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A 34-year-old City of Tonawanda resident who has worked in the County Legislature is the new chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party. Jeremy J. Zellner was elected Saturday to lead Erie County Democrats for the next two years.
Zellner defeated Frank C. Max Jr., Cheektowaga town Democratic chairman, after more than 1,000 committee members voted by secret ballot inside the Hearthstone Manor in Depew. He replaces 63-year-old Leonard R. Lenihan, who served as county chairman for the past 10 years.
"I start with a fresh, clean slate," Zellner said.
The race for county party chairman was a heated one that saw at least three other candidates - including former Buffalo Mayor Anthony M. Masiello - drop out of contention in recent weeks.
Lenihan, at the Saturday meeting, said he would vote for Zellner, who also was viewed by many as the choice of County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo's forces were partial to Max but also were concerned about continual infighting in one of the few counties that voted for Republican Carl P. Paladino in the 2010 gubernatorial election, helping to explain the push for a new Erie County chairman.
Poloncarz did not endorse any candidate explicitly in the race, after making an agreement with downstate Democrats, including some close to Cuomo, to do the same.
"I would have been able to work with either of the candidates," said Poloncarz, shortly after the results were announced. "I think it's a good result for the Democratic Party."
Lenihan, the outgoing chairman, called the moment "bittersweet."
"But," he said, "it's time for a new day."
With weighted voting, the tally came out to 152,098 votes for Zellner and 113,528 for Max, according to numbers announced by Lenihan.
After the votes were tallied, some in attendance called the result a generational shift.
Others called it a move toward a more progressive, social-media-friendly local Democratic Party.
Others saw in the contest the wranglings of a wide range of politicians, from Cuomo to Poloncarz to Masiello and current Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown.
But Zellner saw his victory more simply.
"What we learned today was, this party does not belong to any elected official, or any one person," said Zellner, a graduate of Buffalo State College and Tonawanda High School. "It belongs to the committeemen of this county."
The election was conducted by secret ballot. The meeting began at 10 a.m. in the Depew banquet facility and concluded shortly after 2 p.m.
All around the crowded banquet room, committee members sported stickers on their shirts bearing the names of Zellner and Max. Both candidates had sizeable contingents of supporters in the room. Some of the assembled committee members spilled outside into the parking lot, where they chatted on cellphones and strolled around to pass the time during the vote tallying.
"It's an honor to be one of the finalists for chairman of the Democratic Party. It's a humbling experience," Max told the crowd early in the proceedings.
"We have a good Democratic organization in the Town of Cheektowaga. We try hard."
Masiello likened the turnout to the 2000 matchup for chairman that saw a showdown between G. Steven Pigeon and David J. Swarts.
That vote, won by Pigeon and held at Shea's Performing Arts Center, drew a record crowd of about 1,500 people.
But there was a feeling of acrimony at the Pigeon-Swarts duel - which featured shouting, finger-pointing and loud arguing - that Masiello said was missing from Saturday's event. He called that a good thing.
Masiello said the biggest challenge that will face the new chairman will be to bring the divided segments of the party together in common cause.
"We really need to come together for the good of the party," he said.
When Zellner's name was announced as the winner, the room erupted in rowdy cheers, chants and applause reminiscent of the raucous reception that greeted Poloncarz's announcement last fall at Democratic election night headquarters that he had won the county executive race.
Zellner said he felt the positive attitude in the air.
"When Len took over, 10 years ago, there was a battle royal," Zellner said. "Today what you saw was a civilized, open meeting. People felt very comfortable here today."
One of Zellner's supporters at the session, Ed Piotrowski of Lackawanna, wore several pro-Zellner stickers on his clothing, and seemed enthused to be taking part in the event.
"The last time I did it, it was cut and dried," Piotrowski said of the voting. "It's actually a ball game [today]."
Zellner, Piotrowski said, has characteristics that many in the Lackawanna contingent saw as being assets to a chairmanship.
"He seems like he's going to fight hard for Democrats," said the Lackawanna committeeman. "He's very smart. There's no doubt in my mind he's a good choice."
Zellner is chief of staff for the Democrats in the County Legislature, a job he will continue to hold, and served as a former executive director of the local party under Lenihan.
The new county chairman was accompanied by his wife, Carrie.
And to celebrate?
Zellner said he needed to get home right after the vote "to cut the grass."

email: cvogel@buffnews.com