President Obama took Erie County in a landslide Election Day, but you might not have recognized that victory by some of the long faces at Democratic Party headquarters in Ellicott Square Tuesday might.
That’s because Erie County Democrats suffered through a dismal Election Night, losing three major offices.
On the flip side, the frowns and disappointment at Mitt Romney’s Boston headquarters never made their way to Buffalo. In fact, the local GOP appeared downright giddy after picking off a congressional seat and county comptroller’s office, while staving off an attempt to dethrone State Sen. Mark J. Grisanti.
Their successes gave a sense of accomplishment to local GOP leaders in a county where registered Democrats significantly outnumber Republicans and Obama garnered 220,506 votes to Romney’s 160,337.
“We went with our traditional recipe of having great candidates, the right message, and the revenues to get out that message,” said Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy. “The taxpayers are buying what we are selling because our issues are right.”
But it’s a far different story this post-election weekend for Democrats, and the bickering that marks the local party leadership has been revived.
“The Democrats ought to take a close look at what happened,” said former Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon. “We should have had three wins, and we had three losses.”
Specifically, he blamed former county chairman Leonard R. Lenihan and the new chairman Jeremy J. Zellner.
“They put in a lackey who got [Lenihan’s] coffee,” Pigeon said of Zellner. “You can’t unify the party as long as Len Jr. is in the chairman’s seat.
“It’s a joke,” he added. “To have this little, junior, mid-level staffer as chairman of Erie County is an embarrassment. Zellner ought to step down.”
Zellner laughed heartily at Pigeon’s suggestion about stepping aside before addressing the criticism.
He said he inherited a treasury with just $700 but got to work raising money and spending it on the local candidates.
“I’ve raised $200,000 and spent at least half of that on the election,” Zellner said. “I won’t be criticized by people from the past who are irrelevant anyway.”
Pigeon’s criticism against party leaders centered on fielding poor candidates and failing to do enough for Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, who barely lost the 27th Congressional District to Republican Chris Collins.
Pigeon may have been most frustrated with the State Senate race.
He was instrumental in recruiting former County Legislature Chairman Charles M. Swanick to run in the Democratic primary for State Senate and also securing Conservative Party backing for him in the general election. But Swanick lost the primary to Michael L. Amodeo, who had the backing of the local party leaders, and then Grisanti won easily Tuesday.
In addition to blaming Lenihan and Zellner, Pigeon also took aim at County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz and Elections Commissioner Dennis E. Ward.
A strong Democratic enrollment advantage should have been enough to defeat Grisanti, Pigeon said.
Pigeon remains incensed over the party’s rejection of the Swanick candidacy, maintaining that if Lenihan and Poloncarz had agreed, a united Democratic front backed by Albany could have knocked off Grisanti.
“We would have had the Democratic, Conservative and Working Families lines, and instead Poloncarz gets Amodeo the [Democratic] line,” Pigeon said. “He searched high and low for another candidate because he perceived that Swanick would be close to me.”
Amodeo was a weak candidate who had previously lost an Assembly primary, Pigeon said, while Swanick was a moderate Democrat from the suburbs with a long history of success.
And he blamed Poloncarz for insisting David J. Shenk be the comptroller candidate, when he felt others would have proven stronger candidates.
Instead, Republican Stefan Mychajliw snared the post – considered a major coup in a Democratic county with strong turnout in a presidential year.
“He puts in a guy who is not prepared, has no resume or base, and with no pizazz as a candidate,” Pigeon said. “In a presidential year, we lose a countywide race because of the pettiness of Poloncarz, Lenihan and Ward.”
“This shows you Poloncarz’s leadership of the Democratic Party is abysmal,” Pigeon said.
Others within the party also took shots at Zellner and Poloncarz.
Gregory B. Olma, a former county legislator and current Zone 9 chairman, criticized the county executive for “imposing” Amodeo and Shenk and for a lack of experience or institutional knowledge.
Fingers from outside the party also pointed blame at Democratic leaders, again in the State Senate race.
Erie County Conservative Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo contended a united front behind Swanick would have worked.
“One candidate would have been extremely viable and probably be successful,” he said.
But Zellner and others say Pigeon knew all along that Swanick was unacceptable to party leaders because of his past “baggage” as a legislator, including his dalliance with the Republican Party and his association with former County Executive Joel A. Giambra.
Though many sources throughout the local party say Poloncarz pushed for Shenk’s appointment as interim comptroller earlier this year, the county executive said he was not involved in the process other than having conversations.
“I stayed out of that race,” he said, adding he understood county executive support for the county’s fiscal watchdog equated to “the kiss of death.”
“Looking back a year ago, there were stories about the death of the Republican Party in Erie County,” Poloncarz said. “It’s fair to say the people spoke on Tuesday, and you have to respect that.”
Meanwhile, Langworthy and his GOP are experiencing none of the flak aimed at Democratic leaders. The Grisanti and Mychajliw victories rank as especially significant because they occurred in a presidential year with high Democratic turnout, he said.