by Artvoice Staff (@Artvoice) - posted 4:58 pm, January 7, 2011
Minutes before the Erie County Legislature convened Thursday afternoon, with an agenda dominated by the election of a chairperson, Cheektowaga Democratic member Thomas Mazur was asked if anything interesting had been happening behind the scenes. “No, just some Democrats playing footsie with the Republicans again,” he replied. It wasn’t immediately apparent, but he was really forecasting his own rejection in the contest for the chair’s position, which occurred less than an hour later.
Mazur was the only candidate besides Buffalo Democrat Barbara Miller-Williams, who had been the chairwoman for the last year. She was voted in because of the three Democrats who bolted from their party’s nine-vote majority to join the six Republicans in electing someone who is almost universally believed to be Republican County Executive Chris Collins’ choice.
Through the previous week or so, reports had circulated that Christina Bové (Democrat, West Seneca), one of those three political apostates, had been angling to replace Miller-Williams, and that she might be close to securing the necessary eight votes. But when the nominations for the position were opened up by County legislative clerk Robert Graber, it was Bové who rose to nominate Miller-Williams, and it was immediately obvious that there were enough votes for the latter’s reelection.
After the contentious session wound down, several Democratic legislators said they hadn’t thought Bové’s interest in the position was serious. Lynn Marinelli (Tonawanda) called Bové’s activity “dancing around the position.” Majority Leader Maria R. Whyte (Buffalo)—also reelected Thursday—noted that, to the best of her knowledge, Bové had never actually asked for the votes of any of the six Democrats who didn’t support Miller-Williams. Was Bové only a stalking horse for her colleague, then? “Who knows around here?” Whyte said with a shoulder shrug. (Efforts to reach Bové and Miller-Williams on Friday were unsuccessful.)
What was amply evident during Thursday’s meeting was that despite the near-inevitability of the outcome, a high level of resentment lingered after the voting, an emotion which sometimes resembled personal animosity. Speaking in support of Mazur’s candidacy to the legislators just before the vote, Marinelli said he wasn’t only well qualified, but that he “returns calls and dialogues,” an allusion to Miller-Williams’ unavailability.
Daniel Kozub (Democrat, Lancaster) called the last year under Miller-Williams’ leadership “the worst ever,” and accused her of pleading ignorance about important business before the body. Whyte highlighted what she said was the legislature’s deteriorated public image in the last year as it kowtowed to Collins’ agendas, as she read several Buffalo News headlines that referred to legislative arguments.
In her acceptance remarks after the 9-6 vote, Miller-Williams called for members to “truly…come together,” but bygones remained operative among the six Democrats who didn’t vote for her. Marinelli and Kozub interrupted a procedural matter on committees to inform the chair they would not serve as committee heads, and Betty Jean Grant told her she wanted her name removed from the rolls of the environmental committee. (Marinelli told Miller-Williams that she could find committee chairs from among her eight supporters.)
Grant was particularly, and dramatically, blunt. After Minority Leader John Mills rose to deplore the attacks on Miller-Williams’ leadership performance, Grant dismissed the objections. The nine-vote coalition wasn’t really bipartisanship, she said, but rather an effort to “give Collins control of the legislature” so that he could fiscally savage the county’s library system, community cultural groups, and Comptroller Mark Poloncarz’s office. She told the Republicans that “you don’t control yourselves and”—staring now at the chair—”neither do you.”
Later, Grant told Artvoice that she had believed she had a commitment to vote for Mazur from newbie South Buffalo member Timothy Whelan—who’s replacing Timothy Kennedy, a newly elected state senator. “I told Lenny [Democratic Party chair Leonard Lenihan] about this,” Grant said, “but then Tim stopped taking calls.” Whelan took Kennedy’s place in the three-vote Democratic split-off.
One element of the disciplinary and spoils fallout after the vote became evident Thursday night when Democratic majority counsel Jennifer Persico was told to resign by John Davis, the legislature’s chief of staff. Like all staff save Graber, she served at the discretion of the chairwoman. Two people with extensive knowledge of and experience in the legislature told Artvoice that, in effect, Persico was doing her job too well. She’d won more cases for the majority than previous lawyers, one said, and Collins was especially unhappy about the latest one in December, a State Supreme Court ruling that he couldn’t legally ignore the legislature’s cuts to his budget. Collins and Miller-Williams barely waited a couple of hours to lower this axe.