LOCKPORT - The Niagara County Democratic Party has been down in the dumps in recent years, with Republicans winning almost all of the local offices outside Niagara Falls.
Monday, the party committee will choose which of two contenders for the chairmanship is most likely to restore the Democrats to political success, which they have lacked despite an 11,000-voter registration advantage over the GOP.
Jeremy M. Schnurr, the North Tonawanda lawyer who took over the chairmanship after Daniel Rivera resigned Jan. 25, is running for a full term against Nicholas J. Forster of Niagara Falls, who headed the party from 1996 to 2002.
Gary D. Parenti, who had been running for the chairmanship, did not respond to calls from The Buffalo News. Schnurr said his impression was that Parenti is no longer an active candidate.
Parenti's ship sank during the summer, when the Niagara County Board of Elections invalidated the committeeman nominating petitions of 133 of his supporters, while two others withdrew their candidacies.
The challenges filed against the Parenti petitions came from supporters of Forster or Schnurr, and every challenge was successful. On Aug. 9, State Supreme Court Justice Frank Caruso dismissed Parenti's lawsuit trying to invalidate the board's rulings. Caruso found that Parenti's lawsuit came after a deadline to file such a case and could not be considered.
"He has only a handful of committee people," Schnurr said.
Not every vote is created equal. The voting for each committee member is weighted, based on the percentages of votes cast for governor on the Democratic line in that district in 2010.
Last week, Forster predicted victory at the committee reorganizational meeting, set for 7 p.m. Monday in the 4-H Training Center at the Niagara County Fairgrounds, 4487 Lake Ave., Lockport.
"I'm confident I'll be hitting the gavel about 7:45," Forster said.
"I'm confident of my position," Schnurr said.
Forster said, "I think he failed math at an early age. The numbers are way in our corner. We have every vote in Niagara Falls, the Town of Niagara and Lewiston. If you add those three up, if he got every other vote in the county, he'd still lose by 800 [weighted votes]."
"He doesn't have every vote in those three communities," Schnurr said. "I would say I started at one-quarter, and the work is still going on."
Forster said he expects votes from all over the county.
"If Jeremy Schnurr was a formidable candidate, he wouldn't have all these vacancies in North Tonawanda, the City of Lockport and the Town of Lockport," Forster said.
Vacant committee seats can be filled by appointment if no one runs for them, and Forster's point was that Schnurr could have lined up allies to take those vacant seats.
"There are very few vacancies in North Tonawanda, and they have very low weights," Schnurr said. "In the City and Town of Lockport, I did not get involved in telling the local committees what to do. I believe in leading a group of people, not in being a boss."
Forster said he thinks that since his departure from the chairmanship, the party's executive committee has gained too much power. He said if he wins, the executive board will serve in an advisory capacity to the full board, and any five individual committeemen will have the right to summon a meeting of the whole committee, as they once did.
Schnurr said he suspects that many of the newcomers brought into the committee by Forster and Parenti will find the nuts and bolts of local politics uninteresting.
"As a rule, if we are able to get a quorum at full committee meetings, we would have more of them," Schnurr said. "Coming to regular meetings to talk about the minutiae of politics is not interesting to them. They talk to their representatives on the executive committee. It's representative democracy in action."
Committee candidates' initial allegiances often are reflected by the people who carried their nominating petitions and by which faction was named on the petitions as a committee to fill vacancies if the nominee dropped out of the race after the petitions were filed.
But those connections do not legally require any committee member to vote for the chairmanship nominee who was involved in their petition.
That means committee members can be lobbied or can be subjected to whispering campaigns about the skeletons in each candidate's closet.
Forster, for example, resigned from the Erie County Sheriff's Department in late 2006, about three months after Niagara County deputies handled a domestic call at his girlfriend's home in Wheatfield. There were no arrests as a result of the incident, in which the sister of Forster's girlfriend fell or was pushed. She declined medical treatment, according to an incident report obtained by The Buffalo News.
The report was forwarded to Erie County, which opened an internal probe because Forster had not reported the police contact to his superiors, as he was required to do. He also had driven an Erie County car to his girlfriend's home, but he was not permitted to take that car out of Erie County. No disciplinary action resulted, Sheriff Timothy Howard said.
Forster said the timing of his resignation was coincidental. "I was in the midst of getting a job with the State of New York under then-Gov. [Eliot L.] Spitzer," he said.
Spitzer was elected that year, and Forster said he was the first county chairman in the state to endorse Spitzer for his previous post as state attorney general. Forster ended up with a job at the Racing and Wagering Board, where he still works.
On the other hand, Schnurr was dismissed in 1997 from a post as a referee with the state Workers Compensation Board in Monroe County because of poor job performance, according to documents The News obtained last year, when Schnurr ran unsuccessfully for Niagara County Family Court judge.
The papers indicated that Schnurr's superiors were dissatisfied with how long he was taking to handle cases.
And Parenti has been arrested several times, including in 1997 on charges of driving while intoxicated and aggravated unlicensed operation; harassment in a 2002 Buffalo incident; and impaired driving in Niagara Falls in 2008.