It’s not unusual for visitors to the major political party headquarters in Erie County to wonder why “interns” lord over the big corner offices.
But Democrat Jeremy J. Zellner and Republican Nicholas A. Langworthy, the fresh-faced guys mistaken for interns, are actually running the show. Zellner, 34, and Langworthy, 31, represent the youngest party leader tandem of any major county in New York State – and maybe the nation.
These two budding leaders – with significant experience already logged on the campaign trail – are cautiously but forcefully making their way up the political ladder.
“It’s an opportunity,” said Zellner, who walked off the street eight years ago to volunteer and now runs upstate New York’s biggest political organization. “Our community is not so steeped in tradition that it’s just the same old, same old. It can support new ideas.”
Langworthy, who inherited the GOP helm two years ago at just 29, has already logged enough highs and lows to qualify as a grizzled old pol.
“It’s a challenging job,” he said. “It’s a lot like being a football coach. There are tough times along the way, but you have to stick to your game plan.”
To put their youth in perspective, Zellner’s predecessor – Leonard R. Lenihan – is 64, almost as old as both of the younger men put together. Lenihan, who left the Democratic helm in September, often credited presidential candidate John F. Kennedy’s appearance at Buffalo Memorial Auditorium more than 50 years ago with inspiring his entry into politics.
This pair barely remembers Bill Clinton’s ascension to the White House in 1992.
Veteran politicos like Joseph F. Crangle appreciate the challenges faced by the rookie leaders. Crangle was elected Erie County Democratic chairman in 1965 at 32, retaining the post for 23 years and even ascending to state chairman along the way.
“At that age you feel like there’s nothing you can’t do,” Crangle said. “You’re more apt to take risks. And you don’t know any better, so you just keep on going.”
Wisdom ensues, Crangle said, with the realization that the occasional defeat contributes to the experience.
Though some say Erie County political bosses no longer wield the influence of predecessors like Democrat Crangle or Republican Edwin F. Jaeckle, they still command vast resources and powers.
The nod of a Democratic or Republican chairman in Erie County almost always translates into the party endorsement, which unleashes hordes of party workers to satisfy the mechanics of qualifying for the ballot – like scouring the streets for signatures on designating petitions.
Aspirants for State Supreme Court throughout the eight counties of Western New York also traditionally need the approval of one person – the Erie County Democratic or Republican chairman – to gain the party nomination. Often the two leaders grant bipartisan backing that virtually guarantees election of the cross-endorsed judicial candidate.
And party machinery always attracts money and influence, either through donations to headquarters or the deference paid to the chairmen of upstate’s largest county by New York City types seeking statewide office.
The pair also presides over two starkly different organizations.
For generations, Erie County Democrats have earned a statewide reputation for warring among themselves. Zellner’s headquarters faction, for example, represents only one entity. Others loyal to Mayor Byron W. Brown and, to some extent, Rep. Brian Higgins of Buffalo also make up the balkanized party.
Over at Republican headquarters, things work much more smoothly. Langworthy succeeded predecessor James P. Domagalski in typical GOP fashion – with no muss, no fuss. That’s the same way Domagalski followed Robert E. Davis, how Davis assumed the party helm from Thomas M. Reynolds, and how Reynolds took over for Victor N. Farley. GOP graybeards quietly and efficiently determined the line of succession.
Now, experience is already plentiful for both new chairmen, mainly because the political bug bit them long ago. Both earned degrees in political science – Langworthy from Niagara University and Zellner from Buffalo State College – and began as volunteers.
Zellner served for eight years as Lenihan’s assistant at the party’s Ellicott Square headquarters. Langworthy managed Republican Henry F. Wojtaszek’s campaign against Rep. Louise M. Slaughter in 2002. He later worked for Reynolds when he served in Congress and then for former Rep. Christopher J. Lee. He still wears the battle scars of Reynolds’ last, toughest and successful campaign against Democrat Jack Davis in 2006.
“I got to work a lot with [Reynolds] on the government side, but it all culminated in that big race of ’06,” Langworthy said. “That was wild.”
Since then Langworthy has earned a reputation as both “boy wonder” and “greenhorn question mark.” At the 2010 Republican State Convention in Manhattan, the 29-year-old chairman outmaneuvered GOP veterans by gaining a speaking spot for favorite son gubernatorial candidate Carl P. Paladino. The party parliamentarians ruled Paladino had no right to speak at the convention, but Langworthy simply had the candidate nominate himself – thereby gaining the podium.
“We stared them down and were able to have Carl nominate himself,” he said.
The convention still ignored Paladino, endorsing former Rep. Rick A. Lazio. But Langworthy further caught the state party’s attention when Paladino crushed Lazio in the primary, only to be subsequently clobbered by Democrat Andrew M. Cuomo in the general election.
