Jun 26


Erie County Democrats attack challengers

Last-minute mailers featured a scowling Donald Trump, suggested newcomers running for committee seats threatened party unity as “democracy hangs in the balance.” But a lot of the newcomers won anyway.

A Democratic Party mailer supporting favored candidates in party committee races.

The Erie County Democratic Party sent a message last weekend to city voters in the handful of election districts where candidates challenged insiders and incumbents for seats on the party committee:

Vote for the party’s “endorsed county committee candidates” to ward off “convicted felon Donald Trump and his MAGA Republican Party,” advised a mailer paid for by party headquarters. 

Because “democracy hangs in the balance.”

You’d think the party’s “endorsed county committee candidates” were fighting a pitched battle against a rabid red wave of Republicans seeking seats of critical importance.

They were not. 

They were running against other Democrats, many of them leaning more left — away from Trump and his MAGA movement — than the party insiders they challenged. One of the challengers, a Navy reserve officer, has done actual combat with the Trump administration, successfully suing the defense department to secure his commission despite the military’s longstanding ban on enlisting HIV-positive recruits.

Donate to support our nonprofit newsroom

Nor were the party’s “endorsed county committee candidates” running to secure a Democratic majority in Congress, for example. 

Members of the Erie County Democratic Committee — two representing each election district for two-year terms — choose the county party’s leadership, from the chair to the treasurer. They also have a say in their party’s endorsement of candidates for public office. A committee seat is considered a good introduction to local politics for those interested in running for public office themselves someday.

The mailers went out last weekend in at least two of the nine city election districts where there were contested races for committee seats.

On the front of the mailers was a scowling Trump discussing revenge.

Here’s the back side: 

The mailers were customized by election district, instructing voters which committee candidates the party favored in that district. 

On this one, sent to voters in Ellicott 1, the party’s favored candidates were Darius Pridgen, the former Common Council president, and his running mate, Xavier Riley.

A version mailed in a Niagara District election district identified the party’s preferred candidates as state Assembly Member Jonathan Rivera and Carole Perla, widow of a former city legislator who was a West Side political force for decades.

Neither Rivera nor Pridgen replied to text messages asking if they’d seen the mailers before they were sent out. 

Our City Action Buffalo, a progressive advocacy group that encourages and assists left-leaning candidates for public office, called the mailers “disgraceful but also unsurprising.”

“To strengthen local democracy, Buffalo residents should be encouraged to participate in every imaginable way. Through raising their voices at the ballot boxes, but also running for elected office themselves,” the group said in a statement emailed to Investigative Post. 

 The group called the mailer’s message “completely ironic given their behavior.”

“The quelling of even the tiniest bit of dissent; marginalizing members of their own party in order to maintain power and control; and, most obviously, using the same fear-mongering and political tactics that they claim to abhor,” the group said in its statement.

Get our newsletters delivered to your inbox
* indicates required

Newsletters *

Jeremy Zellner, chairman of the Erie County Democratic Committee, bristled at the suggestion that the mailers were meant to equate the challengers with Trump and the MAGA movement. He accused anyone who read the mailers that way of dishonesty.

“At no time were the opposing candidates in these committee races ever compared to Trump. Any claims or inferences to the contrary are simply false,” Zellner told Investigative Post in an email.

“We stand by this mailer and its message.”

The mailers call the candidates they favor endorsed” by the party, but Zellner would not answer questions about the endorsement process, if there was one. The favored committee candidates are not listed among other endorsed candidates for office on the party’s website.

Likewise, Zellner would not say whether the mailers were sent out in all nine city election districts where there were contested committee races. Nor would he say if he showed the mailers to the favored candidates for their approval before mailing them.

Kevin Deese is the Navy reserve officer who’s running for a committee seat in the same West Side district as Rivera and Perla, the party favorites. Deese said he was never made aware of an endorsement process or invited to make a pitch for his candidacy. 

Back in April, Democratic Party officials tried to talk some committee hopefuls into dropping out of their contests against party insiders, promising to name them to fill vacant committee seats in different districts later. Some candidates accepted that offer. Deese said he was never approached to drop out.

“For what it’s worth, no one ever reached out to me,” Deese said.

A handbill for Democratic Party committee candidate Kevin Deese.

Deese graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2014 but was informed he could not be commissioned into the Navy because he’d been diagnosed with HIV. He joined a lawsuit in 2018 challenging that policy and prevailed. He is now an ensign stationed at the U.S. Naval Reserve base at the foot of Porter Avenue.

Here’s what Deese had to say about the mailers:

“I’m looking forward to working with everyone on ECDC, should my neighbors elect me to the Committee. If anyone understands the threat this November, it’s me — as someone who sued the Pentagon under the Trump Administration, won policy change under the Biden Administration, and is now proudly serving in the U.S. Navy Reserve.”

He added that his comments were his own and not endorsed by the defense department or the Navy.

Zellner, the party chair, faulted Deese and other committee candidates for adopting “a confrontational stance” toward the party and falling to “reach out” before challenging incumbent committee members, “including current and former elected officials.”

“We are willing to work with and welcome all those who approach us in good faith and with a desire to move our party forward,” Zellner said.

Deese was the lone challenger to Rivera and Perla in Niagara 21. He finished first in last night’s voting, according to preliminary results from the the county elections board. Perla finished a distant second and Rivera third, out of the running.

Pridgen and Riley had two opponents in Ellicott 1: Matthew Dearing, who ran unsuccessfully for the Ellicott District Common Council seat last fall, and Jeffrey Carballada, a community activist and volunteer who buys and restores historic residences, among other business activities.

Carballada’s brother Greg is a substantial donor to local Democrats, from Byron Brown and Tim Kennedy to Mark Poloncarz and Kathy Hochul. Jeff is more famous for running beer tents at the former Elmwood Festival of the Arts and other cultural events for more than 20 years.

Here’s Carballada’s response to the mailers:

“What do they call it? The ‘silly season’?” he said.

Carballada and Dearing also won. Pridgen finished third, out of the running.

Jonathan Rivera and Darius Pridgen are not the only party insiders who lost committee races on Tuesday.

Marc Panepinto, a former state senator, and Emlyn Rivera — Jonathan Rivera’s aunt — lost to attorney Stephanie Cole Adams and Keelan Erhard, who works for Partnership for the Public Good, a progressive think tank.

Michael Gainer, head of Buffalo ReUse Action, and Taj Richardson — both party outsiders — won their committee races in Ellicott 11.

And city planner Chris Hawley, proprietor of the Eugene V. Debs Social Club, and Greg Olma — a former county legislator, once a party insider but now on the outs — handily won their races in Fillmore 21.



Investigative Post

Get our newsletters delivered to your inbox * indicates required

Newsletters *