Q&A: Democratic chief Jeremy Zellner

Jeremy Zellner, elected in September chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party in a contentious race, represents a departure for a party usually led by a grizzled veteran in the vein of Joe Crangle, Jim Sorrentino or Len Lenihan.

Zellner, 35, has worked in party headquarters since 2005, including a three year stint as executive director. His “day job,” so to speak, is chief of staff for the Erie County Legislature’s Democratic majority. He is a graduate of Buffalo State College, where he majored in political science, and Niagara County Community College.

Investigative Post Editor Jim Heaney interviewed Zellner on April 15. A 5 minute, 10 second video clip featuring the highlights of that interview is posted above. The full 18 minute, 54 second interview is posted deeper in the transcript, produced by Ivy Rivera, which has been edited lightly for clarity.

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Heaney: Let’s start out by talking about what your vision for the party is. Len Lenihan had been in office for quite a while. He did things differently than Steve Pigeon, who did things differently from Jim Sorrentino. So, every chairman tries to leave their own stamp on the party. Specifically, what are you trying to do differently from what your predecessor was doing, and in what direction do you hope to lead the party over the next five years or so?

Zellner: Since I took over, one of the things I’ve been talking about is running an open organization – opening the doors to folks who have never been involved before. I’ve tried to involve different community groups, different organizations out there that are progressive minded. I’d like to get candidates that are kind of outside the box, who are from the private sector, or professionals who are not party regulars.

I think it’s important for people to get involved in the Democratic Party here, locally. If we’re going to change anything,  they’re going to have to get involved. I wholeheartedly, openly request that if they’d like to get involved in the party, we’re here for them. Please, give us a call and let’s make them committeemen and get them involved.

There certainly needs to be a better quality of candidates as far as I’m concerned, not only within the city, but countywide.

Heaney: Based on what you said off-camera, before we came on, it seems to me like you’re trying to revitalize the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party here in town. Is that a fair characterization?

Zellner: Yes, you could say that. What I’m trying to do is get people who are progressive minded, moving toward the Democratic wing of the party, and people who have not always been involved.

I was not always involved in politics. I just, literally, walked through the door eight years ago, ten years ago or so and I was not involved. I think there’s more room for that. I think one of our problems is that people aren’t getting involved in politics, aren’t getting involved in government, because it’s a difficult arena. I’m trying to call on those to get involved so we can make the change that this community deserves.

Heaney: Do you have as an objective of trying to improve the caliber of candidates? And, let me preface it by saying that, particularly, in the city of Buffalo, where the enrollment edge is six or seven to one over Republicans. That means if you win the primary, you’ve won the general election. And,  just as my own personal observation, having covered politics in this town for 27 or 28 years, the caliber of public officials- when you look at Common Council, in particular – has gone way downhill. It seems to be that warm bodies, to some degree, are getting elected by default now. Do you as party chair feel any particular obligation to exercise quality control over who’s getting on the ballot, particularly in the city, to try and upgrade the quality of elected leadership this community has?

Zellner: Yes, I would like to be more hands-on when it comes to the city council elections when they do come up. I work with a lot of the city council members. Some of them I don’t work with well. But there certainly needs to be a better quality of candidates as far as I’m concerned, not only within the city, but countywide. We have a lot of work to do and I think, hopefully, people hearing this message will say, “Geez. I’ll take that as a call to arms and get involved”.

 I think our relationship is quite different than when Chairman Lenihan was in office.

Heaney: So, Jeremy Zellner’s looking for what in candidates? It looks like you’re looking for a progressive world-view, of sorts? Some sort of professional background?

Zellner: Correct.

Heaney: Don’t really have to be one of the party hacks, so to speak?

Zellner: Right.

Heaney: How tough is it going to be to get those people involved, because historically that’s not the profile of Democratic or Republican candidates in this community. For the most part, not entirely. It’s kind of lowest common denominator kind of stuff – who can raise money, who’s been loyal. It looks like you are trying to change the job description to some degree.

