Cheektowaga lost one of the lions of government and politics today.
Ken Meyers, former Cheektowaga Councilman and Supervisor, civic leader, Town Democratic Party chairman, family man, and electrician by trade, passed away today at age 84 after a lengthy illness, having spent the recent few months in assisted living.
Ken was no ordinary politician. He burst on the scene in the early 70s, a young and wide eyed public servant looking to make a difference. Cheektowaga at that time was a town soaked in thievery and corruption. Department heads and judges were under investigation; The party chair, who ruled town politics with an iron fist from his perch as head of sanitation, was indicted. Cheektowaga’s then supervisor, Dan Weber, beloved by many in the community, was under scrutiny for his role in many misdeeds. People went to jail. One official committed suicide to avoid his prison fate. The town was literally under water as the community’s explosive growth taxed the sewer system and other infrastructure. Developers looking to build subdivisions needed only to bring envelopes of cash and “campaign contributions” to Town Hall and shazam! Subdivision approved, with no mitigation measures needed. That’s how business was done back then.
Meyers aimed to change that, and while the Buffalo News was doing a massive expose on Cheektowaga’s corruption through its series, “Suburb Under Scrutiny”, Meyers won the Supervisors race in 1975, and made immediate moves to bring integrity and honesty back to Cheektowaga government. With the town experiencing white hot growth and a population influx, he placed priorities on quality of life institutions in the town – top notch youth, recreation and senior services programs. He shepherded a network of community parks, and the town’s crown jewel – Stiglmeier Park on Losson Road, adjacent to a vast tract of unspoiled land which would eventually become the Reinstein Nature Preserve, and remains as a legacy to the environment to this very day. He was always leading the expansion of social organizations in the town and involving people in active roles in governance – the Bicentennial Commission pulled off the largest celebration of the 200th birthday of the USA anywhere in New York. He encouraged involvement in business via the Chamber of Commerce’s Intercouncil of Organizations. He supported the Youth Board and the Cultural Advisory Board. He lobbied for state funds to build an outdoor bandshell at Town Park. He fired corrupt leaders and campaigned against the old machine which still lingered in various elected positions. Bit by bit, the public regained confidence in their municipal government, and it was Meyers who was at the center of it all.
The Meyers v Weber political dynamic dogged both these great men for a good deal of their respective careers, and in 1979 Weber, having dodged a bullet in his own corruption investigation, ran for a rematch with Meyers, this time entering the primary as a Democrat. With a heavy Polish-American demographic still leading politics in the town back then, Weber stunned the political world by winning the primary. Left with only a minor party line, the old “Right To Life” party, Meyers’ days as supervisor were finished.
Or were they?
What happened next was nothing short of amazing. Stakeholders, community leaders and ordinary citizens, fearful that the town would go to the bad old days of political corruption, coalesced and gathered to convince Meyers to stay in the race and fight on. On a rainy Friday night just a few days after the primary, over 300 people jammed the Knights of Columbus hall on Union Road, even while the adjacent Cayuga Creek had spilled over its flood banks and many people had to be wheeled into the building via cart through the ankle deep water. On that night, Ken Meyers and wife Joan walked into that hall to a 15 minute standing ovation. It was a long shot – the “Meyers Fever” campaign would have to get 2500 signatures in 8 days to secure a second independent line, and mount a campaign against a potent Democratic machine to pull it off. The task seemed hopeless.
A makeshift headquarters was set up in a warehouse in an industrial park on Benbro Drive. For the next seven weeks, it was an epic and unprecedented street fight – hundreds of volunteers hitting the houses, attending events, making the calls, while the noise from the Democratic machine in town got increasingly shrill. And things were turning ugly.
Come election night, that warehouse on Benbro Drive was packed to the gills and people spilling into the street. The polls had been manned all day – workers were coming in with the tally sheets and posting the numbers on the big board. The numbers from the old Polish neighborhoods in Sloan and along William Street looked grim, Weber leading heavily. But the huge districts from Southline, mostly young families, and from Meyers’ home base in Queen of Martyrs parish and the north side were coming in big. Back then there were no web sites or iPhones. Just gals with adding machines and hand tally sheets. By 10:30pm all the unofficial sheets had come in, and it looked like nearly a tie. Who would the winner be?
