I wrote this linked-to post during Wednesday and Thursday, with the intention of posting it first thing Monday morning. When I learned that the Buffalo News’ political columnist Bob McCarthy would be covering similar points, I accelerated publishing my own thoughts to Friday so they wouldn’t be seen as reactive. I’ll be bumping it to the top on Monday morning anyway, but this morning we have McCarthy’s transcription services to fisk. (Fisk definition).
President Obama took Erie County in a landslide Election Day, but you might not have recognized that victory by some of the long faces at Democratic Party headquarters in Ellicott Square Tuesday might.
That’s because Erie County Democrats suffered through a dismal Election Night, losing three major offices.
On the flip side, the frowns and disappointment at Mitt Romney’s Boston headquarters never made their way to Buffalo. In fact, the local GOP appeared downright giddy after picking off a congressional seat and county comptroller’s office, while staving off an attempt to dethrone State Sen. Mark J. Grisanti.
Their successes gave a sense of accomplishment to local GOP leaders in a county where registered Democrats significantly outnumber Republicans and Obama garnered 220,506 votes to Romney’s 160,337.
“We went with our traditional recipe of having great candidates, the right message, and the revenues to get out that message,” said Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy. “The taxpayers are buying what we are selling because our issues are right.”
I don’t know if I’d go as far as that. I don’t know what Mr. Mychajliw’s “issues” are, nor am I too familiar with what Mr. Grisanti’s “issues” are. A big issue, for instance, is hydrofracking. Mr. Grisanti has been silent or indecisive on that. UB 2020 didn’t pass – SUNY 2020 did. Under UB 2020, UB would have $4 billion to play with to transform itself from a socialistically redistributive public university into a quasi-private business incubator. Under SUNY 2020, all SUNY schools need to compete for a $35 million pot for capital improvements, administered by the Empire State Development Corporation. Mr. Collins’ issues? Obamapelosi and a promise to do whatever Speaker Boehner tells him to do.
But it’s a far different story this post-election weekend for Democrats, and the bickering that marks the local party leadership has been revived.
Yes, it has. I addressed it here in a plea for everyone to act like grownups and re-assess how the Erie County Democratic Committee conducts itself. Whose opinions, pray, does Mr. McCarthy transcribe?
“The Democrats ought to take a close look at what happened,” said former Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon. “We should have had three wins, and we had three losses.”
Specifically, he blamed former county chairman Leonard R. Lenihan and the new chairman Jeremy J. Zellner.
“They put in a lackey who got [Lenihan’s] coffee,” Pigeon said of Zellner. “You can’t unify the party as long as Len Jr. is in the chairman’s seat.
“It’s a joke,” he added. “To have this little, junior, mid-level staffer as chairman of Erie County is an embarrassment. Zellner ought to step down.”
It’s funny, at first. It’s funny at first to read the petulant venom from a loser calling someone else a loser. It’s funny to see someone who hasn’t played a constructive role in WNY Democratic politics in forever lecture Len Lenihan and Jeremy Zellner. When you demand that someone resign a post that they just won in an election because you hate them, you display a remarkably childish arrogance underscored by the fact that none of Pigeon‘s own picks won anything this round.
I know a lot of people don’t like Zellner any more than they liked Lenihan, but to insult him as having been Lenihan’s coffee boy is so ignorant and blind. First of all, even if Zellner had done nothing more in the last decade than get Lenihan’s coffee, that task would have been infinitely more productive for Erie County Democrats than what Pigeon‘s been doing during that same period of time. After all, being a coffee boy doesn’t actively do harm to Democratic candidacies. But, of course, Zellner was the executive director, not the coffee boy. That might be how Pigeon treated his ED when he was chairman, but Zellner was quite active in every Democratic race – won or lost – for a decade.
Party unity? You can’t unify the party where “unity” is defined by at least one faction as being “taking control” and “getting everything I want.” But more on the whole notion of party unity below.
Zellner laughed heartily at Pigeon’s suggestion about stepping aside before addressing the criticism.
He said he inherited a treasury with just $700 but got to work raising money and spending it on the local candidates.
“I’ve raised $200,000 and spent at least half of that on the election,” Zellner said. “I won’t be criticized by people from the past who are irrelevant anyway.”
Pigeon’s criticism against party leaders centered on fielding poor candidates and failing to do enough for Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, who barely lost the 27th Congressional District to Republican Chris Collins.
Pigeon may have been most frustrated with the State Senate race.
He was instrumental in recruiting former County Legislature Chairman Charles M. Swanick to run in the Democratic primary for State Senate and also securing Conservative Party backing for him in the general election. But Swanick lost the primary to Michael L. Amodeo, who had the backing of the local party leaders, and then Grisanti won easily Tuesday.
In addition to blaming Lenihan and Zellner, Pigeon also took aim at County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz and Elections Commissioner Dennis E. Ward.
A strong Democratic enrollment advantage should have been enough to defeat Grisanti, Pigeon said.
Pigeon remains incensed over the party’s rejection of the Swanick candidacy, maintaining that if Lenihan and Poloncarz had agreed, a united Democratic front backed by Albany could have knocked off Grisanti.
“We would have had the Democratic, Conservative and Working Families lines, and instead Poloncarz gets Amodeo the [Democratic] line,” Pigeon said. “He searched high and low for another candidate because he perceived that Swanick would be close to me.”
