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Political lifer becomes a fish out of water

The first book Cal Champlin ever took out of a library was a Theodore Roosevelt biography. At age 7, he stayed up all night to hear the results of the 1960 presidential election. Four years later, during a mock election, he was the leader of his class' small chapter of Goldwater Republicans.

When it comes to politics, Champlin, 54, is anything but Silent Cal. But on this Election Day, for the first time in more than 30 years, his future is not riding on any of the ballots that will be cast in the Town of Tonawanda.

"It is strange," he said last week. "I usually have a better feel for what's going on. Now I'm just like anyone else; I have no idea what's going to happen on Election Day."

Champlin is finishing his 16th and final year as town clerk, a period that followed 12 years on the Town Board. He spoke last week -- and because the subject was politics, probably would still be talking if someone else didn't need his attention -- about local government, his near-lifelong involvement in it and what he will do once he has left it behind.

Childhood dreams aside, his actual foray into politics came as a 19-year-old Canisius College sophomore in 1973, when he was one of nine people to ask for the Republican endorsement to run for an opening on the Town Board. He came in fifth in party voting, but his appetite was officially whetted.

Two years later, he won the key party endorsement but was blocked from running by the Conservative Party chairman, partly because Champlin didn't appear to fit the party mold and partly out of a fear that he would use town government as a steppingstone.

Little did they know.

"Most kids grow up thinking they wanted to be president; I wanted to be a town councilman," he said.

His dream finally came true in 1979, when he won the party endorsement and then the election.

The GOP kept its traditional stranglehold on town government through the 1980s and into the 1990s. Champlin, who already had his law degree, had gone back to college to get his master's in public administration, thinking he might parlay that someday into a city manager's job. But fate intervened in 1991 when the town clerk's job became available. He narrowly averted a primary with longtime Councilman Ray Sinclair and won the job, then won re-election three times.

Plenty has changed since 1973 for the town and for Champlin, but nothing is more notable politically than his decision in 2004 to change his affiliation from Republican to Democrat. He did it simply because he no longer liked the direction his party was going, but he called the decision the toughest political choice he has ever made.

"I got accused of being disloyal, a traitor. The Republican Party put food on my table all these years," he said. "But there were many other people and probably more who said the Republicans were shooting themselves in the foot, and they understood why I was doing what I was doing."

He already had decided that he was in his last term when he made his decision; he expects to practice law after the first of the year, but his plans are not yet firm.

So tonight, when the polls close, his future doesn't hang in the balance as it did so many times before.

So how will he enjoy his freedom from all this today? One of two ways, he said: He'll either go to Kenmore West, where there are polls for four election districts, or he'll head to Democratic headquarters and alternate between chatting with party officials and checking the county results on his laptop.

You can take the boy out of politics, but you can't take politics out of the boy.


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