Privately, Mayor Byron Brown is seething over his removal as State Chairman of the Democratic Party. Operatives close to the newly triumphant Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins were angry with Brown’s refusal to fundraise for Democrat Carima El-Behairy and Joan Seamans in the 60th and 61st districts.
Behairy could have easily won the 60th district seat, which comprises much of the City of Buffalo and enjoys a Democrat enrollment advantage — but Brown has a personal relationship with Republican Senator Chris Jacobs that would rue the day for Senate Democrats.
In the 61st district, Seamans challenged Republican Mike Ranzenhofer and — to everyone’s surprise — nearly ousted the longtime incumbent in a district where Democrats regularly finish 25 to 30 percentage points behind. Albany Democrats were floored when Seamans came within eight points of victory without any substantial financial or organizational support from the party.
Those two districts have become priority number one for Stewart-Cousins, who is looking to secure a two-thirds majority in her chamber ahead of reapportionment in 2021. The first step to wining them both needed to be Brown’s removal, an operative close to her thinking has told The Chronicle.
Brown is deeply resentful of Erie County Democratic Party Chairman Jeremy Zellner, who he blames for the party’s poor local performance — and by extension, for his removal as State Chairman.
In Brown’s view, Zellner is responsible for fielding local campaigns and working with local candidates to support those projects. If he had organized fundraisers for either Behairy or Seamans, he would have attended, a source explains.
Beyond simply dropping the ball, Brown views Zellner as a problematic figure who bullies subordinates at the County Legislature, where Zellner works as a high-paid political appointee of the Democrat caucus of the County Legislature.
While he understands that Zellner must run a political organization, Brown feels uncomfortable that he does so with “resentment and bile.”
Brown has been contemplating who he might run against Zellner, though much of the party organization is controlled by committeemen who are loyal to Zellner and his mentor Erie County Elections Commissioner Len Lenihan, the previous chairman. They have long stocked the committee with loyalists, most of whom are geriatrics with relatives holding government jobs, and who themselves lack the stature to challenge the two men.
Both men are widely seen as wielding an unsavoury patronage machine, motivated largely by government jobs and low-level graft. Their critics say that neither concerns himself beyond the nominal objectives of the next election cycle, all the while exerting extraordinarily extortionate pressures on government employees who credit the Chairman for their positions.
Zellner, like Lenihan before him, is known to demand campaign contributions from the wages of government employees, and regularly demands their uncompensated labour during the petitioning process required to access the ballot. Critics have long argued that both activities could constitute extortion. If the government employee was to refuse to satisfy Zellner’s requests for campaign contributions and uncompensated labour for political activities, they would soon lose their jobs, they postulate.
Despite Zellner’s obvious advantages of incumbency — managing the process of his own election — some think that a well-financed and popularly promoted campaign to unseat the Chairman could sway enough of the weighted vote on the committee to force a changing of the guard.
Initial names being contemplated by the Mayor’s inner circle are Joyce Nixon, Barbara Miller-Williams, and Brandye Merriweather.
It’s unclear whether Zellner will be able to hold together his base of support — especially in light of relatively recent calls for a woman to serve as Chairman, with many committeemen even prodding former Deputy Election Commissioner Gayle Syposs to seek the post. That prospect would decisively split the Chairman’s support, likely forcing his ouster.