Zellner: And we’re also held back by a couple of things. If you look at some of the countywide salaries, someone may say, ‘Well, $79,000 isn’t a lot of money to pay the comptroller’. But, if you’re looking for a CPA, someone who’s qualified for that position …

Heaney: They’re already making that.

Zellner: They’re making above that. And, as far as the sheriff’s race goes, you look at any law enforcement professional who is a ranking officer in some of the towns – they’re already making way more than what the sheriff office pays. So, I think we really need to look at, maybe, raising the salaries of those a bit so we can get more quality candidates. Certainly I’m doing the best I can and I believe we are going to have a great candidate for comptroller this year who’s actually qualified for the job.

Heaney: Well, that seems like an opening. Let’s talk about the countywide races. You’ve got the sheriff and the comptroller. Stefan Mychajliw is the incumbent. You’re looking for somebody with a CPA-type background? I take it that part of the strategy is going to be to run, based on those credentials, versus Stefan Mychajliw credentials?

Zellner: Right. It’s having credentials and not having credentials. What we’re looking for is somebody who’s qualified to do the job. I don’t believe our current comptroller is qualified. I believe he’s highly political, maybe the most political comptroller we’ve ever had.

Heaney: But isn’t there something to be said for having someone from the opposite party as the watchdog, because the guy the Democratic Party put in to succeed Poloncarz was not to be mistaken for a vigilant watchdog.

Zellner: I’m not sure it’s so much the party, but the person. I think if you can find someone who’s independent, it doesn’t matter if they offend people of their own party …

Heaney: But is the party going to want that?

Zellner: Absolutely.

Heaney: Do you really want somebody chewing on Mark Poloncarz’s leg?

Zellner: Absolutely. I think Mark Poloncarz does a great job for our community and I’m not worried about somebody keeping an eye over him.

Heaney: OK, let’s talk about the Sheriff’s Department. You’ve got one of your two announced candidates who, a couple of weeks ago, declared that he was a bigger fan of Ronald Regan than Andrew Cuomo or Barack Obama. Did that give you pause, as chairman? Is that the guy that you really want running against Tim Howard?

Zellner: We had both sheriff candidates in front of our executive committee meeting this past Saturday – all of our town officials that are town chairs and zone leaders – and they both gave some pretty good answers to things. Bert Dunn was asked about that question and the answers he gave made us realize that some of the stuff was taken out of context.

Heaney: What answer did he give?

Zellner: He basically said, ‘Look. There are things I don’t agree with that the president does, that the governor does’. But he voted for both of them and supports both of them. Again, I’m not here to defend Bert Dunn, but he did say there are things, such as the SAFE Act, that he’d like to take a better look at.

Heaney: What are your odds in those two races? I mean, obviously you’re going to say that you’re very confident. But you’re running against two incumbents. There may or may not be a Republican running for mayor which, I take it, you’d like to have Sergio Rodriguez on the Republican line for mayor in the fall?

Zellner: Well, I can tell you that with the countywide races: I feel very confident in the sheriff’s race. I feel that there have been some attacks levied against Bert Dunn, who is the front runner in that race, based on our Sheriff Search Committee. They recommended him unanimously. I think the sheriff does not have a good record to run on and I think it’s time for change. So, I feel pretty confident that Burt Dunn is going to be our candidate for sheriff and that he is going to defeat Tim Howard.

Heaney: How much does it help the party to have a Republican running for mayor in November?

Zellner: I think that we can win those countywide seats with or without a Republican on the line.

Heaney: Does it help?

Zellner: I’m sure it helps a little bit that we can have more activity in our base.

