To answer the top three questions you have about Satish Mohan:
Yes, no and maybe.
Yes, the former supervisor is alive and well and living in Amherst.
No, he doesn’t maintain a highly visible public profile these days – for one thing, he’s too busy as a full-time faculty member at the University at Buffalo.
And maybe – just maybe – he might consider stepping back into the public eye, if the opportunity seemed right.
“I have so many ideas,” said Mohan, 78, “on how to solve our problems.”
This is Satish Mohan, now.
He’s the man who charged out of obscurity – if an associate professor of engineering at UB can be called obscure – to win a heated race over a longtime incumbent for the top elected spot in the area’s largest town.
As supervisor of Amherst for four years, Mohan won fans and ruffled feathers with his uncompromising approach to governing and politics. (He once memorably told a Buffalo News reporter that compromise can mean “half-corruption.”)
Love him or loathe him – and people did both, and still do – Mohan drew attention to Amherst and the suburbs.
Now, Mohan’s one full term in office is one full term – four years – behind him.
Some claim, in retrospect, that Mohan’s tenure had downsides for the town – or was at best an even draw. Others argue that his brief but dynamic term served as an example of Cincinnatus-like public service, and that he began worthy initiatives that are now starting to bear fruit.
The Satish Mohan theorem, to these folks, is simple: Anybody can run for office, even the most unlikely of candidates.
“I still feel that Satish was an inspiration,” said Colleen Bogdan, a homeowner in East Amherst who has been active on community issues in the town for years. “He showed people that an outsider could break through.”
It may surprise some observers of the former supervisor to learn that Mohan – once known for his unyielding qualities – has somewhat tempered his views on how elective office should work.
“My thinking has changed quite a bit,” said Mohan, sitting in his spacious, light-filled living room on a recent Saturday.
If Mohan has regrets, though, there are only a few.
And yes, he might also have ambitions.
In Amherst, these days, Mohan is like Elvis or Hillary: Only one name is needed to identify him. Start talking about “Satish,” with folks who know him or worked with him in town government, and you might have trouble getting off the phone.
“He loved his town and he had real passion,” said Shelly Schratz, a former Town Board member in Amherst for eight years, who served for four years alongside Mohan. “He rolled up his sleeves and went in.”
Mark Manna, a Town Board member who spent two years on the board while Mohan was supervisor, said Mohan was distinctly different from pretty much everybody else in local politics.
“When you come into politics from outside politics, you have a totally different perspective,” said Manna. “He’s probably had more real-world experience than any politician.”
Mohan became a one-name figure when he was being criticized, as well. One example was the bumper sticker reading “Impeach Satish,” which popped up on some cars in town shortly after Mohan took office and began to clash with unions.
Today, Mohan seems untroubled by memories of the public spotlight that was turned on him during his leadership of Amherst.
“I’ve learned a great deal,” he said, succinctly, in the skylighted home in Amherst that he designed and built for his family years ago.
“I was never a politician.”
That is, many who know Mohan would say, an understatement.
And it may be the reason it’s hard to find any real parallel to Mohan in the political arena in Western New York.
You might think of Mary Travers Murphy, a former TV reporter who served one term as supervisor in Orchard Park and then left government to work on domestic violence issues.
Or Kevin Gaughan – an academic type who leaves the private sector at times to run for office such as this year’s run for county comptroller.
Or even former Buffalo Mayor Jimmy Griffin, who was known to speak his mind frankly.
But Mohan is not really like anybody else said many who spoke about Mohan’s tenure. Satish Mohan is and was – himself.
“That is an engineering mindset,” said Mohan, about his stubbornness. “We cannot make 3.5, ‘4.’ ”
Perhaps the nearest parallel to Mohan is Kevin Hardwick, due to the fact that Hardwick is a faculty member at Canisius College in political science and also an elected officeholder.
The transition from academia to the political arena can be tricky, said Hardwick, an Erie County legislator – who is locked in a re-election campaign – and director of the urban studies program at Canisius.
That’s especially true, he said, when the transition is into the top job in a major town like Amherst.
“I think there’s theory, and there’s practice,” said Hardwick. “Things don’t always work as well in the field as they do in the laboratory.”
Mohan said he knows firsthand what is great about Amherst – and America. That played into his reasons for running for office to begin with. He lived much of the first half of his life in India. His father was a farmer who owned a sugar mill, in a rural area not far from Delhi. Mohan had three siblings, two of whom are still alive.
“He had enough to send us to school,” Mohan said of his father. “He sent us to college.”
Mohan’s resume – the one UB provides is 26 pages long – includes a degree in civil engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in Khargpur and a degree in civil and traffic engineering from Kansas State University as well as a doctorate in civil and transportation engineering from Purdue University.
Mohan married his wife, Usha, a former lecturer in philosophy, in 1967. (Usha Mohan declined to comment for this story; she said with a laugh that she would rather leave the interview to her husband.)
The couple moved many times, including to Tanzania, where Mohan worked as a project manager supervising the construction of bridges and an airport, and to Saudi Arabia for a period, Mohan said.
Mohan has taught in Florida and was a visiting scholar at Stanford University. Since 1986, he has held a faculty position as an associate professor in the department of civil, structural and environmental engineering at UB. His classes at the university include Project Management and Construction Estimating.
