Political newcomer April Baskin had barely taken her seat in the Erie County Legislature on Thursday when she was voted in as the Democratic majority leader, gaining a coveted leadership role at her very first Legislature meeting.
Meanwhile, Legislator Peter Savage, D-Buffalo, became the Legislature's new chairman. Veteran Legislator Thomas Loughran, D-Amherst, cast the sole vote against Savage, so Savage needed Republican support to win the chairmanship. Starting this year, Democrats hold a one-vote majority in the Legislature.
Loughran and Barbara Miller-Williams, D-Buffalo, voiced their dissent over the leadership selection process, accusing Democratic Party Chairman Jeremy Zellner of dictating Legislature leadership instead of allowing legislators to decide for themselves.
Loughran, the former minority leader, was particularly angry. He said Zellner called him a couple of weeks ago to inform him that he would not be considered for the chairmanship.
He recounted Zellner saying, "I picked Peter for chairman, and I picked you as majority leader."
Loughran refused the majority leader post, saying he had no desire to be a cog in Zellner's political machine.
"Apparently, my independence was too much for him," Loughran said.
Zellner said Thursday he had no desire to contribute to the conversation.
Loughran has served for 12 years in the Legislature, longer than any current lawmaker. He received financial support from the Democratic Party in past elections and was previously backed for the minority leader position.
But Loughran and Miller-Williams, who lobbied for the majority leader position, said they believe their independence and willingness to consider issues on a case-by-case basis were considered leadership negatives.
They said Zellner told them he wants to take the Legislature "in a new direction."
"A non-elected official wants to take the Legislature 'in a new direction,' " Loughran said. "Why didn't he take it in a new direction when he worked here?"
Miller-Williams added, "If we're moving in a new direction, someone needs to know where we're going."
She pointed out that Savage received support from the two newest members of the Legislature, who were seated Thursday, and from Legislator Patrick Burke, who is running for State Assembly. She contended those legislators would be most prone to influence from the party chairman.
Miller-Williams said she has no animosity against Baskin, and expects to work with both her and Savage. But she also said that putting an inexperienced newcomer into such a high-profile leadership role was a disservice to the rookie legislator, to the Legislature and to county constituents.
Baskin, 34, an entrepreneur, runs a college prep program. Baskin, who now holds the seat formerly held by Betty Jean Grant, said she understood the concern of some lawmakers about the leadership selection process.
"I totally respect that," she said.
"I'm a team player, and I know we can't get good things done without working as a team," she added.
Savage also spoke about the controversial leadership change and his desire to work collaboratively with all sides.
"Transitions are never easy," said Savage, who replaces John Mills, R-Orchard Park, as chairman.
Regarding the allegation that he was "hand-picked" by Zellner, Savage said, "I presented my case to each member, of what I thought I brought to the Legislature."
He said he respected that every legislator voted their conscience Thursday.
"My focus will be on bringing people back together and moving forward the work that needs to be done by this body," he said, adding, "I stand on my credentials. I stand my over-20 years of government experience."
Legislator Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, was renamed minority leader of the Republican-supported minority caucus.
Timothy Callan, the former deputy budget director under County Executive Mark Poloncarz, has been hired as the Democrats' new chief of staff making $92,000 a year. Callan left the Poloncarz administration early last year to accept a lower paying job as the community development coordinator with the Town of Tonawanda.
Former Democratic Chief of Staff Robert Graber was promoted to clerk of the Legislature.