Heaney: Let’s talk about the mayor’s race. Byron Brown’s the only announced candidate. Bernie Tolbert is, from all indications, very close to announcing. So it looks like there might actually be a primary. First, let’s talk about your relationship with Brown and his people, Steve Casey included. Len Lenihan, your predecessor, and Byron Brown were not on friendly terms. The party under Len did not endorse the mayor last time. What is the relationship right now between you and Byron Brown?

Zellner: I think our relationship is quite different than when Chairman Lenihan was in office. I’ve had an open dialogue with the mayor. I reached out to him five days after I was elected. We sat down and talked about moving forward and we’ve been in good communication ever since.

Heaney: So, there’s been a thaw?

Zellner: Yes.

Heaney: Are things beyond a thaw? Are things warm?

Zellner: Yes. I attended one of the mayor’s fundraisers actually, two of his events. He came to our holiday party and spoke there, which was great. He also came to our inauguration party. So, there’s been a little bit more than a thaw. We’re speaking on a regular basis. We’ve seen each other at events and have some small talk. So I think we are at a respect level.

Heaney: If there is a primary, is the party endorsement of the mayor a foregone conclusion?

Zellner: I would say that from day one when I took over I said that this was going to be an open process. If there was a primary, if we’re speculating here, and there was multiple candidates, or a candidate who came to the party – we would interview anyone who requests our endorsement.

It’s very difficult to find candidates nowadays because they don’t want to get involved in the process.

Heaney: But with the groundwork that Brown has laid with the party, or the party has laid with Brown, is it going to be a pretty easy lift for him to get the endorsement?

Zellner: I think that when the time comes for that we will sit down and have that discussion then. I asked the mayor, “If we are going to support you, we’d like you to support our ticket, our endorsed Democratic candidates.”

Heaney: And what’s his response been to that?

Zellner: He said, “Let’s continue talking.” So, I think it could happen. And when the time comes, we’ll talk about it.

Heaney: Andrew Cuomo worked very hard to oust Len Lenihan. Worked very hard to get you not elected; he worked in support of your opponent. There’s been a thaw with you and Byron Brown, what is the nature of the relationship between you and the governor and his close political people?

Zellner: I’ve got a good relationship with several people that work with the governor statewide. I’ve reached out to the governor’s office on a couple of occasions.

Heaney: Has the governor reciprocated?

Zellner: No, not at this point.

Heaney: So, you’ve called him. He hasn’t called back?

Zellner: Right. But, I have talked with people in the state party who are surrogates of his.

Heaney: So what do they tell you? It would seem to me that they came hard and you won. If the governor’s interested in a healed Democratic Party in Erie County, the attitude would be you win some, you lose some. And if you lose, you go shake hands and move on – together. It doesn’t sound like the governor and his close people have done that.

Zellner: No. But, I think there’s still time. I’m not really …

Heaney: But it’s been months and months and months.

Zellner: It has. But, I still think the governor has a lot on his plate, as you know. And, I don’t think Jeremy Zellner and the Erie County Democratic Party are at the top of his list. I think we still have time to mend that relationship and I’m hopeful that we can do that.

Heaney: Let’s jump back to Buffalo for a minute, and City Hall. We’re still a couple of years away from the Common Council being up for re-election again. The Council – as I alluded to earlier in the interview – has gotten progressively weaker over the years. When I first started covering city government, way back when, you had Gene Fahey. You had Jim Pitts. You had Dave Rutecki. You had Vince Lovallo. You had a core of really good councilmen. And then others moved in. You had people like Brian Higgins. Later on, you had Kevin Helfer. That core, in my estimation, has really dwindled. You’ve got a couple folks and that’s about it. The Council has, over time, ceased to be any kind of check and balance on the mayor. Is what you’re seeing on the Common Council right now an area where you’d like to see some better people emerge as candidates?

