There are 581,929 registered voters in Erie County. Of these, 288,411 - 49.5 percent - are registered as Democrats. The rest are registered as members of the Republican, Independence, Conservative, or Working Families parties, other parties or not affiliated with any party at all. To say that the Democrats advantage is overwhelming is an understatement.
Or at least it should be. Instead of being overwhelming, Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy Zellner seems overwhelmed.
Zellner, on the advice of his Democrat committee, recruited a number of candidates to run for office this year who are not registered Democrats. Given the large registration advantage, one would think that Zellner would be able to find quality candidates from within his party. The Republicans are also known to occasionally support non-Republican candidates, so the practice is not unprecedented.
Regardless, when a party chooses a non-member to run for office on its line, its chairman must simply file a piece of paper in a timely manner granting permission. It is not a difficult process. Republican Chairman Nicholas Langworthy figured out how to do it when he allowed county legislators Joseph Lorigo (C) and Lynne Dixon (I) to run on the Republican line.
Today, it appears the process was more difficult for Zellner to handle. His candidates for the Erie County Legislature, William Conrad and Alan Getter, as well as several town candidates, required his permission to run on the Democrat line. This should not have been a surprise to the new chair - after all, he recruited the candidates. According to Zellner's Twitter account, he attended Conrad's fundraiser on June 18th. Even though he appeared solid in his support of Conrad that evening, Zellner had until July 15th to file a piece of paper with the Erie County Board of Elections granting Conrad and the others permission to run on the Democrat line.
Zellner must have truly struggled with the decision, because he missed the deadline.
Instead of simply walking a block from his office as Chief of Staff of the Erie County Legislature to the Board of Elections to file the piece of paper sometime between June 18 and July 15, he decided it was best to wait until the last possible minute and mail the piece of paper postmarked just before the deadline. Unfortunately for Democrats who wanted to have a candidate in several elections, Zellner failed to get the document postmarked on time. He claims that he did deliver it in a timely manner, but the Post Office did not postmark it properly.
Even if this claim is accurate, Zellner must not have felt it was important enough to request that the postmark be hand-stamped in front of him. That's standard practice. Of course, there is always the postal receipt for only a few bucks - a small price to pay for certainty.
Unfortunately, the end result of this error will likely be that the Democrat line in several races will remain vacant. This is unfortunate, because voters should have a choice. However, the rules offer abundant opportunities to file this simple piece of paper permitting candidates to run on a line. Party bosses should not be forgiven for ignoring generous and easily met deadlines.
Given the latitude built into the rules, permitting the lines to be filled would beg an important question: why have rules at all?
That said, Zellner's carelessness may actually help his cause. Not the cause of getting more Democrats on the ballot, but Zellner's personal cause.
Zellner personally recruited Conrad to run against Legislator Kevin Hardwick and Getter to run against Legislator Edward Rath. Conrad is a teacher and involved in the teacher's union. Perhaps not coincidentally, the New York State teacher's union recently donated $50,000 to the Erie County Democrat Committee to help with their campaigns. That is approximately the amount that political strategists estimate it will take to defeat Hardwick in November. However, it will cost Getter significantly more than that to defeat Rath. That's a hefty sum to pay for two candidates facing uphill battles, with many other races pending.
If Zellner is relieved of the burden of funding these very expensive races, he can focus his resources on other of his handpicked candidates who have a better chance of success. In particular, he can fully fund the campaigns of Lynn Dearmyer and Winnie Fisher. These candidates are facing stiff primary opposition from candidates recruited by Zellner's biggest critic, Cheektowaga Democrat chair Frank Max.
Zellner may be more concerned with keeping his own job as Chief of Staff at the Erie County Legislature than he is about retaining the Democrat majority there. By way of a hypothetical, let's assume that the Democrat's maintain their 6-5 majority. Legislators Tim Hogues and Betty Jean Grant, both of who would likely retain Zellner, seem like safe bets to be re-elected.
Legislator Lynn Marinelli is known to be pursuing the Erie County Personnel Commissioner post, and would vacate her legislative office to claim it. It is rumored that her short-lived primary opponent Jay McCarthy excused himself from the election with the understanding that he would replace Marinelli when she leaves to become the Personnel Commissioner. McCarthy is believed to be close to Max; he cannot not be expected to support Zellner's day job.
Legislator Tom Loughran took a lot of heat from Zellner for having the audacity to vote against a tax increase in 2013. Although he recently donated to Zellner's Chairman's Committee, he cannot be considered a safe vote for Zellner.
Which means that Zellner must safely secure two votes for him to keep his Chief of Staff job at the legislature. Without the time and financial commitments required to run the Conrad and Getter campaigns, Zellner can focus on securing the election, and subsequent support, or Dearmyer and Fisher.
Do I really believe that Zellner purposely failed to file permission slips in a timely fashion for Conrad and Getter to run on the Democrat line in an effort to save his own job? No, I am sure that it can be chalked up to inexperience and carelessness.
One thing is abundantly clear: even though his mistake will likely hurt the Democratic Party in the end, it does not hurt a particular Democrat by the name of Jeremy Zellner. Maybe he and Langworthy will both have reasons to celebrate on November 5th.
Comments? Please email me at email@example.com. I also comment occasionally on Twitter @PRLivingston.