BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Candidates are starting to consider an often rare opportunity to become the next member of the U.S. House of Representatives in New York's 26th Congressional District.

Democratic incumbent Rep. Brian Higgins announced over the weekend he plans to resign the post in early February.

"This is a once in a lifetime opportunity and I'm sure that some people are kicking the tires as we speak and deciding whether they are interested in doing it," Erie County Democratic Party Chair Jeremy Zellner said.

Among the immediate frontrunners are state Sen. Tim Kennedy, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown. Zellner said they're all strong.

"I anticipate that there's going to be a primary," he said. "Everyone has the right to run. It's my job as the party leader to endorse the candidate who is the strongest candidate for our region, for our party and who is going to do good things for the community."

Zellner said the committee will interview anybody who wants to go through the process, with names like state Sen. Sean Ryan, state Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, former Buffalo mayoral candidate India Walton and former congressional candidates Nate McMurray and Melodie Baker also potentially in the mix. The chair expects several may run in a primary, but the party can only choose one to represent it in a special election to fill the remainder of Higgins' term.

Zellner said his goal is for the historically divided party to maintain unity it has established over the last decade or so.

"Everyone's not going to leave happy when they don't get with they want but I deal with this every single day with folks here every year. This isn't the first time that we've had openings and people want something," he said.

By law, Gov. Kathy Hochul must call a special election within 10 days of being notified of a vacancy and the election then must happen between 70 and 80 days from that announcement. If there is a New York presidential primary, that would happen on April 2, meaning Higgins would have to resign earlier than expected to coordinate the two elections.

The governor could also try to time things out so the state's primary elections in June and special election happen simultaneously or she could schedule the special on its own. Zellner, who also serves as an elections commissioner, said there are pros and cons to all the options.

He said the committee was already meeting next week to meet and endorse for the Erie County district attorney's race and will now likely discuss Congress too. Zellner expects the party will make its primary endorsement and special election nomination before the petition process starts in February.

The chair said the large town committees and the Niagara County Democratic Committee will also have a say in the decision. Since Higgins took office, the district has voted strongly for Democratic candidates.