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Bob McCarthy: What happened to Erie County Democrats?

Back when state Comptroller Carl McCall was running for governor in 2002, he used to joke about treading carefully through the land mines of Erie County’s Democratic politics.

“I have to make five different stops every time I come to Erie County, so one or another warring faction doesn’t get offended,” he said back then.

They were the “glory days” for the Politics Column. One Democratic group constantly sniped at another, ethnic factions regularly sparred, and top leaders vied for power. The Politics Column was never lacking fodder.

We still churn it out every week, and politics around these parts remains as fascinating as ever. But these days Democrats seem to behave themselves under Chairman Jeremy Zellner, and party stalwarts are OK with that.

“If you look at the last three years, there’s really been a decline in all that as we’ve brought people together and prevented the warfare,” Zellner said a few days ago. “A lot of the toxic politics of the past stemmed from people who – frankly – are under indictment now.”

Zellner was referring to G. Steven Pigeon, the former Democratic chairman and political operative who stands trial in State Supreme Court beginning Oct. 15 on a host of corruption charges. A trial to weigh federal charges will follow. As he is sidelined by legal troubles, his perennial challenges to the leaders that succeeded him have ended.

As Zellner points out, Democrats will always contend with primaries. But the relatively few intra-party challenges shaping up for September stem from plain old politics as opposed to the blood feuds of the past.

Indeed, the most fascinating Democratic primary – a rematch between Erik Bohen and Pat Burke for the 142nd Assembly seat – may not even occur. Democrat Bohen, who triumphed over Burke on the Republican and Conservative lines in an April 24 special election, is already nominated by his new best friends for the November general.

But he is also circulating Democratic designating petitions after Zellner and company again snubbed him during a “woodshed” meeting at which Bohen unsuccessfully sought the party nod. Democrats are still smarting from his victory on “enemy” lines, are reveling in his Assembly isolation by both Dems and Repubs, and are itching for a rematch against Burke.

“It turned into a scene again,” Bohen said of the endorsement meeting that took great pains to feature his victory photos with GOP Chairman Nick Langworthy.

Bohen remains uncommitted about running in the September Democratic primary, however, or opting for just the November general. He might pull a “Mickey Kearns,” his Assembly predecessor and registered Democrat who won the county clerk post last year on the GOP and Conservative lines. Several sources say Republican and Conservative leaders are urging him to take the same route that worked for him in April and for Kearns in November.

Lackawanna Mayor Geoff Szymanski, by the way, has decided not to run for the Assembly and will support Burke.

“I’m not a lefty Democrat, and that doesn’t go over very well with all the downstaters,” he said last week.

In the meantime, another “non-primary” is shaping up in the 60th Senate District of Republican Chris Jacobs. Repub-turned-Dem Kevin Stocker, who had competed for the seat as a Republican in the past, said a few days ago he will not run as a Democrat this year despite assembling a team to circulate petitions. He will support Carima El-Behairy, a business consultant and treasurer for Planned Parenthood of Central and Western New York who has been endorsed by the party.

Those yearning for the good old days may still see a Democratic primary against incumbent Tim Kennedy in the 63rd District. Attorney Shaqurah Zachery is circulating petitions in a quest for the required 1,500 signatures. But she said a few days ago she is still deciding whether to challenge the entrenched incumbent.

Of course, all of this “peace in the valley” stuff will fade away. This is Erie County, after all, and these are Erie County Democrats. One of these days ...

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