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When the county's highest-paid town supervisor admitted earlier this year he had neglected to pay all of his property taxes for two years, his political rivals just had to smile.

Dennis H. Gabryszak, Cheektowaga's town supervisor since 1993, wouldn't dare run for re-election now, they figured. When you reign over a highly taxed town and then fail to pay your own bill, voters tend to get upset.

Gabryszak's enemies aren't smiling anymore. But neither are some of his allies.

In the highest-stakes suburban race of the Sept. 14 primary, Gabryszak is indeed running -- and fighting for his political life against a candidate backed by a splinter group of rebel town Democrats.

It's not only Gabryszak who's worried, though. The contest has implications for the county Democratic organization, which can ill afford to lose control of a political plum like Cheektowaga.

Cheektowaga's more than 30,000 registered Democrats make it the largest Democrat stronghold outside of Buffalo. It is considered a must-win town for any countywide Democratic candidate -- like County Executive Gorski.

In fact, even statewide and national Democratic candidates looking to capture New York state rely on the county organization to deliver Cheektowaga's votes.

"It's their (suburban) base," said Bob Davis, head of the Erie County Republican Committee.

Not a good place to suffer dissent within the ranks, he notes. "It would make me very nervous."

The tiny village of Sloan and the traditional old Polish-American neighborhoods just outside it are where this primary is being fought hardest.

William P. Rogowski grew up in Sloan and served as its mayor in the 1970s before joining the Cheektowaga Town Board in 1980. He says his dissatisfaction with Gabryszak's management of the town has been growing for years.

Now Rogowski, 54, is taking on the town party. Knowing he wouldn't get backing from the traditional Democrats, he cozied up to and received Republican backing for the November election.

But first he is fighting Gabryszak in the Democratic primary. He has the endorsement of the Progressive Democrats, an increasingly strong faction headed by Frank Max, who is unpopular among party loyalists. Max's house also was the target of a gunman who shot out a window of his home late last year.

"Frank Max is a crank," said Steven Pigeon, head of the county's Democratic committee.

Pigeon says he is not worried about the Max uprising, characterizing the race as between Gabryszak and Rogowski. There are no broader implications for the county party, he says.

"This is a town race," he said. "The county committee is not involved."

If Max pulls off a victory, he is likely to be a force Pigeon has to deal with, one who will resist falling into line with traditionalists and, his critics fear, promote divisiveness.

"He's not the kind of guy you can talk things over with," said James R. Burst, chairman of the Cheektowaga Democratic Committee. "He's going to do his own thing no matter what. He has to be in charge."

Gabryszak has always been popular with Cheektowaga's huge older Polish-American population -- just like his father, a former village and town justice.

Henry Gabryszak is helping with his son's re-election effort. The common wisdom in political circles is that the well of affection for the father will be a great boon to the son.

His whole family is campaigning hard for him, and Gabryszak expects a tough fight but is upbeat. He ticks off his accomplishments: The highest bond rating in Erie County, a $3.2 million savings in trash removal costs, revitalized neighborhoods, a commercial base that is regaining its health.

But the tax imbroglio clearly makes him nervous. So does Rogowski's claim that if Gabryszak can't manage his own finances, he has no business managing those of the county's second-largest suburb.

Yes, Gabryszak says, he made a mistake. with his taxes. "But the tax thing, that didn't affect the town. This town is the strongest it's been in years," he said.

It wasn't that long ago that Gabryszak was one of the party's rising stars. There was even talk of him running for State Assembly.

Then he endorsed David Swarts' primary challenge against Gorski. Gabryszak and Gorski later patched up their differences but privately, Gorski loyalists have been ambivalent about Gabryszak ever since, and the tax flap didn't help his stock.

Some worry Gabryszak is a headache Gorski doesn't need as he fights Joel Giambra in his own tough re-election bid. "Guilt by association," as one Democrat puts it, is one concern.

But there is also fear that Rogowski will bring out disaffected Democrats and more Republicans in November, weakening Gorski.

"It's definitely a problem for the mainstream Democratic Party," said Burst, the head of the Democratic Party in Cheektowaga.

Early polling by the county Democratic organization showed Gabryszak with an edge over Rogowski. But Rogowski is running a no-holds-barred campaign, going door to door in the old neighborhoods, blitzing the streets with slingers and raising $6,053 to Gabryszak's $1,385 so far.

Almost daily, Rogowski hammers Gabryszak on the tax issue, questioning his leadership and accusing him of being unfocused, even uninterested, in the job of supervisor.

Rogowski's most recent slingers say the supervisor would rather be golfing at the private Lancaster Country Club.

"Don't expect to find him at his office," the flier says. "Most days you can find him out playing golf."

Gabryszak fumes at these accusations. He plays golf, he says, Saturday and Sunday at 6:30 a.m. He even produced country club records showing he has golfed only 15 times this year, all but once on the weekend.

More importantly, he says, he loves his job and puts in more hours than Rogowski, a West Seneca teacher, could imagine.

Rogowski "sat on this board for 20 years and he hasn't done a damn thing," Gabryszak said. "He doesn't do anything."

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