It’s been more than two months since Democrat Lynn M. Marinelli resigned from the Erie County Legislature to accept a post in the Cuomo administration.
It’s also been more than two months since voters in District 3 have been represented by a county legislator in County Hall. Marinelli stepped down Jan. 15.
And because the scrapping factions of Erie County’s Democratic Party appear nowhere near agreement on whom to recommend from a crowded field of nine potential successors, just about all observers watching the situation from inside and outside the party say it is not likely to change in the near future.
“Nobody has 50 percent plus one to get the recommendation,” said a source watching the proceedings who is close to County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz.
Few involved in the stalemate will speak for the record because of the sensitivity of the negotiations. But some also say Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner has failed to convene a recommendation meeting primarily because he and Poloncarz object to the candidate thought to have the most support – Buffalo Assistant Corporation Counsel Peter J. Savage III.
Several sources insist that Savage – a member of Mayor Byron W. Brown’s inner circle – has gained sufficient backing from committee members in Buffalo and the Town of Tonawanda to win the nod. Others maintain that nobody can yet say they have enough votes to secure the recommendation of party committee members, which is expected to be accepted by the four Democratic members of the Legislature’s minority caucus.
But a struggle is also underway between forces loyal to Poloncarz and those close to Brown.
The mayor’s supporters are strongly backing Savage. Zellner, who is closely allied with the county executive, has held off in what some call a reflection of Poloncarz’s wariness of City Hall influence in county affairs.
One county-based source put it more bluntly by indicating the problem stems from Savage’s close association with Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey – the mayor’s top assistant and political point man.
“We all like Peter; he’s an honest player and a good guy,” the source said. “But the concern is that he’s too involved in City Hall politics and now he wants to come to the county. And it’s not about anything to do with the mayor; it’s about being too close to Steve Casey.”
Casey emphasized late Saturday that City Hall supports Poloncarz “100 percent,” and that the mayor’s backing of Savage stems from the city claiming 70 percent of the district and the desire for a significant political advancement for one of their own.
“This is not anti-Poloncarz or anti-Zellner; it’s pro-Savage,” Casey said. “We view him as a qualified candidate who would represent the district very well.”
The county source also noted that some Democrats are irked over calls of support for Savage by Ralph C. Lorigo, the Erie County Conservative chairman. The source said that the Conservative leader should not be meddling in an internal Democratic affair.
But Lorigo noted the close association his party enjoys with other legislators and said he likes Savage.
“He’s been very helpful, has a good background in government and is an attorney,” Lorigo said. “He’s also been very fiscally responsible, because that’s where the mayor is.”
Savage said late Saturday he is seeking the seat on his own, and that he fully supports the county executive and his agenda.
“This is a decision I’ve made on my own because I believe I have a lot to offer and others think I would be a good fit,” he said. “I have not been put up to this by anyone.”
Zellner was unavailable for comment. But Erich Weyant, who will soon take over as executive director of the local party, denied that the delay is any reflection on the chairman’s inability to lead the process. Instead, he said Zellner is committed to letting the committee members have their say before calling a meeting.
“This is something he is determined will come from the district and the rank and file,” he said, “and it has to play out.”
Town of Tonawanda Democratic Chairman John J. Crangle has not yet indicated where his committee members will land on the vacancy.
Other candidates include former Legislator Michele M. Iannello, Buffalo Board of Education Member Jason M. McCarthy; Kenmore Mayor Patrick Mang; Jennifer L. DiAgostino, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Justice; Joel P. Feroleto, an aide to State Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo; Amber A. Small, executive director of the Parkside Community Association; and Chris Becker, a private-sector businessman and Iraq War veteran.
Another candidate, Patrick J. Ruffino, said he will accept the appointment on the condition he not run in the next general election.
“By me being appointed to the seat for the remainder of the year, it will allow the district to have representation without having to run for election two years in a row,” he said. “It will present a level playing field for those wishing to run in an open primary.
“I believe the longer they let this issue go, the longer the district goes without representation and they diminish the meaning of the seat,” he added.
Weyant said it is possible the issue may be decided in the next two weeks, though not all observers are as optimistic.