By William Francis Sheehan
Despite his ability to work with all factions of the Erie County Democratic Party, County Legislator Tom Loughran has always been a loyal supporter of former Democratic Committee chair Len Lenihan and his successor, Jeremy Zellner. So, when I read Bob McCarthy’s Buffalo News column earlier this month, I was positively gobsmacked to see Loughran launch a jab at Chairman Zellner:
“When he first said he would run for chairman, I told him he has a conflict,” Loughran said last week. “I took issue with this from the very beginning.”
Loughran’s comment, along with Legislator-elect Pat Burke’s public opposition to Zellner staying on as the legislature’s chief of staff, made it abundantly clear the county chairman didn’t have the votes to keep his day job. This confirms his influence is at a dangerously low ebb. Worse, Loughran’s swipe shows the chairman’s large base of support among Amherst committeemen, controlled by county elections commissioner Dennis Ward, is eroding.
What does this mean for Ward, a party power in his own right? Things are heating up for him, too. Dan Ward, who is no fan of his brother, has founded the active and growing Amherst Democratic Club. Everyone on Dan’s email list receives sometimes daily updates about fundraisers, meetings and various goings on in Amherst and around ErieCounty. Dan also has an easy going, down to earth style that contrasts with Dennis, who is wound more tightly.
There’s dissatisfaction in the Amherst ranks, as well. Former Supervisor candidate and Town Councilman Mark Manna is reportedly smarting over the lack of support he received from Democratic HQ in what was clearly a winnable race. This tightens the squeeze on Loughran, who himself had to fend off a tough 2013 challenge, mostly on his own. Amherst Democrats want to build a bench, and they don’t feel like they’re receiving adequate support from the County party to do so.
It also is worth mentioning that Deputy Elections Commissioner Champ Eve is reportedly having a panic attack at the Board of Elections, concerned about the vulnerability of his own political organization and the ECDC’s inability to defend them. He and Legislator Betty Jean Grant are also reportedly furious at Zellner over the loss of the CountyLegislature majority, but they would never defect. That said, even if a small number of Eve’s committeemen get knocked off, then Zellner’s support declines even more.
Regardless, Zellner is losing his base. Even in areas filled with his stalwarts and patronage hires, there’s a growing sense of urgency that he must leave, and they’re right. Mayor Byron Brown will no doubt have the strongest hand to play in all of this – he has the best political operation in ErieCounty and a successful record to build on.
That said, it’s the question of the moment: what’s got Loughran moving against Zellner? Perhaps the legislator is seeing a shift in Erie County Democratic politics. Or maybe he’s hearing more and more rank and file complaints that they’re unhappy with the current party leadership and seeking new management.
One thing is for certain: Zellner is not becoming a full time chairman by choice, as he claimed. Loughran and Burke wanted him out of the legislature, so he didn’t have the votes to stay. Hopefully, County Executive Mark Poloncarz is taking note of Zellner’s dwindling base. If he wants to be re-elected, perhaps he should pull a Tom Loughran.