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Zellner emerging as top Democratic contender for Schimminger's seat

Jeremy J. Zellner has sponsored lots of Democratic office-seekers during his seven years as Erie County Democratic chairman. Now he sounds very much like a candidate himself.

After Democratic Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger recently said he will retire upon completing his 22nd term in 2020, Zellner is emerging as the party favorite for the 140th District seat. He is nowhere near officially entering the race, but his post atop the local party hierarchy and enthusiastic efforts talking up such a run may be all but cementing his candidacy.

“Jeremy is the county chair and with the county chair comes a lot of clout,” said one local Democrat close to the situation who asked not to be identified.

And Democrats appear optimistic because of their registration advantage over Republicans of almost 16,000 voters in the district.

“I understand the concerns of the 140th Assembly District because I’ve lived there my entire life,” Zellner said. “Problems with the Huntley Station and Tonawanda Coke have to be handled properly, so we need a strong voice to go to Albany and get things done.”

Other Democratic names mentioned include Kenmore Mayor Patrick Mang, Tonawanda Town Council Member John Bargnesi, Tonawanda Mayor Rick Davis, North Tonawanda Alderman at-Large Austin Tylec, and Kenmore attorney Kevin T. Stocker, a former Republican.

“It’s an important seat for our town,” said Supervisor Joseph H. Emminger, adding he considered running but decided to remain in his town post.

A June primary could result, especially since Stocker is expected to chart his own Democratic course.

A new era for the 140th District could also mark an official Zellner candidacy. If he declares, he said he will resign as Democratic elections commissioner, which along with the companion GOP job is considered county government’s top patronage plum.

In turn, that would spawn efforts by many top Democrats to seek the $118,000 elections job he has held since 2017. The first local to simultaneously serve as party chairman and elections commissioner since Republican Raymond Lawley in the late 1960s, Zellner attracted significant criticism from those who viewed holding the dual roles as a conflict of interest.

But Zellner, who is 41 and lives in the City of Tonawanda, still plans to retain his party chairmanship. Should he enter the Assembly race, he would again collect his approximately $70,000 annual stipend for running the party, money he relinquished upon assuming the elections post. A member of the Assembly earns $110,000 each year, though Zellner has not yet addressed his plans for the party salary should he win election.

He anticipates no problems serving in the Assembly and in party headquarters at the same time, citing the examples of several upstate legislators holding both posts.

“It’s doable,” he said. “It’s a good thing to have someone understand government and politics and have the ability to pull things together. I won’t need a learning curve to make things happen for the district.”

Zellner has attracted criticism on both the party and Board of Elections levels. He and his Republican counterpart, Ralph M. Mohr, revealed to the County Legislature in November that the board was short $2 million for the 2020 presidential primary and other expenses.

Zellner said Mohr, as board chairman, was responsible for failing to submit the required budget requests. But he expects no campaign ramifications from the board problem.

Within the party, opponents blamed him for mishandled committee finance reports dating to 2012. Errors included credit card funds and other contributions improperly itemized, loans not carried over into future reports, wrongly entered information and problems with the party’s software system.

State and local officials said no evidence indicated money was deliberately hidden, falsified or stolen.

Zellner’s ascension to the Assembly would also signal a major change in philosophy for the district representative. For about a quarter century, Schimminger ran with Conservative Party backing along a “moderate Democrat” path.

The last Western New York Democratic legislator to run on the Conservative line, he remains one of the few Assembly Democrats who opposes abortion and same-sex marriage.

While that formula worked for Schimminger through 22 Assembly elections, Zellner easily gravitates toward the progressives now dominating Albany Democrats. He emphasizes his pro-choice and pro-same sex marriage positions on issues that still come before the Assembly.

“These are generational things, and you see a shift from the days of Conservative support for Assembly members,” he said. “I think the seat is winnable without [the Conservatives.]”

John J. Crangle, chairman of the Town of Tonawanda Democratic Committee, is confident the seat will remain in Democratic hands.

“With a strong and unified Democratic candidate, I think it will be difficult for Republicans to win in a presidential year,” he said.

Despite the district’s Democratic advantage, Republicans still label it conservative and plan to find a competitive opponent. They note that Schimminger retained his edge even while often opposing Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

“We are looking at candidates across the district who are qualified and ready to put Tonawanda’s taxpayers first,” said Erie County Republican Chairman Karl J. Simmeth Jr. “Robin Schimminger was elected again and again as a known conservative who wasn’t afraid to stand up against Andrew Cuomo.

“Zellner is Cuomo’s water boy, siding with Prince Andrew on everything from driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants to taxpayer-funded political campaigns and the end of fusion voting,” he added in an emailed statement. “Since Zellner and his team have fought so hard to kill off the Working Families Party, I expect him to put his money where his mouth is and run as a Democrat.”

Zellner has emerged in recent years as an opponent of New York’s “fusion voting” that allows major party candidates to aggregate votes on minor lines like Conservative or Working Families. He said he will seek neither should he decide to run.

Erie County Conservative Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo recognizes the recent inability of his party to attract Democrats and blames the shift on the dominance of Zellner and County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz.

“Robin is typical of the Western New York Democrats of days gone by,” he said, pointing to former Democratic officeholders such as County Executive Dennis T. Gorski, Buffalo Mayor James D. Griffin and District Attorney Kevin M. Dillon as examples. Lorigo added he believes the Tonawanda-based district remains essentially conservative.

“Jeremy and Mark have tried to change all that,” he said. “I recognize the overlay. We’ll see what comes of it.”

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