“What do you want to be when you grow up, young Stefan Mychajliw?”
“Erie County comptroller, sir. What else?”
It’s a pretty good bet that conversation never took place while the new county comptroller was growing up on Buffalo’s East Side. Nobody aspires to track debits and credits on the 11th floor of the Rath County Office Building. The job is kind of just “there.”
But it’s exactly where the former Channel 2 reporter hangs his red coat – er, hat – these days after scoring the most remarkable local victory of Election 2012. At 39, Mychajliw has traded his TV microphone for an accountant’s ledger – and the boisterous world of Erie County politics.
So far, it’s been anything but quiet. During the first three weeks of his new job, Mychajliw managed to identify and tackle a cash flow “crisis,” sound an alarm on high levels of borrowing and issue a scathing audit of his own department.
This week he’s expected to make lots of noise about county health insurance policies that pay for acupuncture and massages.
But he also got whacked as Channel 2 reported he hired as chief of staff Jeff Bochiechio, a political operative best known as former County Executive Chris Collins’ fund raiser. Channel 4 then revealed that Bochiechio had been convicted of driving while intoxicated last October in Cattaraugus County. Bochiechio resigned.
Welcome to politics, Comptroller Mychajliw.
But there’s something about Mychajliw’s loud arrival that merits watching. First, he wasn’t supposed to win in a Democratic county when Democrats show up en masse to vote for president. But he did – handily.
Second, he seems determined to use the post as a bully pulpit.
“I want to take the politics out of it,” he said the other day amid beat-up office furnishings he fished out of a county warehouse. “If I anger the politicians and bosses of my own party – good.”
All of this is important because Erie County Democrats desperately want to retake the office (the post is on the ballot again because Mychajliw won only a special election to fill the unexpired term of Mark Poloncarz – now the county executive). New Chairman Jeremy Zellner needs a big-time victory in November to make the case for his Headquarters wing of the party. Other Democratic factions may propose their own candidate to further their interests, too.
While Democrats will concentrate on retaining control of the County Legislature this year, no other objective looms so large as removing this potential thorn in the side of Poloncarz.
Mychajliw acknowledges he lacks the financial background most voters desire for his office. But he has surrounded himself with accounting gurus like Greg Gach, a budget expert who has also worked for Collins and Poloncarz. Like countless county pols before him, he quotes a legendary predecessor – Alfreda Slominski – as a role model who never took an accounting course.
“She told me that if I’m independent, work hard and hammer everybody,” he said, “I’ll never have to worry about another election.”
Mychajliw may not be a CPA, but he’s already rooting around the budget for taxpayer-friendly revelations. He says he’s not a politician, but stumbled by tapping a political operative as his top assistant. He says he’s no longer a reporter, but ironically experienced his most awkward moment as former colleague Scott Brown grilled him on TV about Bochiechio.
“I should have been more forthright in answering Scott on that,” he says now. “I should have said I needed someone with political and legal experience.”
“I got my Ukrainian up on that,” he adds. “You move on.”
Mychajliw won a big one last year and followed with a loud entrance. He says he embraced politics because he was unhappy “sitting on the sidelines.”
It’s now quite evident he won’t be a sidelines kind of guy. One way or another, it looks as if he’s a spotlight kind of guy.