"Beirut on the Lake"
No talk of unity after Erie County Dems re-elect Zellner
After squeaking past her by a little over 100 votes two years ago, this time around Buffalo state Sen, Tim Kennedy soundly defeated Erie County Legislature Minority Leader Betty Jean Grant, settling their Democratic Primary rematch by an indisputable 61 percent to 39 percent. The two politicians had long held a personal grudge against each other, and this election, like the previous one, was marked by rancor and barely disguised disdain. But having won so conclusively, on primary night Kennedy struck a conciliatory tone at his victory party that suggested he was ready to forget the enmity of the past and was eager to return his focus to his work in Albany.
That spirit didn’t last long. Shortly thereafter Kennedy, along with former Erie County Democratic Committee Chairman Steve Pigeon and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, launched a last–minute attempt to seize control of the Erie County Democratic Party’s leadership from the forces that had favored Grant. The three supported a surprise bid by Amherst Town Councilman Mark Manna to unseat the current chairman, Jeremy Zellner—with several local unions backing their ambush.
“We wanted to send a message, that at least a third of the party was unhappy with the majority’s willingness to collude with the Republican-led coalition in the Senate,” said Kennedy. “It was a protest vote.”
Despite the heavy hitters on Manna’s side, Zellner survived the Sept. 20 challenge, shutting down Manna with 69 percent of the vote. After his victory, Zellner, in remarks reminiscent of Kennedy’s post-primary pronouncements, did his best to be magnanimous. “We’re moving in the right direction. We’re growing the party,” he said. “My overwhelming victory showed that we Democrats are committed to winning in November.”
These latest internecine battles are only the most recent salvos in an ongoing war that has divided Erie County’s Democratic Party for almost two decades. The two factions within the party have long loathed one another with a combustible passion they do not bother to disguise, even if it comes at the price of victory at the ballot box.
At this point many people at the heart of the feud do not even remember why the two sides started fighting. A legislator challenged a state Senator for his seat 20 years ago … a local labor union leader had too much power … someone didn’t attend the requisite funeral—the origins of the animosity no longer matter, notes Kennedy. All that matters is that the two sides hate one another—and probably always will.
“This goes back to the days before I was even on this planet,” Kennedy said. “In Erie County, there’s a Hatfield-McCoy situation, where people don’t even know why they’re fighting. … There’s an old saying that goes back to the days of Mario Cuomo: ‘Buffalo is Beirut on the Lake.’”
When asked what is the source of their strife, leaders of both factions don’t mention stances on poverty or education or economic development— they cite some moment when the other side betrayed them.
“The difference between them and me is I respect the leadership of the party,” said Betty Jean Grant. “They have not accepted that Jeremy Zellner was elected. And they have spent the last two years undermining him.”
Steve Pigeon claims that the side aligned with Grant and Zellner have worked assiduously to maneuver his colleagues out of power. “There was no good reason to go against Tim Kennedy,” he said. “It’s kind of a petty group that fights wars that go back 15, 20 years. … There’s a historic split, and we were willing to negotiate, but there’s no compromise on their side.”
Pigeon said his opposition is “beholden to patronage politics, at the expense of winning elections. … They’re doubling down on dysfunction.” Grant makes a comparable accusation: “They work against anything that’s conducive to a smooth, efficient, electable party.”
Before this election there was a chance that the Democrats would finally settle their grudges and get back to the business of battling their Republican foes, but the challenge to Zellner, and the bad blood it fostered, has destroyed any possibility of détente for the near future.
Still, with the primaries over, the Democrats may yet come together, if halfheartedly, to defeat their local Republican candidates. But the ultimate prospect of unity is one for which Kennedy holds out little hope.
After he won the 2012 primary, according to Kennedy, the Grant– Zellner faction worked openly to undermine his candidacy in the general election. Moreover, he says his enemies began collaborating with the Independent Democratic Conference and its Republican partners in the Senate as early as January to unseat him. Erie County’s Democratic civil war will continue indefinitely, he says, even at the potential cost of the party losing power.
If Kennedy wins the general election, he vows he will put all disharmony behind him and get down to the business of governing. But like every Buffalo Democrat who has come before him, he does not seem to have any plans to forget who did what to him any time soon.
“It’s been quite a year, brother,” he said.