Just two years ago, things didn’t appear to be going all that well for Erie County’s Democratic Committee chairman. The committee was fresh off a series of primary challenges from a group of renegade Democrats that contributed to the party losing control of the county legislature to the GOP in 2013.

A year later, town of Amherst Council member Mark Manna challenged Zellner’s chairmanship, arguing large factions of the party were unhappy with his performance. With power brokers like Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and former Chairman Len Lenihan in his corner, Zellner fended off the challenge and was re-elected.

This September, his committee’s hand-picked candidates swept Tuesday’s primaries for District Attorney, State Assembly, and State Senate.

“This was no ordinary Democratic primary,” Zellner said. “It’s fair to say there was more at stake than usual.  As a party we have forces within us who represented the past and were determined to prevent us from moving forward with new voices and new promise for the future.”

In 2013, a Political Action Committee funded and influenced by former Erie County Democratic Party Chair and well-known political operative Steve Pigeon, contributed to the county legislature coup.  A probe into the practices of the PAC reportedly led to nine charges of bribery and extortion against him earlier this year.

Zellner and his committee linked Pigeon to two of the non-party endorsed candidates in Tuesday’s primary: Assembly candidate Kristy Mazurek, who was the treasurer of the PAC, and District Attorney candidate Michael Flaherty who hired some operatives with close ties to Pigeon.  They believe wins by DA Candidate John Flynn, Assembly Candidate Monica Wallace, and Senate hopeful Amber Small were a rejection of Pigeon and his brand of politics.

“If you want to win as a Democrat, you need to work with our team and we bring in people who are new, Amber Small, new candidate, Monica Wallace, new candidate. It’s not like we just recycle the old candidates,” said Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.  

Zellner’s supporters have long rebuked claims the party is divided, arguing there were only a small faction of subversives. Erie County GOP chair Nick Langworthy disagreed.

He said his counterparts have been fighting for decades but believes it is simply a function of the party’s size.  There are 150,000 more enrolled Democrats than Republicans in Erie County, a circumstance which creates its own set of challenges.

Typically when a party’s that big, there’s some regional division. There are some differences of opinion and there tend to be factions, said Erie County Republican Committee Chairman Nick Langworthy“I congratulate him, wish him well, not too well as we look to the general election but I’m sure it’s a great relief to him. A lot of hard work goes into that that the public doesn’t see.

In recent years, Zellner has seen former adversaries like state Senator Tim Kennedy and even the Governor reunite with his committee. He’s also long touted his close ties to Hillary Clinton, a connection that Zellner hopes will help his party-endorsed candidates in November.

No matter what happens November 8th, Zellner’s position as the leader of the party now seems more secure than it’s ever been.

It was a stark choice and the question was simple. Could we rise up and pull together as a party and deliver the strong leadership that this community needs and deserves?  We have shown this community exactly what kind of organization we are and what organization we want to be,” Zellner added.