The Meyers Fever supporters didn’t have to wait long. Shortly after 11, the call came from the Town Clerk’s office, with numbers verified by the Board of Elections… Meyers had beaten Weber by 83 votes, out of more than 35,000 votes cast, and all absentees counted. On that night, that warehouse on Benbro exploded into such jubilation, such joy. Meyers had a look of disbelief at the raucous scene unfolding at that moment… he walked onto the platform and the microphone, along with his youngest son Tim, today a sitting member of the Cheektowaga town board, who was weeping uncontrollably. The underdog had won.. it was a David v Goliath moment and the enormity of the accomplishment was not lost on any of the many supporters who had worked so tirelessly, some putting their public sector jobs and careers on the line to go against the Democratic Party.
The Meyers v Weber battle had one last go around, again in 1983, and this time it was Weber, looking for vindication and redemption, retaking the Supervisors office. Despite Meyers’ good government ethos, the public had high taxes fatigue and had to endure the seemingly never ending sewer and water problems and were clamoring for change. The bad old days of corrupt government were in the distant rear view mirror, and just like that, Meyers’ decade plus on the town board was over.
Meyers remained in political life even after his retirement from the board, and going back to his trade as an electrician, while serving two separate stints as Chairman of the Cheektowaga Democratic Town Committee.
I met Ken in 1977 while still in college. I was general manager of the Cheektowaga Symphony Orchestra and our organization received an annual grant from the town to help with operations. Ken admitted that he wasn’t very schooled in classical music, but gave us his unwavering support. Through my advocacy of the symphony, I joined the Patriotic Commission, and the Chamber, and the Cultural Society. Through Ken we made a lot of friends and allies, all working in unison to make our town a great place to live.
The “Meyers Fever” election campaign was my first real foray into organized politics. I had just finished school and started a job, but pretty much put my life on hold to spend those two months volunteering on his campaign. It was an amazing organized effort and I was thrilled to be a part of it.
I often think, what if Ken had lost? I imagine I would have said, “well this sucked”, and went on my way to my Plan A – to move into the city and embrace the “urban hipster” life. My move to downtown Buffalo finally happened – but not until 2010.
But instead, I put down roots in Cheektowaga, buying a home there, affiliating as a Democrat and running for the committee, and joining the Meyers reform bandwagon. It was a great ride. A couple years later, Meyers sponsored my appointment to a vacancy on the Zoning Board of Appeals, and told me I was “going places”. He was right. In 1987, I threw my hat in the ring for a seat on the Town Council, and won.
I was not the only one from that gathering of volunteers on Benbro Drive who went on to elected office. Campaign coordinator and attorney Dennis Ciotusynski would win a seat as Town Justice. Patricia Jaworowicz was elected as the first female on the town board and then served for over 31 years (I managed her first campaign in 1981). Mary Holtz went on to become Town Clerk and later Cheektowaga’s first female supervisor. Vickie Dankowski was just elected Town Clerk. Fellow “reform” Councilman and Ken’s good friend and mentor Frank Swiatek was later elected supervisor, and after that his son Jeff Swiatek also served several terms on the town board. Later on, Ken managed Jackie Blachowski’s campaign for a town board seat in 1989 and she became the second female to serve as a Councilman. And in 2013, Ken got to watch son Tim win his own seat on the council, the next generation of Meyers’ serving Cheektowaga.
There are others, many others, who involved themselves in local political and governmental entities and served honorably, after getting their start with the Meyers Fever campaign.
I learned of the news of Ken’s death today via my dear friend Pat Staniaszek. She and I cut our teeth not only through Ken’s campaign, but through our involvement in the Patriotic Commission and other civic endeavors, where we worked together and laughed and cried and had fun through many many different causes and events. We talked on the phone, we reminisced, but mostly we shared our joy of having known, loved, and been loved by a truly extraordinary man, who touched the lives of so many people.
Just this past Monday, the Cheektowaga Town Board formally named the town park rec center the “Kenneth J. Meyers Recreation Center”. It is a fitting honor and memory to someone who made a difference in that town.
At some point for me, there will be time for tears and sadness, and a celebration of Ken’s life and how he inspired me towards of a life of leadership in government and politics.
But for tomorrow, my own tribute to Ken will be a subtle one. As I hit the road for the daily service appointments in my pest control business, I will wear a New York Yankees cap in Ken’s honor, the baseball team he supported with all his heart. And I will smile.
Artvoice sports columnist Andrew Kulyk is a former Cheektowaga Councilman, Zoning Board of Appeals member and chairman, Democratic Party committeeman and vice chair, and political operative, now retired from government and political life. He occasionally opines on issues involving politics. Follow Andrew on Twitter @akulykUSRT