[UPDATED W/ZELLNER COMMENTS]
On Friday, June 7th, PoliticsNY.net broke the Rumor that Lynn Szalkowski, the endorsed Democrat candidate for Erie County Comptroller, had informed County Democratic chairman Jeremy Zellner that she was dropping out of the race against Republican incumbent Stefan Mychajliw.
Since then, the did-she-or-didn't-she talk about Szalkowski has fertilized the political grape vine. On Friday, WGRZ-TV's Scott Brown aired a story alleging the truth of our Rumor, complete with reaction from Cheektowaga Democrat Chair Frank Max.
According to Brown's story, the Erie County Democratic Committee still insists Szalkowski is running and she's not talking. Insiders say she's been told to keep quiet about leaving the race until after the petition deadline of July 11th.
Zellner's gambit: to leave Szalkowski's name on nominating petitions still being circulated by dozens of Erie County Democrats pounding the pavement in Erie County neighborhoods. If she simply declines the nomination before July 15th, Zellner can hand pick another candidate.
This is not an unusual tactic; County chairs often do it to buy time and select a winning candidate. Since Szalkowski notified the chairman, insiders say Zellner has approached Jon Gorman, clerk to NYS Supreme Court Justice Gerald Whalen, and Lackawanna Assessor Frank Krakowski. (We have no inkling of their answers.)
In fact, County government veteran Camille Brandon was overheard Thursday night saying Zellner has approached Dennis Gorski a second time, since first asking the former county executive to run for Comptroller in late January. [This, too, was first broken in PoliticsNY.net's Rumor & Innuendo column.] Brandon was standing with Gorski when she spoke and he didn't disagree.
This mess bodes well for Erie County Republicans, for sure - and insiders say this race is not the only one where Zellner is circulating stalking horse petitions. But the story behind this Comptroller quagmire gets worse.
Sources close to Szalkowski say she told Chairman Zellner right up front that if she were to enter the race, her family came first. From all accounts, she recently suffered deaths in her family that left her and others healing. The campaign trail would take a back seat to her family-related events. Zellner reportedly agreed.
Prior to awarding the Hamburg CPA the Democratic endorsement, those same sources say Zellner painted a rosy picture of what the Comptroller campaign would require of her. Szalkowski agreed to run with no idea the grueling, difficult and demanding nature of a successful countywide campaign.
To make matters worse, the insiders say she was promised support from Democratic Headquarters in all aspects of the campaign, including fundraising.
Once the Democratic endorsement was secured, sources say all that changed.
Shortly after he announced her endorsement, Zellner informed the candidate that she would now have to call former employers and clients for money, she would have to line up all of their contractors and business partners for money, and she would have to reach out to the business community to raise money.
This made Szalkowski, who is delightfully shy, incredibly uncomfortable. It got so bad between the her and the chair that they even fought over her hair color - Szalkowski is a striking person and her flaming red hair is immediately recognizable. She wanted to keep it that way.
The escalating differences came to a head on Sunday, June 3rd: the day of Buffalo's Gay Pride Parade and the Parade of Circles in South Buffalo. Szlakowski loyalists say Zellner was so forceful that she skip long-planned family functions to attend the parades, that the new politico broke out in hives.
Up until that point, practically no one saw the countywide candidate on the campaign trail. At the Pride Parade, one youth was spotted wearing one of her campaign T-shirts. No sign of the candidate. And right about the same time, Szlakowski is said to have sent Zellner an email definitively dropping out of the race.
Insiders say shortly thereafter she also informed the Grassroots political club and officials from the Working Families Party that she was out.
"It is our understanding that Chairman Zellner is pushing Ms. Szalkowski to allow her name to still appear on the ballot in November," one senior Republican said. "If he can't find a replacement, he wants her to 'officially' accept the candidacy even though there is no commitment for her to actually run for Comptroller."
In theory, Democrats could use her name to attack Comptroller Mychajliw without any notion of trying to win - and without the candidate campaigning at all. This would drain valuable resources from Republicans who have good chances of winning the Sheriff and County Legislature races. Some might call that savvy politics.
Another motivation: the Wrath of Poloncarz. Recent Republican polling shows Mychajliw's job approval and favorability ratings eclipse those of County Executive Mark Poloncarz. It's not even close. Some say Zellner is getting pressure from the County Executive to go after Mychajliw, even if it means diverting resources from important, winnable races.
According to Zellner, this is much ado about nothing - including his alleged recruiting calls. "I have never spoken to Dennis Gorski about running for any office, ever. I have never approached Jon Gorman to run for office and I don't even know Mr. Krakowski," he said.
"As petitioning started, Lynn came into my office and said health problems may not permit her to continue on the campaign. I did not want to pry into her life, and she assured me this was entirely health related," Zellner said. "I told her to return to her family while we completed petitions."
"Lynn has a lot of stuff to think about with her family at this time, but she has never dropped out of this race," Zellner said. "This is not a fake campaign - she is our candidate for County Comptroller."
"Frank Max has not participated in the County Party in over a year now. He hasn't even shown up to Town Chair meetings," Zellner said in reaction to his party colleagues' comments on WGRZ. "Lynn came to speak to us; Frank wasn't there. She interviewed with the executive committee twice and even reached out to Frank during the endorsement process."
Someone needs to tell Lynn Szalkowski that if she accepts the nomination, it will be a full-blown countywide campaign - not just "a name on the ballot." She does not yet understand that Republicans will come straight at her if she is the candidate. There will be no quarter given just because she is keeping her head down.
If Szalkowski declines the nomination, then Zellner can choose a candidate who will be run through the Committee on Vacancies - a group of Erie County Democrat bigwigs who will rubber stamp the chairman's choice.
If that's the case, it will be the second campaign in a row where party bosses handpick a candidate to give Poloncarz a pass in the Comptroller's Office.
It didn't work the first time. It won't likely work again. Stay tuned.