Amodeo was a weak candidate who had previously lost an Assembly primary, Pigeon said, while Swanick was a moderate Democrat from the suburbs with a long history of success.
And he blamed Poloncarz for insisting David J. Shenk be the comptroller candidate, when he felt others would have proven stronger candidates.
Swanick is a conservative Democrat-in-enrollment-only (is he, even?) whose entire candidacy was predicated on an anti-same-sex-marriage position he sold to Ralph Lorigo and the National Organization for Marriage (NOM). Lorigo was eager to punish incumbent Republican Mark Grisanti, who Lorigo believed had deceived him with respect to allowing gay couples to marry. Practically all of Swanick’s funding came from NOM or from “loans” that this retired railroad engineer is supposed to have made to his own campaign in the amount of $35,000. Did Democrats flock to his candidacy during the primary? Nope. Despite Al Coppola’s perennial presence on the primary ballot to siphon off Italian votes from Amodeo, Swanick only managed 26% of the vote (Al Coppola actually outperformed Swanick in the City of Buffalo). That number is the homophobe dead-ender vote. Swanick had no business running as a Democrat in a race, regardless of who’s behind you or who has endorsed you.
Democrats in Erie County shouldn’t sell out their principles to Ralph Lorigo just to get a “W”.
But being conclusively rejected by Democrats wasn’t enough. Swanick – whose record of failure in the County legislature remains relatively fresh in people’s minds – stayed in the race and fared poorly (12%) in the general election, too.
What’s Pigeon’s track record? Consider, when Byron Brown fired Pigeon in 2004 in advance of his run for Mayor, he said of Pigeon,
“Unfortunately, he has been unable to move beyond his attitudes toward those whom he believes have wronged him politically in the past…It was painfully obvious he just wasn’t a positive influence on my staff.”
Nor was he a positive influence as Democratic county chairman. His profligate spending drove the party into debt, and his heavy hand fomented internecine wars that made politics rather than policy the focus of local government for most of his tenure. That’s why Brown had to separate himself from Pigeon if he wanted to become mayor; major funders around here made it clear that Brown was welcome to the second floor of City Hall but Pigeon was not.
Now? That same Steve Pigeon whines that the Erie County Democratic Committee refused to back a candidate who ran on a homophobe platform and couldn’t secure more than 20% of the vote from anyone, anywhere. Chuck Swanick was the last great hope to defeat Mark Grisanti, who had enough money to spend $20,000 per day in the campaigns waning days and had broad bipartisan support based on equality and inclusion? Everyone, everywhere rejected Chuck Swanick, and Pigeon is having a tantrum because he didn’t get a chance to be more widely rejected? That’s astonishing.
As for McCarthy, it’s irresponsible for him to transcribe these sneering accusations without challenge in his “opinion column”.
Instead, Republican Stefan Mychajliw snared the post – considered a major coup in a Democratic county with strong turnout in a presidential year.
“He puts in a guy who is not prepared, has no resume or base, and with no pizazz as a candidate,” Pigeon said. “In a presidential year, we lose a countywide race because of the pettiness of Poloncarz, Lenihan and Ward.”
“This shows you Poloncarz’s leadership of the Democratic Party is abysmal,” Pigeon said.
Consider that for a moment.
Poloncarz is the County Executive. Shenk was running for County Comptroller. The County Comptroller is supposed to be independent from the County Executive. If he isn’t, the post is meaningless and could lead to bad government.
Just ask Nancy Naples and Joel Giambra.
If Poloncarz had become involved in the Comptroller race, a tremendous volume of feces would have sprayed all over him and Shenk, from having hit the fan.
And whom would Pigeon have put in place as Comptroller? George Hasiotis, he who proposes now a $1.5 billion Dubai-like waterfront stadium for a failing team in a shrinking city? We’re entertaining a tantrum because Erie County voters lost out on Hasiotis’ “pizazz”?
Erie County Conservative Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo contended a united front behind Swanick would have worked.
“One candidate would have been extremely viable and probably be successful,” he said.
Translation: I backed this homophobe because he was as opposed to queer marriage as I was, and you Democrats screwed it up by nominating some queer-lover.
“Looking back a year ago, there were stories about the death of the Republican Party in Erie County,” Poloncarz said. “It’s fair to say the people spoke on Tuesday, and you have to respect that.”
Meanwhile, Langworthy and his GOP are experiencing none of the flak aimed at Democratic leaders. The Grisanti and Mychajliw victories rank as especially significant because they occurred in a presidential year with high Democratic turnout, he said.
I think Democrats locally have a lot of soul-searching to do. I’ve laid it out here. But I think part of it is to ignore the sour grapes from a set of tainted, malignant has-beens who promote prejudiced, failed, or “pizazz”-free candidacies.
Being a Democrat means more than just winning elections. It also means standing on principle. Sometimes we win, sometimes we won’t; but winning while selling out critical parts of our fundamental party coalition isn’t really “winning.” Winning an election by selling out our principles isn’t winning. We may not have defeated Mark Grisanti, but we didn’t whore ourselves out, either. We may not have defeated Stefan Mychajliw, but it speaks to an undesirable job with an exceedingly shallow bench, and it underscores that selling out our principles for political expediency results in cynicism and people deciding not be active in the party.
When that happens, all you’ll have left is a bunch of transactional hacks looking for jobs.