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Some things haven't changed over the 20 years this scribe has banged out the Politics Column – like the fact that for a clear picture of the state of politics around here, look no further than the Erie County Water Authority.

And for 30 years before that, political reporter George Borrelli of The Buffalo News penned the same thoughts in this space.

So it ranks as no surprise that efforts to address an April vacancy at the authority are already under way, and that the entire enterprise provides an accurate glimpse into the power struggles that traditionally mark Erie County politics.

Start with Jack O'Donnell, the hard-charging and politically connected lobbyist who has nevertheless injected an air of thoughtfulness into Water Authority affairs. His term expires in April, and some powerful forces want him to stay.

O'Donnell has worked for Sen. Chuck Schumer, his wife works for Gov. Andrew Cuomo and he has always been close to big political names like Mayor Byron Brown and former Democratic Chairman Steve Pigeon.

But O'Donnell is no political pal of Jeremy Zellner. The new Erie County Democratic chief will have lots to say about who inherits the plum patronage post and its $22,500 stipend. By all appearances, Zellner favors Chris O'Brien, a well-known local attorney who serves on the University at Buffalo Council and has become a generous benefactor of Democratic Headquarters.

“I think Chris is great,” Zellner said late last week while avoiding any official endorsement. “He's highly qualified and an outside-the-box kind of guy.”

Zellner occupies a unique perch in the upcoming skirmish because county legislators making the decision will also seek his endorsement. And make no mistake about it – Democratic primaries galore will mark the 2013 political season.

On the other hand, Zellner works for the Democratic legislators as their chief of staff.

Stick with us here, because it gets more complicated.

Even though Zellner leads not only the Legislature's dominant party but Erie County's, too, other party bosses also have their say. O'Donnell, for example, is close to the Conservative Party and its chairman – Ralph Lorigo. And several Democratic legislators will receive gentle reminders that Conservatives provided their margin of victory last time up.

And because Erie County Dems resemble Afghan warlords in how they run their party, not all will jump on the O'Brien bandwagon Zellner has set in motion. That means Erie County Republican Chairman Nick Langworthy and his legislative troops could also have a say.

The O'Brien candidacy sheds light on another fissure in local Democratic politics, the one between Headquarters and City Hall. The new chairman has worked hard to bridge the gap that opened between former Chairman Len Lenihan and Brown. Zellner and Brown have thawed some of those icy relations in recent weeks, and the new chairman has not ruled out the party nod for the mayor's re-election effort this year.

But now a new effort to knock off O'Donnell – a longtime Brown and Pigeon ally – may only throw that whole deal back into the deep freeze.

Starting next week, the Legislature will waste the time of well-intentioned citizens who applied for the post after the process “opened up” several years ago. Some of those folks will be quizzed in sessions that might even highlight real, live qualifications.

But most will not testify how they might further the objectives of a bunch of politicians around here. And the bet here is that the legislators won't ask them.

Despite all the fun and games, the water still runs through pipes from Lake Erie to the homes of 540,000 Erie County residents every day. Life goes on.

But so does politics in Western New York. And if you're enthralled by the way it works in this part of the world, there is no better vantage point to watch than at the Erie County Water Authority.



email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com