Dennis T. Gorski and Joel A. Giambra -- rivals for Erie County executive in the November general election -- are both capable elected officials for very different reasons, according to a survey of community leaders by The Buffalo News.
Gorski was widely praised by respondents as smart, hard-working and an adept fiscal manager. A common criticism: He lacks vision and charm.
Giambra's strengths are Gorski's weaknesses: He is lauded for his vision, temperament and willingness to challenge the status quo. The knock on him: He talks a better game than he plays.
On balance, survey respondents cited a slight preference for Gorski.
He earned a grade of 3.6 out of a possible 5 points for his overall ability, compared with 3.5 for Giambra.
Twenty-one of 67 elected officials have received a rating of 3.5 or higher since The News began surveying community leaders on elected officials more than 10 years ago.
That puts Giambra and Gorski within the top third.
The two also received favorable job ratings from respondents, 70 percent for Gorski and 64 percent for Giambra.
Irwin Pastor, president of Pepsi-Cola Buffalo Bottling Corp., was among many respondents who praised Gorski for his administration of county government.
"Excellent marks for fiscal management," he said.
Henry Taylor, director of the University at Buffalo's Center for Urban Studies, expressed a common sentiment: "Dennis is a good manager, but he lacks the boldness to move the county to the next level."
Giambra earned kudos for advocating a regional approach to government services and reviving the local economy.
"He is focused on the future, not maintaining the status quo," said Tony Rider, a partner at the accounting firm of Ernst & Young.
Yet a fair number of respondents said Giambra could have done more during his 17 years in city government.
Andres Garcia, president of Western New York Hispanics and Friends Civic Association, described Giambra as a "great personality, good listener (and) problem solver," but added: "He is untested. His performance as comptroller was not outstanding."
The survey results are based on responses from 228 government officials, community leaders and business executives who answered a written questionnaire from The News that was mailed in mid-August.
Respondents, who all had first-hand dealings with one or both of the men, were asked to rate Giambra and Gorski on 16 personal and professional attributes, ranging from intelligence and independence to fiscal management and quality of senior staff. Respondents also were asked to gauge their ability to address key issues facing the county.
Respondents expressed concern about the condition of the county -- half said it was headed in the wrong direction. And slightly fewer than half said neither man was capable of turning the county around. Many said that resolving the area's problems requires an all-out effort that extends well beyond county government.
Giambra was regarded as more capable of promoting cooperation among local government, while Gorski was seen as a better bet for cutting the cost of county government.
"They both have some very good skills and talents," one respondent said. "It would be best if they both could survive in government. Basically they are both good men."
Sizing up Gorski
Gorski earned the highest individual rating of the two for his work ethic, 4.4 out of a possible 5. He earned a 4.1 for his intelligence and fiscal management.
"Gorski has run a scandal-free, clean government for 12 years," one respondent said.
Another described him as "bright and hardworking -- has chosen some good people to work in his administration."
"He has lowered county taxes, cut the county work force and cut the welfare rolls," Lancaster Supervisor Robert Giza said.
Gorski also received high grades for independence, credibility, sensitivity to all ethnic groups and the quality of his senior staff.
Gorski did not receive any below-average grades. His lowest ratings of 3.1 -- slightly above satisfactory -- were for vision and ability to compromise, followed by temperament.
Many respondents, while giving him passing grades, pointed out shortcomings. Chief among them was a lack of vision and effective leadership to deal with the economic and tax problems confronting the region.
One respondent summed it up for many by writing: "Good manager, poor leader."
Garcia said Gorski "is stale. Like many present elected officials, lacks vision and a long-range plan to move this area forward."
Gorski fared better on this survey than one conducted in 1990, halfway through his first term. In that sampling, he earned a similar rating of 3.5 out of five for overall ability, but had a job approval rating of only 41 percent, compared with 70 percent today.
"It's gratifying to know that, after all these years and the difficult problems I've dealt with, that I maintain this level of confidence," he said.
Sizing up Giambra
Respondents had a different take on Giambra, who has served as city comptroller since 1990 and before that was the West Side's representative on the Common Council. In 1987, he was rated the Council's third-best member, with a rating of 3.7 out of five.
Giambra's best grade this time around was 3.9 for his speaking ability, followed by a 3.8 rating for accessibility and temperament.
Anthony Colucci Jr., an attorney, described Giambra as "articulate and forward thinking." Giambra earned a grade of 3.7 for vision, initiative and willingness to take unpopular stands. Many respondents, in their written comments, praised him for his advocacy of regional solutions to the area's problems.
"He brought the issue of consolidation to the forefront," said Earl Wells, public relations director at Eric and Mower Associates.