Langworthy experienced tougher days in 2011 as part of former County Executive Chris Collins’ inner circle. Some GOP icons grumbled that he and other Collins rookies botched Assemblywoman Jane L. Corwin’s special election congressional candidacy against Democrat Kathleen C. Hochul to fill the seat vacated by Republican Lee. Later that year, finger pointing at the same group resumed when Collins lost his bid for a second term as county executive to Mark C. Poloncarz, the Democratic county comptroller.
But Langworthy bounced back in 2012, supporting U.S. Senate candidate Wendy Long early in the GOP primary and notching a congressional victory for Collins over Hochul – even if just barely. Victories for Republicans Mark J. Grisanti in the State Senate and Stefan I. Michajliw for county comptroller also soothed the sting of a year ago.
“This is a tough, hard-nosed environment for all the parties,” the chairman says now. “I learned a lot of lessons, including that you never win all your races.”
Reynolds, now a Washington lobbyist, recognized special qualities in the Niagara undergrad when Langworthy sought to work on Wojtaszek’s underdog congressional campaign against Slaughter. He compares his arrival to Crangle’s in the 1960s, as a newcomer intent on conducting politics differently.
“When you look at Nick when he took over in his 20s and now at his Democratic counterpart, it says that in the 21st century the major parties are ready to look at someone younger to lead them,” Reynolds said. “That wasn’t true in [former chairmen] Ed Jaeckle’s or Vic Farley’s day.”
But Reynolds, also a former Erie County GOP chairman at the relatively young age of 40, said he saw Langworthy as ready for the job even at 29.
“I thought he was a great student of politics and the application of politics,” Reynolds said.
Now Langworthy presides over one of New York’s key Republican organizations from his headquarters at 715 Main St. – a cozy enclosure of exposed brick walls that serves as a magnet for the state’s top GOP dignitaries. Indeed, Langworthy qualifies as an official professional politician at this early state of his career, earning about $56,000 in the past year as chairman, according to campaign finance records.
Unlike Langworthy’s unopposed coronation as chairman, Zellner had to fight and claw his way through a contentious campaign last summer. He triumphed over party veteran and Cheektowaga Democratic Chairman Frank C. Max Jr., 60, but took a beating on Election Day last month. Though he had been chairman for only six weeks, some blamed him for the defeats of Hochul for Congress, Michael L. Amodeo for State Senate and David J. Shenk for county comptroller in an overwhelmingly Democratic county, despite strong turnout in a presidential year.
“They put in a midlevel, junior staffer who is just a shill for Lenihan,” former Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon recently said of the Zellner operation.
In addition, Zellner maintains only tenuous ties to power centers like City Hall and the state Capitol. He is attempting to build a relationship with Brown as a mayoral election approaches – with no solid success yet. Cuomo’s political team, meanwhile, forced out Lenihan while supporting Max behind the scenes. At this point, Zellner has virtually no relationship with the governor’s forces.
None of that mattered to Lenihan, who championed Zellner as his successor precisely because he arrived without political baggage or entanglements.
“When he first walked into headquarters he came as a volunteer; not part of any faction,” the former chairman said. “He was just a young guy who loved politics. And that’s unique.”
Lenihan said Zellner also impressed him as a disciplined worker who knew politics “inside out.” The newcomer was not as enthralled with intramural skirmishes as with winning elections, he said.
“With Jeremy, there’s not a lot of emotion involved,” he said. “It’s about getting the job done instead of arguing with people.”
The new chairman, however, knew from the start he was inheriting a party marked by factionalism and infighting. He says he is strengthened because he owes his new post to nobody – including Poloncarz, widely viewed as Zellner’s champion.
“If it wasn’t an open process, I wouldn’t be here,” Zellner said.
Zellner points out he was raised by a single mother who partially relied on social services, while his grandfather and uncles were union men – all helping to form a Democratic philosophy he believes the local party needs to embrace.
“We’ll be reminding people why they are Democrats, make them proud to be Democrats, and to support Democratic candidates,” he said. “And we’ll run candidates who are professionals and not career politicians. That’s where I want to take it.”
He also says he will not veer far from Lenihan’s philosophy and methods.
“What we did with Len was just a tremendous success,” Zellner said. “If not for Bill Clinton, he would be my political hero.”
Zellner, a City of Tonawanda resident, makes his living as the $79,577 chief of staff to the County Legislature and does not take a salary as chairman, unlike his predecessor. He says he conducts party business during his off hours.
In the meantime, both chairmen are following similar paths for young men of their age – putting down roots. Langworthy and fiancee Erin Baker will be married on Friday and will reside in North Buffalo; Zellner and his wife, Carrie, are expecting their first child in March.