When County Legislature Chairman Charles M. Swanick first reviewed the proposal for a sweeping study of Erie Community College a few weeks ago, his reaction was instant: No.
Ditto for other initiatives from County Executive Joel A. Giambra on the tobacco settlement, youth detention center, county budget and issues dealing with Erie County Medical Center.
That's the story of Erie County government these days.
To Giambra, Swanick is an "obstructionist" bent on thwarting his "agenda for change."
To Swanick, Giambra is attempting a "grab for raw power." Any recalcitrance, Swanick says, is a principled stand for the "integrity of the Legislature."
With relations between the executive and legislative branches of government -- and the two men -- at an all-time low, acrimony is spilling into the political arena, too. Giambra has pledged an all-out effort to oust Swanick and his supporters in this fall's elections.
Because of the intensity of this struggle, Swanick is in the spotlight for the first time in his 22-year legislative career. After crafting a reputation as an expert in constituent services (some say the best there is) and serving uneventfully as chairman since 1997 with former County Executive Dennis T. Gorski, Swanick now assumes a new and different role as the top Democrat in county government: the leader of the loyal opposition.
While many defend the chairman's effort to preserve and strengthen the Legislature's voice, even some Democratic allies admit the public relations advantage lies with the county executive.
"Chuck is having a hard time articulating a point of view that's reasonable," said Leonard R. Lenihan, a Democrat and Swanick's predecessor as Legislature chairman. "He's in a situation where, whenever he speaks to the county executive's proposals, he's suddenly in a defensive mode."
"Right now," Lenihan added, "there's a perception problem."
Most of that perception stems from the county executive. Giambra has relentlessly portrayed Swanick as the impediment to his "mandate" to change the status quo.
"It almost seems that, at times, Chuck and others feel obligated to be against something just because of politics," Giambra says. "That's troubling."
More is said to be at stake
The notion that Swanick is losing the public relations battle with Giambra is reflected in high places. Andrew J. Rudnick, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, believes that unless accommodations are made soon, the extent of reforms stemming from what he calls Giambra's "clear mandate" will be limited.
"It's hard to say the blame lies all one side or another," Rudnick said. "But it does seem that every time the county executive tries to implement the change he spoke about in the campaign, there is an initial Democratic reaction (against it) from the County Legislature. To John and Mary Q. Public, it takes the concept of loyal opposition to an adverse extreme."
Swanick, whom many consider a potential Democratic candidate for county executive in 2003, insists much more is at stake. The Legislature is only exercising its responsibility to act as a check and balance on the executive branch, he says. The result, he adds, will always produce a better product.
"I think Joel doesn't grasp at this moment the structure of our charter," he said, "that the Legislature can view things differently than the county executive. Joel's view is 'my way or the highway.' "
The increasing tension has its roots in a number of situations:
Swanick vehemently insists that the Legislature's reluctance to approve the $211 million tobacco settlement saved Erie County from paying substantial tax penalties, but Giambra and company say the delays cost $20 million as market conditions changed.
When the Legislature opposed Giambra's initial plans for a new youth detention center and sweeping changes in how the county serves youthful offenders, the county executive portrayed Swanick as an obstructionist unwilling to budge.
Swanick removed Sharon L. Hanson from the board of Erie County Medical Center after she insisted on a national search for a new director, while he supported appointing Democrat Sheila K. Kee to run the hospital. Giambra regained the upper hand when he reappointed Hanson.
Swanick championed the appointment of Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon to the Erie County Water Authority, a move that eventually died after Giambra's cries of politicking.
Giambra viewed the ECC study as a way to consider all possibilities, to determine if new approaches are needed. Swanick says the study is really a disguise for a way to close the North Campus.
Swanick blames the media
Swanick, 52, a one-time Conrail engineer, launched his political career in 1979 after answering a newspaper ad seeking Democratic candidates for the Legislature. During his early years in County Hall, he built an image of independence, challenging Republicans and Democrats alike at innumerable news conferences in his trademark sweaters.
In the 1980s, Swanick clearly controlled the perceptions. His Tonawanda and Grand Island constituents found him frequently at their door, and he scored points as "Chuckie Cheese," distributing government surplus cheese. He took his "maverick" image so seriously he named his son David Maverick Swanick.
