Niagara Falls has a reputation as being slow to change.
That’s why a 23-year-old city resident is turning heads as the first openly gay political candidate in city history.
“I’m not running on it, but I’m not running away from it,” Joe Swartz said of his sexual orientation. “It doesn’t really change who I am or what I believe in.”
But Swartz, a candidate for City Council, said it does shape his view of the world and the way government should be run.
It’s a view he thinks will resonate with voters – even in a place that has had its struggles with diversity.
“Somebody asks me what I bring to the table, I know what it’s like to be shut down and ignored and told to get to the back of the line,” he said. “Too often in our city, residents are being told to just get to the back of the line, that their voice isn’t very important.”
Swartz’s early campaign is drawing cheers from local gay rights groups, who say it’s the latest example of recent progress when it comes to equality in the political arena.
“This is an indication that in Niagara Falls there’s a person who feels comfortable identifying with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender community, with the expectation that it will not sink his candidacy,” said Ron Silverio, president of the Pride Center of Western New York.
“There have been some successful and some not-so-successful attempts,” Silverio added. “It seems to me it continues to get better.”
Some attitudes have changed with the legalization of gay marriage in July 2011, when the state’s first same-sex wedding at Niagara Falls spurred new marketing efforts to recast the city as an international Honeymoon Capital.
That event followed outcries from other minority groups who have felt in recent years that city policies promoted racial discrimination in city government.
In chasing one of three open Council seats, Swartz is following in the footsteps of former Buffalo Common Council member Barbra A. Kavanaugh and current Jamestown City Council President Gregory P. Rabb as an openly gay political candidate in Western New York.
But Swartz, who works as a telephone operator at the Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel, said it won’t define his candidacy.
For instance, he’s happy to disagree on some issues with Mayor Paul A. Dyster, an open supporter of same-sex marriage who witnessed the state’s first same-sex wedding on July 24, 2011.
He’s also willing to criticize the current City Council, which he faults for fighting state economic development plans in the Falls.
“The sad thing is we’ve hit rock bottom,” he said of Niagara Falls.
“Right now we only have up to go, but we need leadership in there that’s willing to make the decisions necessary to do it,” he added.
Swartz, who is seeking the Democratic, Working Families and Independence parties’ lines, believes it’s an attitude that anyone can agree with – regardless of sexual orientation.
“I think in the long run, hopefully the significance is no more than if a person had blue eyes or was 5-foot-6 or they were black or they were Jewish,” said Silverio. “That is to say, it shouldn’t have any bearing in the real world on a person’s ability to do the job.”