A falling out among old political allies has sparked a bitter battle for the Democratic nomination for the North District seat on the Common Council.
Four-term incumbent Dale Zuchlewski, 44, is encountering a stiff challenge from Joseph Golombek,a 34-year-old teacher who helped Zuchlewski launch his career in public office. Both make their home in Riverside, where they live three blocks apart.
Not far in the background is County Legislator Al DeBenedetti, D-Buffalo, a one-time close Zuchlewski ally who now claims he is fed up and supporting Golombek.
Both sides have denied causing the rancor and blame the opponent for the campaign's tone.
"From our side, it's been positive," Golombek said. "It could be Dale's past history, because he does tend to have fights all over the place."
Ignoring charges of butting into a Common Council race, DeBenedetti backs Golombek's allegations.
"He (Zuchlewski) has become a stereotyped city hall politician, getting donations from all kinds of business folks. His head's gotten too big for himself," DeBenedetti said.
Zuchlewski counters by calling his youthful opponent a "puppet."
"It's clear that Joe (Golombek) is Al's (DeBenedetti's) candidate. Al's pulling the strings. Al and I did have a fight, . . . but it's mostly because Al's picked fights with every elected official in this county," Zuchlewski said.
He denies any a grudge against his one-time allies. But, he said, "Every time he (Golombek) opens up his mouth, he misleads people. Every door he knocks on, he makes another promise."
The two camps seem to agree only that the feud "has split the whole community."
After narrowly winning the Democratic Party endorsement by only 136 votes out of 3,800 cast, Zuchlewski continues to face opposition from some disgruntled party workers who have bolted the party to back Golombek.
Zuchlewski also is supported by Mayor Masiello, the Independence Party and city unions. Perhaps most importantly, his advisers include two of the mayor's top aides, Vincent J. LoVallo and Joanne Cavalieri.
Golombek's endorsements include the Conservative Party, Erie County Latino Voters Association, 21st Zone Democratic chairman Dennis Chapman and several unions.
As for qualifications, Zuchlewski cites 25 years as a Little League coach and official and experience as a husband, father and homeowner, a not-so-subtle reference to his opponent, who is single and lives with his parents.
"When you have a family, your whole perspective on life changes," Zuchlewski said. "I have always had a desire to improve my community."
Zuchlewski said he is seeking re-election because "I still think I have some missions to accomplish." His priorities include making the new Northwest Academy "a true neighborhood community school," improving the city's infrastructure and services -- including forestry -- and boosting the quality of life in neighborhoods.
Since 1991, when he first took office, the district has emerged as the city's largest retail zone, with new super stores, theaters and restaurants sprouting among decaying factories and warehouses.
But while Zuchlewski brags about economic growth and new jobs, his critics claim his list of contributors shows he is too cozy with business interests.
"In eight years in this job, I know how to get through the red tape better than anyone," Zuchlewski responds. "I've learned how to interact between business concerns and community concerns and to find a balance. I think over $100 million in investments were good for the community."
Golombek grabbed attention early this year when he announced his candidacy to about 200 supporters, a large turnout for a new Council candidate, even counting his experience as a party committee member and former Council intern.
Like other challengers for Council seats, he is pledging to eliminate Buffalo's $109 garbage fee and criticizes a recent 24 percent pay raise lawmakers gave themselves. He also followed Zuchlewski's lead in suggesting that the size of the Council can be reduced.
Golombek insists that friends and block club leaders, not DeBenedetti, persuaded him to run. DeBenedetti, he said, was reluctant when he suggested it.
The decision was confirmed after Zuchlewski failed to respond to neighbors who wanted a stop sign at Esser Avenue and Philadelphia Street, he recalls.
Golombek criticizes Zuchlewski for failing to tend to residents' needs while concentrating on businesses in the district. He also faults the incumbent for being a follower in "a mediocre Council."
In addition to better city services, Golombek said residents want a neighborhood school at Northwest Academy and help in stopping what he calls "a terrible flight from Black Rock."
"We're down to 40 percent in homeowner-occupied housing," Golombek said, arguing that the city needs a "homeowner incentive plan" that would cut assessed values by up to $25,000, depending on how long an owner lives in a home.
He is a member of the Polish Cadets, Croatian Club, Ukrainian American Civic Association and the Knights of Columbus, where he has worked with youth basketball programs. He is also a board member of the Riverside COPS station.