For family patriarch Henry Gabryszak, these last few weeks had to be absolutely devastating. Sunday was the end of a long, lucky road.
The elder Gabryszak was a lion of Cheektowaga and Sloan politics; as a young Democratic activist he was one of those guys who was signing up new Democratic voters as Cheektowaga was exploding in size and growth in the 60s. He unsuccessfully ran for Supervisor against an entrenched Dan Weber, but eventually found his calling on the bench, where he served honorably as Town Justice in the Cheektowaga Town Court. There he built up a brand and reputation that was a gold standard in the town, and would eventually come in handy when son Dennis entered elective politics much later on.
For disclosure purposes, I have known Dennis throughout just about his entire career in public life. He and I became running mates for Town Councilman in 1987 when I won the primary as an unendorsed candidate (Dennis was endorsed). We battled fiercely on myriad legislative issues during the one term I spent on the Town Board. I opposed him when he ran for re-election as Supervisor in 1999 and paid dearly for it when he won. In recent years he and I have made our peace, and when I served as Executive Vice Chair of the Cheektowaga Democrats from 2006 until 2010, I supported his runs for Assembly as was appropriate for a party leader.
One of the common refrains coming from many corners of the Cheektowaga community is how these sorts of revelations facing Dennis today didn’t come to light much earlier. They should have. But a closer look at his career and the dynamics of his political path from the Depew Village Board to the State Assembly shows that the waters always parted for Dennis when it came to higher office - that's the Gabryszak Mystique.
The Gabryszak brand played well in a town where being Polish American was the currency of the realm and family politics was king. But even as a local politician, Gabryszak spearheaded some epic blunders which cost or nearly cost the town dearly. Yet come election time he always managed to persevere and win with the robust support of the electorate, especially the heavy voting districts of Sloan, William Street and the Walden district which were heavily Polish demographically.
The Galleria Mall
1987 was a watershed year for the Town of Cheektowaga. A private enterprise named The Pyramid Companies came into the town, proposing to build a project that was mind-spinningly stupendous – a 2 million square foot, two level shopping center, spanning a length of 1.2 miles, a shopping destination that was unimaginable in these parts, much less the Town of Cheektowaga. The developer had acquired the land, just east of the Thruway, it was already correctly zoned for retail use, and what was needed to begin work were the appropriate environmental permits from the NYSDEC and a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build over the Scajaquada Creek.
Pretty simple right? But enter the Task Force Opposed To Another Mall.
This small but noisy group of obstructionists whipped the community up in a frenzy, trying to derail the project and send the developers packing. Predictions of environmental cataclysms, massive traffic jams, and planes crashing into the mall on a stormy night overwhelmed the Town Board meetings and public hearings on the topic. What that moment needed was leadership and a backbone to stand up to the shrill voice of these opponents.
Instead, Dennis demurred. He and fellow Councilman Tom Johnson fed the council chambers’ applause meter and countless times held up the project with delay tactics, tabling of appropriate resolutions, appearances at meetings of this Task Force to further stir up public opposition. In the end he and Johnson were on the constant losing end of 5-2 votes. The Galleria Mall became a reality – hundreds of construction jobs, thousands of permanent jobs in retailing, millions in sales tax revenues with a substantial amount of those dollars coming in from Canada. Spinoff development by the boatload, with Cabelas just the most recent jewel in what today makes Cheektowaga the retail epicenter of Western New York.
The Pyramid Companies had patience, deep pockets, and the will to see this project through to fruition. A developer with less stature would probably have bolted and left. Thankfully, Dennis’ misguided obstructionism did not wind up costing Cheektowaga the biggest economic development project in its history.
A municipal golf course
1987 was also the year that the community debated the construction of a public golf course for the town. Leading the charge was Bill Rogowski, then a Councilman, who was heavily advocating this public amenity on town-owned land on a parcel adjacent to Stiglmeier Park on the south end of town. Rogowski ran that year against Frank Swiatek and lost, and Swiatek was uninterested in promoting a proposal that had been put forth by his rival.
Instead, he and Gabryszak proposed buying a vacant tract of land east of the airport, at the foot of Rehm Road, to develop a golf course. The town floated a $2-million bond issue to acquire the property, design, engineer, and build the course. Financial projections were touted showing the revenues would more than pay for the cost of the bonds, and there would also be substantial spinoff development which would add to the town’s tax rolls. Dennis was put in charge of this project as the Chair of the Parks and Recreation Committee.
By 1989, he had run through the entire $2-million, and still no golf course. Engineering costs overruns, lawsuits by property owners who were having their properties seized via eminent domain, higher than expected construction estimates. The money was gone. So what did Dennis do? Simple. Come back to the Town Board and ask for another $2-million.
Early that year, he snuck a bond authorization onto the agenda, clocking in the item without any paperwork. A half hour before the Monday board meeting, the entire town board was summoned into a hastily called work session, where we were all presented with a phone book thick document, and told we were all to vote for this so that the golf course could proceed without any further delay. I was apoplectic. Where had the first $2-million gone was just the first of many questions I had and pleaded for time to study this matter further. Nope. No time. We had to vote on it that night so that the bond counsel could take it to market and secure the funds under some mysterious timetable.
