I didn't really know what to expect when I sat down to interview the new Chairman of the Erie County Democratic Committee (ECDC). What I found was that Jeremy Zellner is a passionate, focused, intelligent guy who wants nothing more than to work to elect quality Democratic candidates in Erie County.
For the 34 year-old Zellner, getting to the Chairman's office was contentious, and if a lingering lawsuit over the election process that got him there is weighing on him, it didn't show. To his credit, Zellner didn't want to complain about that. He wanted to look towards the future.
"We have a real opportunity to pull the organization together," he said, "and if we do that we have a real chance to elect good candidates for Sheriff, Comptroller and the County Courts."
Zellner is a lifelong Western New Yorker, a resident of the City of Tonawanda and a graduate of Tonawanda High School and Buffalo State College. He put himself through Buff State, taking classes at night by working at Science Kit, a Tonawanda-based school supply company founded in the 1950s.
Zellner began his road to the Chairman's office in 2003 as a volunteer. "I'd just show up. If there was a bag of mail, I'd just grab it and do it," he said. In 2005, Zellner was made Volunteer Coordinator, and in January of 2009, then-Chairman Leonard Lenihan hired him to be the ECDC's Executive Director. He wasn't a known commodity, a member of the local Democratic establishment, or even someone sitting in a patronage job. In a Buffalo News video piece that was recorded on the day he won the chairmanship, Zellner said, "I was the ultimate outsider. I came in off the street."
That's an important point to me. Often in Western New York, our politics are parochial. You are elected or appointed because it is your turn. You are elected or appointed because of back room deals, or because you scratched the right backs. In contrast, Zellner is a relative newcomer to this game.
In addition to his role as Chair of the ECDC, which he takes no salary for, Zellner is the Chief of Staff for the majority of the Erie County Legislature.
As we were talking, I pointed out the three high profile losses Zellner suffered right out of the gate - Rep. Kathy Hochul, Comptroller David Shenk and State Senate candidate Mike Amodeo. Without a hint of hesitation he responded, "Look, we have a majority in the (Erie County) Legislature, the Mayor and the County Executive and that's something to build on."
On the races he feels are the immediate priorities, Zellner wants to "keep and grow the majority in the Legislature." He immediately jumped on the Erie County Sheriff, pointing out the millions in additional costs based on the hiring of new officers and staffers for the Erie County Holding Center as a result of a settlement with the Department of Justice and a consent decree from the New York State Commission on Corrections. The new hires will cost in the range of $6 million annually, not to mention the expense of settling the lawsuits associated with the Holding Center.
Zellner is obviously proud of what the ECDC has become over the past decade. "When we took over (10 years ago) it was nothing but a pile of bills." He went on to explain the important support they offer candidates: petition printing, design and printing of campaign materials and other campaign infrastructure services.
What Zellner also brings to the job is youth and the perspective of a different generation. The youngest chairman elected since Joe Crangle, Zellner is acutely aware that the Obama team won two very different campaigns by exploiting state of the art technology for messaging and fundraising. He rattled off several technology initiatives the committee will be initiating to engage volunteers and voters. If you have been watching the ECDC at all, you've certainly noticed an increase in social media traffic since the changing of the guard. They are also building a website that is easier to maintain and more social media friendly.
One of the first decisions that Zellner had to make was choosing his own Executive Director. He tapped Melissa Bochenski, a former staffer for Congresswoman Kathy Hochul and another past intern at the ECDC. Bochenski, a graduate of St. Mary's High School in Lancaster and Canisius College, will oversee the daily operations of the committee.
Together Zellner and Bochenski listed technology improvements and communicating local Democratic priorities as two main initiatives in reaching out to new voters and volunteers. People who are looking to get involved can contact Melissa Bochenski at the ECDC office at 716-853-2511 or via e-mail at Melissa@ecdems.com.
The Democrats in Erie County have been a fractured bunch in all the years I can remember. Whoever won the Chairmanship would have his hands full trying to herd these cats. But even in the short time that Zellner has held the office, it is obvious that he is working on building the relationships that will make his Chairmanship work. After years of what looked like animosity between Mayor Brown and the ECDC, there are at least outward efforts at forging some sort of working relationship.
"I'm trying to bring everyone together who wants to elect Democrats," Zellner said as we were ending. "And I'll work with anyone that wants to elect Democrats."