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McKinstry: Ken Jenkins is ready for a marathon campaign

Westchester County Board of Legislators chairman Ken Jenkins

Westchester County Board of Legislators chairman Ken Jenkins announces his candidacy for county executive to a room full of supporters and fellow Democrats at the Crown Plaza in White Plains. (Jan. 2, 2013) Photo Credit: Xavier Mascarenas

After a series of missteps and false starts, Ken Jenkins reaffirmed his position as the front-runner among Democrats in the race for Westchester County executive.

At least for the moment.

Jenkins, a Yonkers Democrat who has been chairman of Board of Legislators since 2010, this week put forward a solid performance before a roomful of supporters at Crowne Plaza Hotel in White Plains. It was downright statesmanlike compared with some of the shenanigans we've seen in the board chambers in recent months -- like when Democrats walked out of the chambers before a crucial budget vote last month, or some of those petty news releases haranguing Republican County Executive Rob Astorino.

The announcement of Jenkins' candidacy, which had the feel of a political rally, was bigger and more public than those of his Democratic rivals -- by design.

"I am in, and I am in all the way," Jenkins said to a cheering group of about 50 mostly Yonkers- and Mount Vernon-centric supporters, union honchos and elected leaders, including a handful of fellow Democrats on the county board. "This won't be easy, but the election for Westchester County executive won't require the voters to search very hard to find differences between the candidates."

He's right on both points -- but especially about the race not being easy. Before any run against Astorino, Jenkins will have to fend off challenges from Legis. Bill Ryan of White Plains and New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson, a city leader whose candidacy is gaining traction in some Democratic circles.

Right now, it looks like the Democratic race will be between Jenkins and Bramson -- and it's up for grabs as there's a split within the party.

Some political watchers say Jenkins is the lead horse and that it's his race to lose. Others are concerned with Jenkins' pugnacious style, which they fear could lose as many voters as some of his higher-profile headlines have gained. The different factions agree, however, that they can't beat each other up so badly that a right hook from Astorino knocks out the winner early.

You can be sure the fiercest fights for Democrats will be behind closed doors.

Clues will come with the Jan. 15 campaign reporting deadline, which will show which candidate has been raising more money; they'll need healthy war chests to oust the incumbent -- anywhere from $1 million to $1.5 million by the time November rolls around. Astorino, a proven cash-raiser, will likely have more than $3 million (he brought in roughly $1.2 million as a challenger in 2009).

Another potential game changer will be which candidate Greenburgh party leaders get behind. A blessing from district leaders in Westchester's largest town, which is loaded with Democrats who vote, may very well determine who gets the nomination at the yet-to-be scheduled convention sometime in March or April.

Greenburgh Party chairwoman Suzanne Berger, who couldn't attend Jenkins' announcement because she was working, wouldn't say who she's supporting. She said Democrats have some "pretty big decisions." She expects the party will meet later this month.

"I really want to elect a Democrat and I want to make sure we elect the best Democrat," she told me Thursday.

At Wednesday's announcement, Jenkins didn't run away from the combative style that has characterized his leadership on the county board and its ongoing battles with Astorino over issues like day care funding. But he and others emphasized his ability to compromise. State Sen. Andrea Stewart Cousins, a Yonkers Democrat who is minority leader in the State Senate, said Jenkins knows when to battle and when to back up.

"True to my values, I will stand right by myself than wrong in the crowd," Jenkins said during his remarks.

To win the party's nod, Jenkins will need to sell a kinder, softer, diplomatic side, which is no small task.

Democrats, and voters for that matter, want an executive, not a brawler.

Jenkins got off to a good start this week, but as even he acknowledged at his announcement, this race is going to be a long one.

Gerald McKinstry is a member of the Newsday editorial board.