Warren Galloway, president of Operation PUSH, said he "has vision, is willing to listen and will try something new."
Giambra's lowest grades of 3.2 -- still slightly above average -- were for credibility, fiscal management and the quality of his senior staff.
His detractors used terms like "opportunist" and "chameleon" to describe him. Some took exception to his changing parties to run for county executive. Others question whether he has the right stuff to run county government or advance regionalism past the concept stage.
"He flip-flops," said Alfreda Slominski, former county comptroller.
While few doubt Gorski's resolve and tenacity, some do question Giambra's toughness and follow through.
"He never used the power of the city comptroller's office to instill a culture of fiscals and financial integrity in City Hall," one respondent said.
Giambra said he feels good about the way respondents rated him.
"The thing I'm most pleased with is that people recognize my ability to see we're stuck and that I am willing to embrace new ideas and a new way of doing business," he said.
Both candidates got high grades for their overall job performance.
Gorski got a satisfactory rating from 70 percent of respondents, including 35 percent who said he was doing an excellent job. Giambra got a favorable rating from 64 percent, including 17 percent who rated his performance excellent.
Two-thirds of respondents listed Gorski's fiscal management as his greatest accomplishment. His greatest failure has been an inability to revitalize the local economy or promote cooperative approaches to dealing with the area's problems. His most glaring personal shortcoming involves his people skills.
"Poor vision, and he does not relate to people well," one respondent said.
Respondents cited Giambra's advocacy for regionalism as his greatest accomplishment. A record of lackluster accomplishment was cited as his biggest failure, and the lack of a four-year college degree was seen as the biggest problem on a personal front.
"His record shows no major accomplishment," one respondent said.
Ability to lead
Respondents were evenly divided as to whether the county is headed in the right direction, but largely agreed on the challenges that lie ahead. They are rooted in a sluggish local economy, high taxes and what many see as a status quo mentality.
"We still throw money at symptoms rather than embracing a turn-around philosophy to fix structural problems," said Jeff Belt, a member of the New Millennium Group.
While giving them good ratings, respondents didn't express overwhelming confidence in either Giambra or Gorski to provide the necessary leadership.
Forty-nine percent said they considered Gorski capable of providing the leadership necessary to help turn the county around, vs. 44 percent for Giambra. Gorski had higher negatives, as well, with 40 percent saying he didn't have it in him, compared with 35 percent for Giambra.
"I fear that neither candidate can cut costs as deeply and as rapidly as is necessary to get the county in shape to play in the economic boom," Belt said.
Indeed, when asked about the Giambra's and Gorski's ability to provide the necessary leadership on specific issues, respondents expressed the most pessimism about their ability to revitalize the economy. Slightly over half expressed confidence that either could make a difference.
Gorski got the better grades of the two for his ability to cut county taxes and economize operations, while Giambra was deemed more willing to promote cooperation among local government to consolidate services.
Warren Bartel, president of Outokumpo American Brass, views Giambra as a question mark, albeit a promising one.
"He has vision, but I am uncertain of his leadership abilities. Is he strong enough to break thorough local political fiefdoms to build regional initiatives?"
While some think Gorski has already laid the foundation for a local recovery through his management of county finances, others consider him too limited to deal with larger issues.
"His strengths as a manager are not the strengths that are now needed to turn our region around," one respondent said.
How the survery was conducted
This survey is the latest in a series conducted by The Buffalo News to grade local public officials.
While the sampling was not scientific, it was based on objective criteria and sent to people who have had first-hand dealings with County Executive Gorski and City Comptroller Joel A. Giambra. It is intended to provide a candid look at the candidates for county executives through the eyes of those who deal with them.
Surveys were sent to about 615 government officials, business executives and community leaders.
Department heads and elected officials in county government who have dealt with Gorski over the years, for example, were sent questionnaires, as were those in city government who have worked with Giambra. Leaders of civic organizations that deal with local government were surveyed, as were those who run both large and small companies.
The News received 228 responses, a return rate of 37 percent. About 83 percent of respondents were white, a slightly lower percentage than the countywide population.
The survey asked community leaders to grade lawmakers on a scale of 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent) on 16 personal and professional attributes, ranging from intelligence and work ethic to initiative and leadership ability. The News also asked respondents to list the successes and failures of the two, as well as their opinion on how able and willing they were to address key issues involving taxes and government efficiency.
In an effort to ensure candor and honesty, The News gave respondents the option of not identifying themselves. More than 50, however, signed their questionnaires, and quotes in the story are based on those written responses.
Survey results were tabulated with the help of Maria Lapetina, Corena Chapman and Megan Leary of The Buffalo News market research department.