed with Pat Burke, and I really like his independent streak in the Legislature,” Zellner said.

Burke is facing strong opponents in South Council Member Christopher P. Scanlon, Lackawanna Mayor Geoffrey M. Szymanski and Buffalo teacher Erik T. Bohen for a special election which the office of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo says will be addressed early in the new year.

At stake are two Senate and five Assembly vacancies.

“We will be calling special elections for these soon-to-be open Senate and Assembly seats, the timing of which will be determined in January when the seats become vacant,” Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi said.

Zellner’s role in the nomination looms as critical because party leaders nominate candidates in special elections like the one planned for the Kearns seat. While Burke could become the Democratic candidate in a special election expected this spring, he could still face challenges from other Democrats in a September primary and then a Republican-backed candidate in the November general election.

While Zellner’s support is viewed as crucial in the special election, so is his opposition. And he makes it clear he is not interested in Bohen.

“I’m not sure Erik Bohen is getting a great reception,” he said, citing the candidate’s past support for 2010 Republican gubernatorial nominee Carl P. Paladino and Legislator Lynne M. Dixon, an Independence member who caucuses with the GOP.

“That’s a real issue,” Zellner continued, adding he even sees powerful teacher unions opposing Bohen, a teacher, because of his past support for Paladino, a former member of the Buffalo Board of Education who was at odds with teacher unions.

Bohen, son of Ironworkers Local 6 Business Agent William Bohen, said he nevertheless expects his considerable labor connections to help secure the nomination. But he acknowledged he has not received a positive response from Zellner.

That leads to the possibility of the type of “hybrid” candidacy that elected Democrat Kearns on the Republican and Conservative lines in a 2012 special election. Democratic leaders that year nominated Christopher J. Fahey to a vacancy created by the election of former Assemblyman Mark J.F. Schroeder as Buffalo comptroller. However, Kearns prevailed in the March election.

“Would I be open to other lines? Absolutely. But as a Democrat,” Bohen said. “I was brought up with Irish Catholic Democrat values and those remain my values.”

He also said he would caucus with Assembly Democrats if elected on other lines.

Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy, who engineered the Kearns victory in 2012, said he has not yet addressed his party’s role in the 2018 special election. Conservative Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo did not commit to supporting Bohen, but noted a Republican candidacy would succeed only with Conservative and Independence backing too.

Scanlon, meanwhile, said he has “informed the chairman I am very, very interested.”

“A position like that would give me a larger platform to get things done,” he said of the Assembly seat.

Szymanski, the Lackawanna mayor, also talks about the same kind of new platform as term limits loom for him. And he noted that the district has changed to encompass Lackawanna, West Seneca and Orchard Park and that it should be no longer considered as centered in South Buffalo.

He also touts his experience as a CEO. But the mayor said he also has received little encouragement from Democratic Headquarters.

“I’ve not had much conversation with the chairman,” Szymanski said. “He just refuses to return my phone calls.”

It is not yet known when a special election will occur, with some speculation pointing to April, a timetable that could preserve the current balance in the Senate — which includes a cadre of Cuomo supporters — during budget adoption in March.

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