"Some classified me as a rebel in a sweater," he said. "I have to wear suits now. But the rebel part never changed."
Others disagree. Deputy County Executive Carl J. Calabrese worked closely with Swanick when Calabrese was Town of Tonawanda supervisor, often in joint news conferences to advocate local issues.
"I remember Chuck battling for every dime of taxpayer money he thought was misspent. I don't think that's the case anymore," Calabrese said. "Now I see a defender of a government that needs change in many, many areas, and this county executive was elected to do that. I don't think that Chuck is there yet."
Swanick acknowledges he has perception problems but charges they stem directly from the editorial pages of The Buffalo News.
"When I agree with Joel Giambra, it doesn't get reported," he said. "When I disagree, it becomes a confrontation. To be very frank about it, I'm tired of it."
"The News needs to end the honeymoon and understand the checks and balances between the branches of government," he added. "There are always two sides to an issue."
Majority Leader Crystal D. Peoples, D-Buffalo, also believes that the media have reported from Giambra's corner. But she maintains that Swanick enjoys solid credibility because of his protection of the Legislature's powers.
"I think the people are behind us; they're able to read between the lines," she said. "The better way would have been for him to say, 'Here's what you guys have done, here's how I can enhance that.' But for (Giambra) to say he's the only guy now to make all the decisions is not the way it works."
Legislator Judith P. Fisher of Buffalo, a strong Swanick supporter, added, "I wish Joel would realize Chuck is the leader of the Legislature. My advice to him would be to spend a whole lot more time talking with us."
Pigeon defends Swanick
Pigeon, the party chairman and a staunch Swanick defender, says the chairman's role as an early supporter of regionalism is overlooked. And he says battles with the executive branch are nothing new, even with Gorski on key issues such as the ill-fated "sin tax" to finance renovation of Ralph Wilson Stadium.
He believes Giambra reads too much into his own 1999 election, arguing it was more an expiration of Gorski's "shelf life" than a Giambra mandate.
"Joel came in feeling he was elected emperor rather than county executive," Pigeon said. "Chuck is only saying we need fair, independent and objective reviews of all these ideas."
Pigeon and Swanick say "larger issues" obscure motives behind developments like Hanson's dismissal at ECMC or the ECC study. Their real objective, they say, is to thwart Republican efforts to close the hospital or sell the North Campus to hungry real estate developers.
And he says Swanick and the Democrats are willing to work with Giambra, but on ideas that are real and attainable.
"If he wants to talk substantive regionalism, Chuck and I will support it," Pigeon said. "We want to make changes that are substantive, not change for change's sake."
No immediate thaw in sight
While both Giambra and Swanick say they are willing to talk, nobody close to the situation sees any immediate thaw between the two. As a result, Giambra earlier this year essentially declared the 2001 legislative elections a referendum on his record. He will support candidates in both parties pledged to his agenda, he says, in an effort to install a friendlier Legislature in 2002. And he is taking clear aim at Swanick.
Giambra is keen on the chances of turning Swanick out of office by running Republican Joseph M. Shiah, who lost in a landslide to Swanick in 1999. Erie County Republican Chairman Robert E. Davis also is backing Shiah.
"There's the Chuck Swanick I knew who was very tenacious in his day with all those nice constituent services," Davis said. "Then there's the downtown Chuck Swanick who the people in Tonawanda and Grand Island don't see or understand. It's time for a change after 22 years."
Some Democrats also are eyeing an intraparty challenge to the chairman, believing he maintains too close a relationship with Pigeon.
"Chuck jumped on getting Steve Pigeon on the Water Authority to show Steve he supported him, not because it would do any good for the people he was elected to serve," said Patricia Ryan-Dudek, a Kenmore nurse who once ran for the State Senate and is considering a primary challenge to Swanick this year.
Even the most optimistic Republicans know defeating Swanick presents the ultimate political challenge. He tallies wining percentages approaching 80 percent each election year, making Giambra's goal of defeating him and key allies that much more difficult.
Still, the GOP believes it can cut that victory margin enough to scare Swanick into being more receptive to Giambra's agenda. Both sides already are planning campaigns, with Giambra as the issue.
"The people elected the county executive to produce changes," said Calabrese, Giambra's deputy. "Is the Legislature part of the move, or is it an obstacle? That will be the key question of the 2001 election."