Ending months of speculation over the leadership of the state Democratic Party going into 2010, Gov. David Paterson announced today the woman currently occupying that post, June O'Neill, will soon be replaced by Nassau County Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs.
Ostensibly, this is being done at O'Neill's request because she has been temporarily sidelined by hip surgery (she returned home to St. Lawrence County last Thursday after having a hip replacement at St. Peter's in Albany).
O'Neill will move over to chair the party's Executive Committee (under party rules, the top two posts must be held by a man-woman combo), while Jacobs, who is a prodigious fundraiser and organizer with ties to Hillary Clinton, takes over day-to-day operations.
The change will be officially voted on by party's committee members at their fall meeting.
"June O’Neill has served our party and my administration with great passion, dedication and energy," Paterson said in a statement released this evening.
"She enjoys the admiration and support of people from one end of this great state to the other, people who have seen her fight for Democratic principles during her more than 30 years of service."
"Her efforts have allowed us to make great strides as a party, including helping our party raise $12.9 million. Although we will miss one of our ‘winningest’ state party chairs in New York history, I understand and support her wish to put her health first.”
Paterson said he is "delighted" that O'Neill has agreed to stay on as head of the Executive Committee (a position that had been held by Westchester County Democratic chairman Reggie Lafayette, although no mention of him was made in the press release). He also said Jacobs and O'Neill will make a "tremendous team for our party.”
I reached O'Neill at home. She told me she has been talking to the governor "for months" about doing a little less in light of the fact that her surgery will keep her out of the mix for about six weeks and also because, well, it has been a rather bumpy ride.
"I didn't want to give it up completely, because that's not in my nature," she explained. "If anybody looks at these last I don't know how many months, they've been unprecedented. It has not been a normal couple of years."
O'Neill was originally tapped by former Gov. Eliot Spitzer as part of an upstate-downstate Democratic Party leadership team that also included DL21C founder Dave Pollak.
Pollak was ousted within several weeks of Paterson's ascendance to Spitzer's office, but O'Neill was kept on.
Paterson has been state party chair shopping for quite some time now (the issue was bubbling under the surface at the spring meeting in Westchester).
But there was a general feeling among Democratic leaders that 1) his resurrection might be too big a task to take on, and 2) they would have to answer to the chairman-in-abstentia, Paterson's former chief of staff, Charles O'Byrne, who retains a role in the governor's political inner circle.
Apparently, that's all been worked out.
Jacobs' ascension is good for one person in particular: Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi. The two Long Islanders are very close, and Jacobs was the only county chair to support Suozzi's long-shot primary challenge to Spitzer in 2006.
It is decidedly not good for AG Andrew Cuomo, who may or may not be planning to primary Paterson next fall - depending on who you believe.