Michael Constantinou, an engineering professor at the university who has known Mohan for 25 years, said that the experience of being supervisor of Amherst ended up serving Mohan “quite well” as a teacher.
Among other things, Mohan has made a name for himself by his contributions in the area of engineering laboratory safety, Constantinou said.
Mohan’s name is listed as an author on a safety manual used by the engineering department at UB.
“He’s a very nice guy,” Constantinou said. “Empathy for students, things like this.”
The Mohan family lived for a few years in North Tonawanda and then moved to Amherst. They raised three children, and now have five grandchildren.
Mohan got involved in public service, he said, because he thought he could fix problems that he saw around him. He also got involved because he wanted to give back to the country that had given him and his family so much.
“I saw what I achieved here,” said Mohan. “This house, my children – they went to Ivy League schools. I thought, ‘Wow.’ I’m so much attached to this land. I can see the greatness.”
Mohan won election to the top job in Amherst despite being seen by many as an outsider.
“He was an outsider,” said Bogdan. “He was not part of the establishment.”
In the eyes of some, that outsider status may have helped him.
“People had all kinds of reasons why Satish Mohan had won,” said Schratz. “The fact is, people just wanted change.”
Bogdan put it this way: “He was elected by people who simply were fed up.”
Mohan’s single term in public service was eventful. He won passionate admirers, and vehement critics.
As supervisor, Mohan made news when he decided to sign town checks by hand for a brief period; when he butted heads with unions in the town; when he questioned matters like hiring in various departments; and when he clashed with developers, including once standing in front of a bulldozer.
“People mocked him,” said Schratz, who remembers the bulldozer incident vividly. But, she added, “to this day, people say to me, ‘Hey … you worked with that Satish Mohan guy.’ ”
“He opened the door for change. He did.”
Current Town Supervisor Barry Weinstein, who is running for re-election Tuesday against Manna, said that Mohan had some good ideas, but ran into difficulties implementing them.
“You need to get a majority behind your ideas,” Weinstein said.
The Mohan years were tumultuous for lots of reasons. Mohan was supervisor in the wake of the worst of the town’s problems with sinking homes. He was in office during the severe October 2006 snowstorm, which wreaked havoc in parts of the town, and which put Mohan in the position of helping to manage the aftermath – including deciding what to do with thousands of damaged trees.
Then there was the moment in 2008 when Mohan said he was changing his political party from Republican to Democrat.
Mohan also had interactions with the Amherst Industrial Development Agency that could be rocky. Mohan maintained during this time that he stood for smart development and strategic building in the town – while James Allen, executive director of the IDA, once publicly called Mohan’s relationship with the agency “frightening.”
Allen recently reflected on his experiences with Mohan in a philosophical way.
“He wasn’t a politician,” said Allen, who has worked with supervisors in Amherst since the 1970s. “He was an engineering mindset – he thought there was a formula for everything.”
“In politics, it’s much messier,” Allen said. “It takes consensus, and it takes collaboration.”
Mohan said today, when he thinks back to those days in office, it is with gratitude.
“I tell everybody, our country would not be what it is today if you sit at home,” said Mohan. “Democracy cannot grow on its own.”
Tom Ketchum, who has been Amherst’s building commissioner for 38 years and who also served as town engineer for a period under Mohan, named what he considered a big success of those years: improvements to drainage in areas of the town where problems with water had been plaguing homeowners.
“We’d have some minor flooding, sometimes some major flooding,” said Ketchum. “What Satish did was, he undertook an initiative to analyze that whole system.”
“It certainly set the groundwork,” he said. “The improvements seem to have helped out quite a bit.”
Allen also said he considered the drainage work one of the chief successes of Mohan’s tenure.
“He knew that stuff because of his engineering background,” said Allen.
At the close of 2009, Mohan left office after one term – as he had promised – and handed the supervisor’s job over to Weinstein who won election in November.
Mohan said he doesn’t regret not running for a second term. What he does regret, he said, is not better mastering the art of compromise.
“I was very rigid in my principles,” he said.
If he had it to do over again, he said, that might just be what he would do differently.
“I’d be more compromising,” said Mohan. “Now I think achieving half is better than achieving zero.”
“Because democracy will not work otherwise.”
Does Satish Mohan – teacher, engineer, elected officeholder – have a political second act?
Some who remember him from town government said such a move would be a surprise.
“He’s back in his comfort zone,” said Bogdan.
Mohan said he wants to focus on being the best teacher he can. In some ways, it seems his students keep him feeling young.
“I like their inquisitiveness,” Mohan said. “I see in them the future of our country.”
But, he said, he does contemplate becoming more public on two issues he cares about: manufacturing, and the relationship of the university to the community.
“One of my goals for the next few years is, to bring UB closer to the taxpayers,” said Mohan.
Would elected office ever tempt him again?
Mohan answers that question, in bits and pieces, over the course of a long conversation.
He speaks of his love for public service. He mentions the lessons he has learned. Then he cites his age, and his desire to remain active in the classroom.
Talk to Mohan long enough, and it sounds like the temptation is there.
“If I were younger – and had a little more agreement with my family – I would run for U.S. Congress,” said Mohan, at one point, thoughtfully.
“Politics is very good ... you are working for others. Politics, in the right sense – politics comes from the Greek word for ‘people’ – can be for the people.”
“It’s really very satisfying.”