Zellner: Yes. I think it goes back to what I said about different people getting involved. I think that if we have an open process, if we have the ability to reach out and talk to people about things in the future … In other words, we do mailings and we do outreach. We go to block club meetings. We go to these places to try and recruit candidates for offices such as Common Council. Perhaps then we will get a better quality group and something more to choose from. To be honest, it’s very difficult to find candidates nowadays because they don’t want to get involved in the process. They believe it’s just too much and they don’t want to put their family through it …

Heaney: Too much in the sense of …

Zellner: Too many personal attacks. I think people are intimidated to get involved. I’m trying to take away some of that intimidation by letting them know, “Hey, we’re here for you. If you’re a Democrat and you want to move this community forward – reach out”.

Heaney: There’s a growing core of progressive activists throughout town. Aaron Bartley is the name mentioned most often but there are other people like Sarah Bishop. Would you like to see that progressive-activist leadership start to move its way into elected politics?

Zellner: Yes, and I reached out to some of the groups as soon as I took over. I’d like them to take a leadership role. We do have a couple of ideas for getting together. It’s kind of hard with the non-profit status that some of them have. On a personal level, they can go to any meeting that they’d like, not representing the group but representing themselves. I think you’re going to see a lot more people involved like that in our party.

Heaney: What are the concrete steps you’ve tried to use to remake the party? You’ve moved into new headquarters. You’re out of Carl Paladino’s Ellicott Square and Howard Zempski’s Larkin Building. Correct?

Zellner: No. We’re in the Larkin Center of Commerce right next door.

Heaney: Oh, oh, right next door, OK. I guess Larkin is kind of synonymous with Zempski.

Zellner: Larkinville.

Heaney: Yes. OK. So you’re in the old warehouse next door?

Zellner: Yes.

Heaney: What concrete steps are you doing to try and rebuild … not rebuild the party, because Len actually left the party in pretty good shape, financially. And,he actually got some people elected that the party wasn’t expected to elect, which kind of made the whole Cuomo coup thing strike me, and others, as pretty curious. Any other concrete steps that you’re taking to try and mix things up a little bit?

Zellner: When I ran for chair, I ran as the only candidate who could hit the ground running on day one. From that day one we’ve been able to put together over a couple hundred thousand dollars that we’ve raised, which is pretty good in six months. We’ve also moved the headquarters, like you said, into an area that is more technologically friendly to us, with phone lines and things like that. We’re bringing on a professional staff. We’ve got new technology, new software to track voters, to keep all that stuff banked. We’re really moving the party forward into a new direction of technology, and that’s an important thing to bring our town and zone leaders and elected officials along with us.

Heaney: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the Water Authority. The Authority tends to have the habit of shooting itself in the foot when it comes to the at least occasional patronage hire. Clearly, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party have influence over what goes on with discretionary hires, not those that go through civil service. Has it ever dawned on people in the party leadership that it’s more trouble than it’s worth to do things like hire Mark Poloncarz’s brother? Why do you guys keep doing it to yourselves?

Zellner: Well, Jim, I think what’s important here is what I’ve said all along – to try and put good people in positions to make change. I supported Chris O’Brien for Water Authority commissioner. He was voted by the Legislature to go over there and, hopefully, do a great job like he’s done with everything else in his career. He’s a community-minded person. He’s a hard worker. And, I hope that when he gets in over there, there’s going to be some serious things that change.

Heaney: Well, the change that a lot of people talk about is – let’s just dissolve the Water Authority and make it a county department, which is not going to eliminate politics because there’s politics in county government too, but it certainly changes the nature of the beast. Is making it a county department anything that you, as county chairman, would support?

Zellner: I have no official capacity of authority …

Heaney: No you don’t, but you have influence, you’re party chair.

Zellner: Right. But, that’s all I am is the party chair. I don’t run the Water Authority.

Heaney: That’s all you are? I mean, come on!

Zellner: I don’t run things over there. So, I believe, in order to dissolve that it would take an act of the Assembly and Senate and governor to sign off. That’s a difficult thing to do. But, I think that everything’s on the table with me, any kind of change we can do.