Steve Pigeon, Jack O'Donnell and Steve Casey: (Steev Pih-jun, Jak O-dawn-ull and Steev Kay-see.) Democratic political operatives, or - if you listen to Peter Herr, Jeremy Zellner and Dennis Ward - Satan, Anti-Christ and the False Prophet. The unholy trinity. They are responsible for all disarray in the Erie County Democratic Committee; their actions a decade ago can be directly blamed for present day defeats. They are counter-revolutionaries and big brother type figures who lay waste to Democratic efforts in Western New York by challenging the status quo.
That's not quite Webster's Dictionary; it's an excerpt from the Bible of the Cult of Lenihan. In fact, Pigeon, O'Donnell and Casey aren't the only Democrats who have been at loggerheads with ECDC Chairman Jeremy Zellner or Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz. In fact, that list includes other figures who are held in high esteem by the party throughout the state.
Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is no novice, cut ties with the ECDC because they are as incompetent as they are obtuse. How about Chuck Schumer? Steve Pigeon helped elect him while the ECDC dithered. Tim Kennedy? ECDC's Vice Chair and County Legislature Chairwoman Betty Jean Grant ran against him. Mayor Brown? Committee leaders shunned him for years and have made half hearted attempts to woo him, all but begging him to take their endorsement. He's declined. After saving the city and putting himself in a commanding position without their help - and in some ways their opposition - he is unlikely to capitulate when it's totally unnecessary.
What brought all this on?
The division of the Erie County Democrats has it's true start in the politics of personal vendetta with Dennis Ward and Gayle Syposs. They are obsessed with attacking Steve Pigeon because, as County Chairman, he was unafraid of challenging their inner circle and focused on winning elections instead of securing the party for their flank. They claim Pigeon lost many races while they won, but boy, did they do a fantastic job of their own.
Upon his arrival, Len Lenihan lost every single County Executive's race, Congressional races in NY-26 in 2004, 2006 and 2008. He abandoned Joe Mesi that year as well, lost a winnable Sheriff's race to a vulnerable incumbent in 2009, lost Erie County Legislature seats in three consecutive elections, had his endorsed candidates for State Senate soundly defeated in primaries, like Al Coppola and Michele Iannello (who was all but endorsed being Dennis Ward's wife). Lenihan never won a competitive general election for a State Assembly race.
With a record like that, Erie County Republican Committee chair Nick Langworthy has to love them.
We hear them drone on and on about their supposed election successes in Mark Poloncarz and Kathy Hochul in 2011. What really happened there, though? The big guns came to the rescue. When Poloncarz was stagnant and behind in the polls, Governor Cuomo jumped in to help. In Hochul's case, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee provided the winning edge. Only then did both candidacies gain traction. By the end, victory was inevitable because of a united party, which could only be brought together by outside forces.
Even Democrat stalwart Sam Hoyt does not back Zellner, and he's hardly a friend of Pigeon.
The ECDC's vicious streak is based in their own failures; it's a fig leaf reflex to cover their shortcomings. They shriek with rage at the mention of anyone with different opinions, but try to change the subject when you bring up their own record. They recoil and blame everyone else, but the truth is they have failed miserably at running the party. Taking into account their lackluster electoral record, and then putting their scant few victories in the context, one can begin to put together the pieces. They have a major credibility problem, and their opposition, as large as it is, is not the source of the problem.
The Zellner crew has gone out of their way to alienate the large town committees in their district, staying on bad terms with Chairman Frank Max in Cheektowaga, Dan McParlane in West Seneca and Johnny Crangle in Tonawanda. They cast aspersions on entire swaths of the City Democratic leadership, branding them as troublemakers, when in reality those 'troublemakers' were more than willing to come on board under someone more competent. They cannot unify the party, and that is their own fault. When you run a strategy for over a decade based on personal retribution taking precedent over winning elections, you can't be terribly shocked at the outcome.
