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Neither Bert D. Dunn nor Richard E. Dobson ever even dipped their toes into politics over their long careers in law enforcement, but as candidates for Erie County sheriff in the Sept. 10 Democratic primary, they suddenly find themselves neck deep in the party’s intramural battles.

A look at the insiders of their organizations tells the story.

Sitting at workers’ tables in Dunn’s Orchard Park office last week were various familiar figures from Democratic headquarters, which is ferociously advocating the veteran sheriff’s lieutenant in a primary battle that could go a long way toward preserving the reign of county Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner. In fact, former Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan – a close Zellner ally – is managing the Dunn campaign.

Dobson, meanwhile, is backed by Zellner rival Frank C. Max Jr., the Cheektowaga Democratic chairman who lost out for chairman last year but who vows he will be elected county leader when elections are held again in 2014. Max and other Zellner foes are supplying the political organization for the retired sheriff’s lieutenant as they maneuver against a headquarters organization virtually ignored by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s political team.

And constantly at Dobson’s side is James J. Eagan, coincidentally secretary of Cuomo’s Democratic State Committee, often mentioned as a future county chairman himself.

It all adds up to a battle between two cops who insist they are not politicians, but recognize they now man the front lines in Erie County’s eternal Democratic warfare.

Dobson, 68, has been retired from the Sheriff’s Office for 13 years. But he said he now itches to return because of problems under Republican Sheriff Timothy B. Howard he said he never experienced under former Sheriff Patrick M. Gallivan, also a Republican.

But Dobson characterized his reception by party leaders as cool, and characterized their interview as “loaded questions and a stacked deck.”

“I knew I didn’t have a chance,” he said. “They even questioned my loyalty to the party.”

Indeed, party loyalty – even party registration – has figured prominently in the race from the beginning. The Buffalo News reported in April that Dunn accidentally texted a message that fell into unfriendly hands indicating he was no fan of either President Obama nor Cuomo, and that Ronald Reagan was his favorite president. He also stated that he’s fiscally conservative but needs to run on a major-party line.

More revelations followed, including that at various times Dunn registered as a Republican, a Democrat, a Republican again and a Democrat again. Dobson had his own problems with party purists when his registration history became public: blank, then Republican, and now Democrat.

Both offer compelling reasons for their serial switching and insist they remain true to Democratic philosophy, but it has all become part of the campaign.

“I don’t think I should have to defend my choice to be a Democrat, it’s my decision,” Dunn said. “And if they pick Dobson over me because of that, that’s hypocritical. He did the same thing.”

Dunn, however, has encountered the most serious flak.

“He said he was a conservative at heart and that his favorite president was Ronald Reagan,” Dobson says. “He’s the president who busted the air traffic controllers’ union.”

Dunn, 43, offers no apologies for being a “Reagan Democrat” in his youth, and admires him for winning the Cold War. And Dunn still seems unable to warm up to Cuomo, especially after the governor pushed the strict new gun control law known as the NY SAFE Act.

“Cuomo thought what he was doing would get him out front and boost his presidential hopes,” Dunn said. “Clearly, this was rushed through. He created an issue that made it difficult for us in law enforcement.”

As a countywide elected Democrat, would Dunn stand in support with Cuomo at political events?

“It depends,” he said. “We would probably have to have a discussion. Though I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know who I am or care who I am.

“I don’t want Andrew Cuomo to fail, and I am not a politician,” he added. “But if there is ever a choice between doing the right thing and the politically correct thing, I will always do the right thing.”

Dobson’s view differs only slightly.

“Cuomo, he’s my governor and Obama is my president,” he said. “Do I agree with everything they say? No. I’m not a robot.”

Zellner and Max both acknowledge they are working hard for their respective candidates. Zellner continuously invokes the name of former Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon, a Dobson supporter and headquarters nemesis who he says is calling the shots.

“Steve sees it as a way of weakening us,” Zellner said. “It’s part of a small group of people in the party trying to derail us.”

Max denies that Pigeon has a major role, citing Zellner’s need for a “bogeyman.”

“They think every time they say Steve Pigeon’s name it resonates,” he said. “They always have to have a bogeyman, and that offends a lot of people who are working hard.”

From the outset, Dobson has contended that he was passed over for the party endorsement because of the promise of Dunn – whose family owns Bert’s Bikes and Fitness – to self-finance the race. Campaign finance reports show that Dunn is personally responsible for the vast majority of the money raised so far with $145,500 in loans.

“I don’t want to be beholden to anybody,” he said.

Dobson’s latest campaign finance reports were not yet filed as of Friday’s deadline, but he is advertising on television despite indicating only about $7,300 on hand in early August. Dunn has about $62,000 on hand according to the latest report filed Friday.

Endorsements by groups and individual politicians also show the party lining up along its political battle lines. Besides Max, Dobson has support from former County Executive Dennis T. Gorski, Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, Common Council President Richard A. Fontana, the Grassroots political club, various unions and the party leaders of Marilla, Wales and Aurora.

Dunn is backed by former Sheriff Thomas F. Higgins, North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr., County Legislator Lynn M. Marinelli and the Stonewall Democrats.

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com