Cheektowaga Democratic politics – not all bad news
by Andrew Kulyk (@akulykUSRT) - posted 10:19 pm, December 30, 2013
Former State Assemblyman and Erie County Executive Dennis Gorski greeted me as soon as I walked into the main hall of the Cheektowaga Senior Center tonight. “So Andy, do you miss Cheektowaga at all?” he asked. “Yeah I do, Dennis,” I quickly replied. “I miss this – the people, the good people, the camaraderie, the fellowships. It’s like coming home again.”
And so it was tonight, as Cheektowaga Democrats assembled in the time-honored tradition of a festive inaugural for their newly elected officials. The honorees tonight? Returning Council Member James Rogowski, and two newcomers, Diane Benczkowski and Timothy Meyers. Cheektowaga Democrats easily swept all three of their candidates into office this cycle. Once an automatic in Cheektowaga, a changing demographic landscape in the town, coupled with much lower voter turnouts in recent years has meant fresh challenges in bringing the robust Democratic voting base to the polls in town elections.
Much of the talk tonight surrounded the still unfolding story of Cheektowaga Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak and the scandal surrounding his office and accusations of current and former staffers. Many expressed disappointment at the image hit that Cheektowaga has taken in the past ten days. “We’re good people, down to earth people here in Cheektowaga,” one man, a committeeman and volunteer fireman fumed. “People are reading about this in the worldwide press and they must think we Cheektowagans are all bumpkins and hillbillies.”
Everyone had a story to tell. Many expressed concern for the Gabryszak family, many for the victims and others who might yet come forward, some even for Dennis himself. Like most political families, Cheektowaga is close knit, somewhat dysfunctional, and have been through the wars together. But paramount throughout the evening was the pride many people have in the town, and the pride of seeing their three inaugurees take their oaths of office.
My own thoughts wandered to the ties that have bound me to these people, as one by one, they and their families stepped up to the dais and took their oath of office, administered by Town Justice Paul Piotrowski.
For JIM ROGOWSKI, I remember very well my involvement in the campaigns for his dad, former Sloan Mayor, Cheektowaga Council Member and Tax Receiver Bill Rogowski. As a youngster, Jim’s two brothers would be off to ball games or head out with friends, yet Jim would stay behind, pull up a chair and sit with the grown ups as we sat at the kitchen table at the Rogowski home on Curtiss Street in Sloan to work on Bill’s campaigns. Jim had a keen eye for politics. He would sit with a notepad and write things down and crunch numbers. This, mind you, was while he still was in grammar school. I knew then that someday he would follow in his dad’s footsteps. In his two terms on the Town Board, he has been a ball of fire and leader on many issues and problems facing Cheektowaga government. I’ll make a bold prediction now – by the time Jim’s current term of office is over he will be long gone as a Council Member. He will be occupying a higher public office.
DIANE BENCZKOWSKI has been a Depew School Board member for 12 years, and ran twice unsuccessfully for town office. But this was clearly her time. Former Council Member Patricia Jaworowicz, the first woman ever elected to public office in Cheektowaga, had retired due to health reasons after a long long stint, and the situation was ripe for a strong woman, preferably with Polish-American roots, to take that seat. Diane and I first met a year and a half ago, and we discussed the impending retirement of Pat, the role of women in Cheektowaga politics, and campaign themes that could spell success for her. She embraced those themes and ran an almost flawless campaign. With the help of a great campaign team she took first place in the Primary and garnered the most votes on the Democratic line in November. Best of all, she enjoys the vigorous support of almost all the disparate factions of the Democratic family. Her name will undoubtedly be on a short list of candidates for County Legislature in LD-8 come 2015 as Erie County Democrats mount an effort to take back that house.
TIM MEYERS is another son of local politics. A generation ago, his father Ken Meyers successfully ran for Supervisor in an era that was the darkest in Cheektowaga’s history, a town then mired in corruption and scandal. He cleaned up government and left a legacy for honest governance in the town that still is the marker. I know Ken well because he is the guy that inspired me to get involved in public life and to run for office.
My signature memory of Tim was also him as a young boy. It was Election Night 1979 and the Ken Meyers Fever campaign, running in a longshot desperate campaign for re-election against the machine on two minor lines, had waged a huge street to street war with the help of hundreds of volunteers. I was still in school and it was my first ever real campaign and I gave it my all. 400 people packed a warehouse on Benbro Drive that night, and right around 11 o’clock, the call came from election headquarters: all districts had been tabulated and out of 35,000 votes cast, we had won. The margin of victory? 83 votes. The hall erupted into sheer jubilation as Ken Meyers and his family stepped onto the stage. It was the most emotional scene I have ever encountered in politics. And as the cheers rang out, there was Tim, the youngest of four children up there with his siblings, and he was bawling. Weeping openly at the scene unfolding in that hall. It is an image that is seared in my consciousness and will be forever.
Today Tim is a dad in his own right and talked often about the importance of family and the investment in children and youth as a central theme of his campaign. Tim and Val’s four beautiful kids had to be especially proud as dad took his oath. But no one was prouder then his papa Ken.
As the night concluded, the consensus among the crowds was that the Democratic family is alive and well out in Cheektowaga. The Cheektowaga Town Board has some fresh new blood, and Supervisor Mary Holtz expressed her optimism that her new team will do well in the new year.
And even ECDC Chair Jeremy Zellner got some good cheer as he took his seat close to the proceedings. Emcee Jeff Whiting mistakenly introduced him as “Town Chair Zellner”, which got a few chuckles. Chairman Frank Max shot out, “Hey Jeremy, you got a good seat there at this event. You’re gonna have to buy me lunch.” More laughs. Good times.
And a good night for Cheektowaga… great reconnecting with so many old friends.
Andrew Kulyk covers Buffalo Sabres hockey and Buffalo Bisons baseball for Artvoice and is a Democratic political operative who occasionally opines on relevant topics in local and regional politics. Follow Andrew on Twitter @akulykUSRT