Zellner was elected ECDC Chair in a disputed election. It's been proven in court documents that areas where he faced the most opposition were manipulated to have their weighted vote totals count for less than their actual value. This would make Boss Tweed proud, and this above all is what makes their wanton calls of self righteousness so amusing. Still, the Courts decided to punt on a technicality, but not the merit of the claim. Many believe Zellner had Erie County Election Commissioner Dennis Ward cheat to win.
Afterwards, Zellner presided over a wipe-out election cycle, where the Democrats lost every single competitive race. Their golden candidate against Senator Mark Grisanti, Mike Amodeo, was out-run by other candidates who received little to no support. It was a disaster on an epic scale, and nobody interfered to impact the Committee's ground performance. They respond by shouting at the clouds. If there really were malevolent factors on a mass scale that wanted to sink the ship for the Erie County Democratic Committee, they wouldn't need to do anything but let them self destruct. They obsess about obscure inside baseball and build a cult instead of a real organization. The results are plain and no one's fault but their own.
The air of self righteousness turns foul when one considers that Mark Poloncarz's brother is on the public payroll, as was Jeremy Zellner's Mother, who now draws funds from Zellner's personal campaign finance treasure box. How loudly will Jeremy Toth call for investigations?
Which leads me back to Steve Pigeon, the former Democratic Chairman and alleged Prince of Darkness, playing cruel tricks on Zellner, Ward and Gayle Syposs, causing them to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. This is mythology worthy of the Greeks and Romans. The claim that Pigeon left the party in debt is patently false - most of the liquidity was a promissory note from Hormouz Mansouri, which he later forgave. The rest was not atypical of a party organization operating on the scale that ECDC does.
Zellnerites say Pigeon lost elections, but Chuck Schumer, Eliot Spitzer, Byron Brown and Anthony Nanula would beg to differ. He tapped a Buffalo Councilman named Brian Higgins to run for the State Assembly. The failures they claim pale in comparison to the disastrous last decade the party has had under the rule of Zellner and Lenihan. They claim Pigeon must stay up late concocting ways to undermine them. But Pigeon was busy as a nationally known strategist in the last election delivering swing states for President Obama, passing a popular vote initiative to ensure the Al Gore's of the future are not screwed out of office, and working with some of the top figures in business. His work is also international, taking him to Kenya, Romania and the Ukraine - not just downtown Buffalo.
Prior to his election as Chairman, Pigeon staffed Presidential campaigns for Democrat icons like Ted Kennedy, Dick Gephardt and Gary Hart. Donna Shalala tapped him to be her top aide at the US Department of Health and Human Services during the Clinton administration. He worked on Mario Cuomo's campaign, where he met and befriended an up and comer named Andrew. He was a Counsel to the New York State Senate for a decade. He is still involved in our community, but he has outgrown beyond Erie County infighting. Unfortunately, they haven't outgrown beyond him.
To cook up a convenient conspiracy, Zellner adds Jack O'Donnell and Steve Casey to the pot. O'Donnell comes from a family with a long history of public service: his mother is a high ranking official in the Obama Justice Department and his father is a respected State Supreme Court Justice. O'Donnell was widely lauded as a Water Commissioner, with employees writing letters imploring the County Legislature to reappoint him. He was also a key player in Senator Schumer's election and on various state races; his reputation outside of the Zellner/Ward/Syposs zone is outstanding. Steve Casey, Mayor Brown's deputy mayor, helped oversee the City's remarkable financial and development success and enacted money saving management efficiencies. He has also worked on top Democratic campaigns and served in the Dennis Gorski administration.
But placing the blame on Pigeon, and then O'Donnell and Casey is an imperative: it keeps the spotlight off of Zellner and his allies. There was some infighting after Dennis Gorski's defeat in 1999, but most players in that era will tell you that they reconciled and moved onto frying bigger fish. One would think that a young Chairman like Jeremy Zellner would practice what he preaches and actually bring in supporters with the depth and capability. But, no.
How many losses and excuses do WNY Democrats have to look forward to in the months ahead? More than a few, for sure. But when things inevitably go wrong for the ECDC, they'll just blame The Great Satan and his minions. And nobody is more pleased than the Republicans.