The vote was five ayes and two nays that night, with me and the late Councilman Leo Kazukiewicz voting against. Dennis had his $2-million. In the end, even that was not enough to get this golf course built. The land was eventually leased to a private firm, they built the Diamond Hawk Golf Course and in exchange provide minimal royalties to the town. The golf course is reportedly not doing well, and there has been little spinoff development.
And oh, the taxpayers of Cheektowaga just recently retired the last of the 20 year bonds Dennis secured for this project - $4 million and a boatload of interest.
Paying your property taxes
Dennis ascended to the office of Supervisor in 1995, and it was made easy for him – Frank Swiatek stepped down that year, but timed his announcement and resignation so that no big crowd of contenders would force a possible battle and primary. Dennis was pretty much handed the gavel and won easily that year.
Come 1999, not so easy. In spring of that year, news came out that Dennis’ home in Depew had been placed into foreclosure and was scheduled to be auctioned, because Dennis had not paid his property taxes for several years. The announcement was a huge embarrassment. When town board rival Bill Rogowski entered the race for Supervisor that year, a central theme of his campaign was – how can you expect the Chief Fiscal Officer of the town to manage a $75-million municipal corporation, when he can’t even conduct his own personal finances appropriately?
The campaign quickly goy ugly. Curiously, a lot of quiet chatter alleging lewd behavior from Dennis was going around town during that year as well, although nobody specifically came forward. So enter the Gabryszak Mystique. Dennis rolled in the primary that year in a low overall turnout, then barely survived in November from Rogowski’s surprisingly strong effort on the Republican line. Come January, Dennis, aided by his political wingman and new Town Attorney Mike Stachowski, exacted political retribution against anyone who opposed him.
Those that could be fired were; those who could be demoted or reassigned were. Councilmen who opposed him were stripped of committees. A new climate of fear and retribution descended on Town Hall, which stayed there until Dennis left for the Assembly in 2006.
This was also the year that the upstart Frank Max movement took over the Cheektowaga Democrats, ushering a new chapter in politics in Erie County.
The Assembly Era
Like his ascension to Supervisor, the path to the State Assembly was also made easy for Dennis. Longtime Assemblyman Paul Tokasz announced for 2006 re-election, was endorsed, petitions were circulated with his name, and then 30 hours before the filing deadline, abruptly announced that he was stepping down.
For anyone who would have designs to run, it would be virtually impossible to ramp up a campaign and effort and obtain the requisite signatures in that short window of time. Tokasz’ resignation was scheduled deliberately timed to turn the succession process over to a “Committee on Vacancies”, a group of party leaders who would hand pick Tokasz’ successor. That person was Dennis, and shazzam… Dennis Gabryszak was going to Albany.
Despite repeated assertions by the media that Dennis was a mediocre Assemblyman, he flourished in the role. He quietly brought home the bacon, and Town Board members will readily admit that Dennis was more than helpful and collaborative in joint town-state efforts on constituent projects.
The much maligned Adam Locher, who has been named repeatedly as the staffer who refused to help the female victims who stepped forward, served as an efficient aide to Dennis, representing him well in the community and performing much of the thankless grunt work that legislative aides are required to do.
No matter which angle one looks at this entire sordid mess, at the end of the day this is a story of a politician who made his way up the food chain through branding and a good Polish name but very few remarkable accomplishments.
There are no winners – the women who had the courage to step forward with their stories might be looked upon by some as disloyal whistleblowers and malcontents. They richly deserve financial settlements but even that won’t make them truly whole. Dennis should have come to grips with his bad behavior long ago; these stories are nothing new they have swirled for decades and everyone at town hall and among CheekDems has their own story to tell.
Dennis needs to stare into the abyss, maybe that dose of reality will steer him away from the abyss. Dennis’ family must be stoic, and that is not an easy thing. Louise Gabryszak has stood by her man through thick and thin; they have two beautiful children, Brian, who is a special needs child, and Jennifer, who just became a mom herself. The community needs to heal – Cheektowaga is a proud town and a great town and locals deserve a better representative in the Assembly than the byproduct of this disgusting mess.
But most of all – think about Henry. He’s elderly and not in the best of health. Cheektowaga Democrats are great today because he and other guys like him built the party in a day when Cheektowaga was little more than pig farms and fields run by the reddest of red state types. He should have taken his kid to the woodshed and administered some adult supervision a long, long time ago. Maybe then we might have gotten the government we deserve. And maybe none of this might ever have happened.
Andrew Kulyk served Cheektowaga for decades as a Democratic Commiteeman, Town Councilman, member and Chairman of the Zoning Board of Appeals, and also a four year stint as Executive Vice Chair of the Cheektowaga Democratic Town Committee, as well as in leadership roles for many civic and cultural organizations. Follow Andrew on Twitter @akulykUSRT