It hasn’t been a good year for Erie County Democratic Party Chairman Jeremy Zellner, who has lost the confidence of dozens of the party’s most loyal officials in a succession of political missteps that have called into question his judgement and strategic decision making.
Most recently Zellner is being lambasted by party activists for his role in upending the party’s effort to take the 27th Congressional district held by Chris Collins, a prominent loyalist to President Donald Trump.
Zellner strong armed several county chairs into backing Nate McMurray in an early effort to thwart a party primary, rather than allowing an organic five-way primary contest, which could have gone a long way towards party building and cultivating grassroots energy in a vast and staunchly conservative expanse of New York State.
In doing so Zellner dismissed Sean Bunny, a centrist Democrat, a military veteran, and a prosecutor in the Erie County District Attorney’s Office. Bunny, whose family has extensive union ties, was seen by many as the strongest candidate among the contenders. He even out raised McMurray by nearly $100,000.
Now, with merely $14,000 in the campaign account, McMurray has been asked by Cuomo-aligned political operatives to step aside in the race, in an effort to remove Lt. Governor Kathy Hochul’s name from that statewide contest. Operatives from both sides of the aisle say that it shows how bungled Zellner mismanaged the process — quick to note that Hochul’s more recent left leaning policy posture and association with Cuomo wouldn’t contend well in the district anyway.
In last year’s elections for countywide offices including Comptroller, Sheriff, and Clerk — many party stalwarts blame Zellner for serious strategic missteps. For instance, Zellner’s organization raised more than $120,000 for County Clerk candidate Steve Cichon, widely seen as a Zellner proxy. But he didn’t deliver a dime to Sheriff candidate Bernie Tolbert, at a time when the African American community was organizing aggressively around his campaign. In the end, Tolbert came closer to winning the Sheriff’s office than any Democrat in recent memory — even winning the traditionally Republican leaning Town of Amherst. With a little bit of help, Tolbert could have defeated Howard by flipping a couple thousand votes.
Activists say that Zellner rules the Party by grudge, and if you’re not sufficiently willing to act as a submissive puppet of headquarters, he has no interest in assisting a mere Democrat’s candidacy. While Zellner narrowly won the County Legislature, he only did so following the depletion of massive amount of the party’s time and resources into the 2nd county legislative district — where electing a Democrat would be inevitable, but where Zellner was hell bent on electing a proxy candidate in April Baskin.
His critics say that if Zellner had repurposed that energy into defeating a Republican or helping to fundraise for Tolbert, the Party’s interests would have been more meaningfully advanced. But Zellner derives considerable patronage largess by controlling a majority of members of the Democratic caucus of the county legislature. If Duncan Kirkwood had defeated Baskin, a competing caucus of Democrats might have refused to allow Zellner to allocate the legislature’s patronage positions.
Now Zellner is being criticized for not having sufficiently prepared a backbench of Democrat contenders to grow the party in difficult to contest places. They would like to see Sean Bunny — who still has $140,000 in his campaign account — to challenge Assemblyman Dave DiPietro or Senator Patrick Gallivan. But Zellner has burnt that bridge so badly that Bunny (who some Republicans see as a potential nominee for County Executive on the GOP line) is unlikely to take the call.