Poloncarz’s tepid relationship with Schumer may play into Zellner ouster

Senator Chuck Schumer and County Executive Mark Poloncarz have never been close. The two men’s personalities hardly mesh, and both see the other as overrated, calculated, and shifty.

It looks like that cold relationship could now have implications for Poloncarz’s future, in an internal party fight that is brewing inside the local Democrat organization.

Mayor Byron Brown feels badly burned by Governor Andrew Cuomo. Brown blames Erie County Democrat headquarters — run by Chairman Jeremy Zellner, a Poloncarz loyalist, for the party’s poor performance.

Brown blames Zellner for failing to fundraise for local Democrats in last year’s State Senate elections. Stewart-Cousins was upset that Brown didn’t do more for local Senate candidates, and her operatives insisted that he be removed as chairman. Brown was replaced by Jay Jacobs.

Brown, who rightly feels that he has earned greater stature and clout than he has been afforded among local Democrats, is planning on coalescing the party around his organization, with the objective of replacing Zellner at a party reorganization meeting later this year.

Now — a source is telling The Chronicle — that Schumer is inclined to support Brown in replacing Zellner with “a less petty politico” who “doesn’t peddle in vengeance.”

Schumer has long been impressed with Brown’s ability to mobilize the Black vote on Buffalo’s East Side, often with the assistance of Grassroots Inc, a political investment vehicle founded by G. Steven Pigeon.

Zellner has long been criticized for demanding free labor from government employees for political work — including petitioning for headquarters candidates’ ballot access. He is also known to regularly solicit political contributions from the wages of individuals who credit the chairman for their government positions.

Schumer wants to see a culture change inside the party’s Erie County organization, and agrees with Brown that Zellner is the source of the maliciousness and ineptitude.

That’s unlikely to sit well with Poloncarz, who was in some respects mentored by Zellner, despite the Chairman being several years his junior. Poloncarz enjoys having a cozy relationship with headquarters, its fundraising operation (albeit lackluster in recent years), and it’s committee organizations.

If Brown installed a chairman loyal to him, it would shift the party’s center of gravity towards City Hall and away from the County Executive’s office. It would extend Brown’s political influence into the suburbs — with control over which candidates run for county office and which operatives get county jobs.

Among Brown’s many opportunities for political advancement, observers have long identified the 26th congressional district, currently held by Rep. Brian Higgins, as an obvious next step.

A battle over the party’s committeemen could foreshadow which faction of the party will succeed Higgins in controlling that Congressional seat: city Democrats or suburban Democrats.

Mayor Brown is preparing to assert his substantial political stature by taking control of the party’s local Erie County organization. If he is going to be judged by the local party’s performance, he figures, then he should control the strategy, messaging, fundraising, and field operations.
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