The Public Record: The Democratic Dominoes

by / Dec. 6, 2017 7pm EST

The Public Record: The Democratic Dominoes

Who will be the next chair of the Erie County Legislature, and other political notes

With John Bruso’s win over incumbent Ted Morton on November 7, Democrats will assume the majority on the Erie County Legislature in January. Who will replace the current chair, Republican John Mills?

Four Democratic legislators—everyone except Bruso, basically—would like to be chair: Amherst’s Tom Loughran, who handily beat back Republican Guy Marlette for a second time; Buffalo’s Barbara Miller-Williams, who served as chair once before, when she and Democrat Tim Kennedy (now a state senator) split from their party to caucus with Republicans in a deal that gave Chris Collins (then county executive) control of the Legislature; and Buffalo’s Peter Savage, who had no opponent in this general election. Pat Burke, who represents South Buffalo and parts of Cheektowaga and Lackawanna, has also thrown his hat in the ring, and his candidacy says a lot about the state of the local Democratic Party, before and in the aftermath of the general election.

First, Savage: In the immediate aftermath of the election, he seemed to be the candidate favored by Democratic headquarters. This may seem surprising at first, given that he came to the Legislature after serving as an advisor to Mayor Byron Brown and his former deputy, Steve Casey, in City Hall, helping to run a political operation independent of and frequently at odds with the political operation run by ECDC and Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz. But since he became a legislator, Savage has curried favor with headquarters and voters in his largely progressive district. (His transformation in this regard resembles that of another Brown ally, state Senator Tim Kennedy, one of the county legislators who defected to Republicans to make Miller-Williams chair back in 2009, but who came back into the fold when he became a senator and transformed himself from a conservative to a progressive Democrat seemingly overnight. Still, he has was the only candidate on the Democratic Party line endorsed this cycle by developer and right-wing mad dog Carl Paladino.) In his private practice, he is an attorney for developer Nick Sinatra, a Republican, and has brokered a relationship between Sinatra and county Democratic chair Jeremy Zellner.

Next, Tom Loughran: Loughran manages to hold his seat in a district where Republicans are always competitive. And, given that Amherst Democrats had a good election day—they took the town supervisor’s seat and swept the town council races—Loughran may feel he’s due.

Miller-Williams always think she’s due. Like Savage, she is an ally of Byron Brown. And she has proven her willingness to caucus with Republicans in order to achieve her ambitions.

And finally Burke: Easily the most progressive Democrat on the Legislature, Burke won his seat without help from ECDC. He has played nice with Democratic headquarters since he became a legislator but doesn’t need them in his district, where he is popular. He won re-election without opposition this year. He’d like to fill the Assembly seat that Mickey Kearns will vacate to become Erie County Clerk.

For whatever reason, ECDC gives Burke the cold shoulder. An ally of Erie County Party Committee chairtman Jeremy Zellner in Cheektowaga, Tim Myers, announced the day after the general election that he intended to primary Burke in two years. For a spell, ECDC seemed to be leaning toward designating South District Chris Scanlon as its preferred candidate to fill Kearns’s Assembly seat. (Or perhaps some other candidate; in any case, not Burke.) These and other slights have led Burke to throw his hat in the ring for chair, too, if only to bargain for the party’s designation to fill the Assembly seat.

Odds are, that deal will be made. The current leadership of the county Democratic Party seems to be taking a lesson from the last election cycle about deal-making. Take, for example, the failure of the party to keep Kearns in the Democratic fold. Last spring, Kearns clearly intended to seek the Democratic nomination for clerk. He also sought and received the endorsement of the county Conservative Party, which many Democrats feel is crucial to winning countywide races. (Poloncarz is the only countywide-elected Democrat who has managed without it.) And he was flirting with Republicans, who helped him into his Assembly seat.

On St. Patrick’s Day, a diplomatic mission was dispatched by ECDC to keep Kearns from taking the Republican line. The deal offered was this: The Democrats would assure Kearns he would face no opposition in the Democratic primary for clerk. This would serve the party by saving money and serve Byron Brown by giving South Buffalonians one less reason to vote in his primary race against Buffalo City Comptroller Mark Schroeder. In exchange, Kearns would promise not to use the clerk’s seat as a jumping-off point for a challenge to Poloncarz in 2019, and he would not appear on the Conservative Party line.

Kearns agreed to the first condition but not to the second. He argued that he might need the Conservative Party line to overcome whomever Republicans put up against him in the general election. Democratic leadership would not bend on that condition. So Kearns bolted to the Republicans.

In the end, Brown got what he wanted: a Democratic primary with only one South Buffalonian on the ballot. Democratic headquarters did not: They incurred an expensive general election against the popular and well-known Kearns, a candidate with crossover appeal, and they lost. And Poloncarz now has two potential 2019 opponents—Kearns and Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw—sitting in countywide-elected offices.

Our bet: Loughran gets pushed by Democrats as chair of the Legislature; barring Savage or Miller-Williams caucusing with Republicans for their own benefit, he gets it. Burke is designated by the Democratic Party as its candidate to succeed Kearns.


—Christie Nelson is leaving her post as director of real estate for the City of Buffalo. We’re told she wanted to leave sooner, was unhappy with some practices in that office, but was persuaded to delay her resignation until after Byron Brown’s re-election as mayor.

—Gillian Brown, former general counsel and acting executive director of the ever beleaguered Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, has been hired out of private practice to reprise his role as general counsel for BMHA. We’ve been told that BMHA’s current executive director, Dawn Sanders, has been trying to negotiate an exit package, but she wants more than Mayor Byron Brown is willing to give to the departing head of an agency that gives the administration one black eye after another.

—A couple weeks ago we published a short piece on 24-hour notices with the state board of elections documenting donations to candidates in the last week before the general election. Among the short piece’s few conclusions: Democratic Party headquarters had not directed a lot of money to sheriff candidate Bernie Tolbert’s campaign in the final hours, but sent a fair amount of money to clerk candidate Steve Cichon’s campaign. Shortly after the piece was posted online, we got a call from Erie County Democratic Committee chairman Jeremy Zellner contesting our reading of the filings. Zellner argued that we’d overlooked $25,000 he’d directed to Tolbert, and another $25,000 that Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz had directed to Tolbert. We offered to amend the piece, then re-read the filings, and called Zellner back to say that the filings aligned with our reporting. We pointed out that Zellner’s $25,000 to Tolbert had come before the filing period we were describing (but added it to the report anyway) and that there was no record of a $25,000 donation from Poloncarz’s committee to Tolbert. Further, Friends of Jeremy Zellner for Chairman had indeed filed a 24-hour notice of a $25,000 donation to Cichon, a fact which Zellner had disputed in our first phone call. Asked about that, Zellner sounded flummoxed: “Did I do that? Maybe I did. I don’t know.”