Democrats continue to dominate in Cheektowaga – representing more than 54 percent of registered voters and holding all but one seat on the current Town Board,
But do declarations of independence by some Democrats in this year’s race for three board seats suggest the role – or some might say control – of the local party is waning? It’s possible to come to that conclusion when you consider:
• Diane Benczkowski, who was unable to secure the Democratic Committee’s endorsement in this and previous campaigns, ran independently in September’s primary and finished first in a field of five – despite negative mailers reportedly sent by the committee;
• Incumbent Councilman Stanley J. Kaznowski III, who won an endorsement but lost in the primary, has distanced himself from committee leadership while continuing his campaign on minor party lines.
• And Nicole Gawel, who was endorsed by the Republican and Independence parties, has stated she refuses “to join the regime” of the current Democratic leadership.
Frank Max, chairman of the Cheektowaga Democratic Committee, insists all is well within the party.
“They are independent. All the Democratic candidates always are,” he said this week. “There is no party rebellion.”
Incumbent James P. Rogowski and Tim Meyers round out the Democratic Party’s candidates. The Republican Party’s slate also includes the Rev. Rick Maisano and Roger McGill Jr.
The seven are vying for the seats currently held by the two incumbents, plus the vacancy created by the February resignation, for health reasons, of Patricia Jaworowicz, the first woman elected to the Town Board more than 30 years ago. The four-year term pays $20,680 annually.
The latest campaign started last year for Benczkowski, who had unsuccessful runs for Town Board and town clerk in the midst of serving 12 years on the Depew School Board.
After failing again to receive the Democratic Committee’s endorsement, Benczkowski said, “I decided to run anyway as an independent Democrat in the primary election. My team and I knocked on thousands of doors. We learned that the voters of Cheektowaga are too smart to fall for the old ploy of negative campaign mailers sent out at the last minute. I believe many cast their vote against that type of dirty campaign tactic and in favor of discussing issues that are important to all of the residents of the town.”
The lack of an endorsement for Benczkowski simply was how the process played out, Max said.
“You have to pick three; when there’s four, somebody loses out,” he said. “It’s after the primary when we tell everyone, ‘Let’s work together.’ ”
The committee has since contributed money and manpower to Benczkowski’s campaign, Max said. She also received a contribution from Citizens for Zellner; Jeremy Zellner defeated Max in a bitter battle for the county Democratic Party chairmanship.
Kaznowski was the odd man out after the primary, finishing fourth. It may have been sour grapes talking, but during an Oct. 10 forum sponsored by the Dick Urban Community Association, he said: “I’m not part of the political machine.”
“Not getting the nomination is sort of a relief because I don’t have to play the games anymore,” Kaznowski said that night, adding that he supports Benczkowski.
Heading into Tuesday’s elections, Kaznowski reiterates his independence on a campaign palm card that declares: “I owe no allegiance to any town political leader.”
The party chairman said he takes no offense at those statements. “Stan is a good guy,” Max said. “He’s done a good job on that board.”
The Democratic chairman said he’s never met Gawel, who entered the Democratic primary – and finished last – despite her other endorsements.
On a local political website, Gawel blasted Max while responding to someone’s question about why Republicans would endorse a Democrat in the Cheektowaga race.
She wrote, in part: “My answer to them would be I share fiscally conservative views. Also, I refuse to join the regime of the current Cheektowaga Democratic administration led by Mr. Frank Max. I was not going to become another one of his puppets to ruin this wonderful Town of Cheektowaga, or for that matter owe people favors.”
Max said: “Whether she likes the chairman or not, she’s never met me.”
As for the Republican slate of candidates, he said: “That’s the most uninformed group of people I have ever seen.” Republican Committee Chairman Don Friedrich begs to differ, citing the candidates’ backgrounds.
Maisano is president of the Dick Urban Community Association, a local taxpayers association. “He’s very informed on the issues,” Friedrich said.
Gawel is a former reporter for a chain of community newspapers and wrote about Cheektowaga. “She covered every Town Board meeting for years,” he said.
And McGill has served two of the town’s fire districts in an elective capacity.
The Democratic chairman also was critical of the Republican candidates’ methods for publicizing their positions on issues, asking: “Where have you seen where they passed out a piece of literature, or took out ads, or put any money or effort in to say what their position is?”
Friedrich responded: “Right now our candidates are concentrating on going door to door, which is a huge thing. They are out talking to the residents.”
Meanwhile, a Buffalo News review of campaign finance records shows Democrats have been far outpacing Republicans in raising and spending money – particularly on campaign mailings.
“Money’s always a factor in politics – there’s no getting around that,” Friedrich said. “We are still going to get our message out and we feel we have very strong candidates to do that.”
As the only Republican on the Town Board, Council Member Angela Wozniak has been frustrated in her attempts to get matters discussed in a public forum, Friedrich said, namely, the issue of downsizing the board. “Important issues are not being brought up to vote on,” he said.
“Our candidates will do what’s best for the residents,” Friedrich said. “They are not obligated or committed to follow the lock, stock and barrel of the party line.”