Councilwoman Diane Benczkowski has only held elected office for about a year, but in that short time she has brought a dynamic energy, robust work ethic, and freshness in perspective that is changing the landscape of Cheektowaga’s long entrenched patronage politics. She is widely seen as a rising star — with a charisma and down-to-earth style that has endeared her to voters — and has drawn sharp contrasts with the brutal and cut throat politics of Frank Max, who was only recently ousted as the Town’s Democrat chairman.
Benczkowski’s popularity makes a run for Town Supervisor easily within her grasp, and many operatives see her as a future State Senator or County Comptroller. She hasn’t decided whether to run because she values party unity. But sources say that she is thinking hard about it.
The longtime Supervisor Mary Holtz is 67 and operatives have been anticipating her retirement for sometime. Holtz is expected to step aside ahead of the party’s endorsement meeting. Rumor has it that she has been in talks with Chairman Jeremy Zellner about making the retirement announcement a high profile celebration, of sorts, that unifies the party and honors her long political career.
Frank Max — the old school politico who has built a patronage machine with a decades long grip on the town government — views Benczkowski as an existential threat. Max has held patronage positions in the town government for decades, and has a network of town employees that has long dominated Cheektowaga politics. But his machine is aging beyond retirement, and their field operation has become weak and arthritic in recent years.
Those who are close to Max say that, deep down, he sees the writing on the wall. He doesn’t know how to use Facebook and can barely manage email. His fundraisers yeild only a few thousand dollars at a time, and the bank account of the Progressive Democrats of WNY (which he launched after being ousted as party chair) has a balance of $2.02. He has no young supporters who typically do the heavy lifting of field ops, canvassing, and social media.
All of this makes Benczkowski’s spring fundraising event on March 25th the talk of the town, which is expected to be a “whose who event” of Western New York politics.
Operatives say that it is also an opportunity for “Frank Max loyalists to hedge their bets” and build a relationship with the political newcomer. Others say that Max would be smart to mend fences with Benczkowski early rather than drag the party into a brutal primary battle that he is sure to lose and would gaurentee the defeat of County Executive Mark Poloncarz to a Republican challenger.
Experts say that Max’s biggest problem is that Benczkowski is so likable. Her supports say that “she doesn’t have a mean spirited bone in her body,” and that irks the grumpy and rough-and-tumble Max who has been willing to do whatever it takes to maintain his grip on the town’s patronage largess.
Surely, taxpayers will play a decisive role in this Supervisor’s race.
UPDATE: It is rumored that Senator Tim Kennedy’s office is working back channels to encourage Holtz to retire. Kennedy is afraid that, if Holtz stays on, Benczkowski would be a formidable State Senate challenger next year. Kennedy would prefer to have Benczkowski hard at work as Town Supervisor and too busy to run for State Senate.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the balance of the campaign account of the Progressive Democrats of Western New York as $1,000. The correct balance — as of the latest public filing is $2.02.