CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Erie County's leaderless Democrats are attending the Democratic National Convention this week, dogged by an upcoming struggle for the chairmanship back home and the continued wariness of state party leaders who wonder what is going on in Buffalo.
That's nothing new for the frequently bickering politicos of the county Democratic Party.
But after former Buffalo Mayor Anthony M. Masiello withdrew Tuesday as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's candidate for new county chairman, concern intensified among state and local delegates who recognize that a significant Democratic contingent remains adrift - just as campaign season begins.
"I have to admit that outside of what will happen to Kathy Hochul [in her House race against Chris Collins], the next question I am asked is who will be the next Democratic chairman of Erie County?" said County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, who acknowledges that he has no answer and that the uncertainty is troubling.
Meanwhile, the convention continues. Erie County's delegates will participate in the process of nominating President Obama for a second term, but they seem more concerned about gaining entrance to the best parties in town.
Veteran conventioneers such as former Common Council President George K. Arthur (attending his fourth convention) say the effects of Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan's impending retirement at the behest of Cuomo's political operatives is disconcerting.
"There's no in-control person; no one who helps organize," he said. "That's because the county chairman has been left out."
So while the mechanics of the convention process remain intact, Arthur said the "perception" of the local delegation has suffered.
"Nobody recognizes Western New York," he said. "It's like we've been left out this time."
For more than a year, Cuomo's political team has attempted to impose unity on the warring factions after Western New York emerged as the state's only region to vote for Republican Carl P. Paladino in the 2010 gubernatorial election. That led to Lenihan's forced ouster and an attempt to replace him with Masiello.
But now that Masiello has withdrawn, statewide party officials seem to throw up their hands, even if they recognize that some suburban party leaders chafed at being "dictated" to by Albany.
"The goal has always been to try and have Erie unified and functioning as part of an overall Democratic apparatus," said one Democrat who asked not to be identified. "For years, it was like the Middle East.
"We've got to hold the county executive post there, but you can't do that if you have all these Balkanized divisions," he added. "It's a concern."
Poloncarz, who says he will announce his choice for chairman next week, said he is also discouraged by the absence of elected officials attending the convention here.
"That's disappointing because this is where a lot of important discussions are held," he said. "I think it's important to have representation from Western New York."
The county executive said the region's negative perception among other regions is only exacerbated by its vote for Paladino in 2010, despite its strong Democratic enrollment advantage.
"That's one reason I hear so much talk among fellow Democrats about what we need to strengthen Western New York," he said.
One of those attending the convention attempting to address the situation is Jeremy J. Zellner, County Legislature chief of staff and a candidate for chairman.
"That's why it's extremely important I get elected," he said. "We need someone to stop it."
Others seeking the chairmanship include Frank C. Max Jr., chairman of the Cheektowaga Democrats; James J. Eagan, a financial executive and a Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority commissioner; and attorney Marc C. Panepinto. None has risen to front-runner status.