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Angela Wozniak’s behavior certain to dominate her re-election effort

For Angela M. Wozniak, the rookie assemblywoman from Cheektowaga, words like “first” or “only” seem to naturally accompany her name.

She is the only registered Conservative serving in the Assembly, the highest ranking Conservative office holder in the state, the only non-Democrat elected to the Assembly from Cheektowaga since 1972, the first woman to gain the post, and one of the only members of the lower house under the age of 30.

But now the adjective “second” is suddenly dogging the businesswoman, wife and mother after the Assembly Ethics Committee on Wednesday concluded she exhibited “incredibly poor judgment” for having an affair with a staffer and then for retaliating after he broke it off. For the second time in two years, the representative of the 143rd Assembly District – mostly comprising Cheektowaga and Lancaster – faces charges of sexual harassment – just after she campaigned on promises to restore dignity to the office disgraced by her predecessor.

Her situation is already looming as a campaign issue.

“This is what is motivating my candidacy,” said Monica P. Wallace, the University at Buffalo Law School professor hoping to challenge Wozniak on the Democratic line in November. “Like so many in the district, I’m tired of the conduct these politicians are engaged in.”

But an element of irony surrounds the case because Wozniak, who turns 29 on Friday, promised to conduct herself differently from former Assemblyman Dennis H. Gabryszak, a Democrat who resigned in 2014 following charges that he repeatedly engaged in sexual harassment of his staff, including sending lewd photographs of himself and asking at least one woman to engage in sex.

Wallace, who is expected to face Cheektowaga Councilman James P. Rogowski in the September Democratic primary for the right to face Wozniak in November, said her campaign will remind voters of Wozniak’s criticism of her predecessor’s behavior.

“Assuming the allegations have merit, this is inexcusable,” she said. “She ran on a platform of family values based on the conduct of her predecessor. I hope to restore voters’ confidence in their government and be a leader they can be proud of.”

Wozniak’s defenders are more forgiving, especially those backing her re-election effort this fall. Albany, says Erie County Conservative Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo, can prove a tough environment for newcomers.

“For a young individual with high aspirations and motivation, it can be a difficult adjustment because there’s not a lot you can accomplish,” he said.

Lorigo realizes what lies ahead.

“I have told her that postcards going out to the district can say anything,” he said, “and that you, your husband and family must be prepared for that.”

Still, Wozniak appears to have impressed those she encountered during her stint on the Cheektowaga Town Board, where she served from 2011 to 2015. Supervisor Diane M. Benczkowski called her “professional and knowledgeable” and dismissed the contention of others in the town that she was not yet ready for the Assembly.

“I could not say she was not prepared for Albany, because she was,” Benczkowski said, adding some of her own Democratic colleagues often targeted Wozniak to the “point of bullying.”

“But for her age, she could hold her own,” Benczkowski said.

The supervisor said the assemblywoman has recently proposed creating a “cultural district” in the Villa Maria College neighborhood “that would bring in business to an area that needs some help.”

“It’s a creative way to help that area and it hasn’t been done anywhere else in the state,” Benczkowski said.

Wozniak’s brief tenure in Town Hall did result in one major adjustment in the way Cheektowaga conducts its business, the supervisor said. Wozniak sounded the alarm about sidewalk repairs for which the town overpaid some $600,000, according to an audit by the state comptroller. Taxpayers funded much of the overcharge, according to the audit.

Benczkowski said Wozniak asked the comptroller to audit bids for capital projects, and as a result, the town is now in compliance with state regulations. But the move also has cost Cheektowaga significant dollars in capital expenses, she said.

Cheektowaga Councilman Jerry Kaminski believes Wozniak’s “idealism” clouded much of her approach. He labeled as “strictly political” her resolution to prohibit party committee members from working for the town.

“She had a tendency to shoot from the hip, and always at the 11th hour,” Kaminski said. “It was overconfidence on her part, maybe.”

A review of her Albany legislative record indicates sponsorship of several bills, but as is typical for a freshman member of the minority, none passed. Still, her interests revolved around illegal narcotics policy and other crime matters. One proposed bill would have prohibited sex offenders from serving on school boards.

Observers say she frequently takes the floor of the Assembly to speak on various bills and issues, which often turns into video clips on her website.

In Cheektowaga, where Democrats have ruled virtually uninterrupted for decades, many see Wozniak’s 2014 election to the Assembly as a “fluke.” After Gabryszak resigned early that year, Cheektowaga Democrats found themselves caught up in a big picture power play.

When Democratic headquarters nominated party stalwart Camille Brandon for the post, opponents aligned with former county party chairman G. Steven Pigeon countered with Mark Mazurek, who eventually won the primary. Some charged at the time that the harassment charges coincidentally surfaced in time to force a resignation and a Democratic primary that might not have otherwise occurred.

The idea was to encourage turnout in mostly white Cheektowaga to counter black support in Buffalo for Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy’s tough re-election bid against County Legislator Betty Jean Grant.

“It could all be a coincidence,” Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner said at the time. “But there definitely could be validity to the idea that politics is going on here in the advantage for Tim Kennedy to have a primary in the fall.”

The notion of political overtones also did not escape Gabryszak’s attorney, Terrence M. Connors.

“There are political considerations that need to be explored,” Connors said at the time.

Pigeon, meanwhile, was supporting Kennedy and helped organize Gabryszak’s female accusers. The former chairman said at the time he recognized the political realities stemming from the situation, but denied pulling any behind-the-scenes strings against Gabryszak.

With Democrats in such disarray, Wozniak scored an impressive victory – even in the heavily Democratic district. The party faces another primary this year, but Democratic insiders feel that either Wallace or Rogowski will emerge in a position to strongly challenge Wozniak in November.

Democrats feel especially optimistic about reclaiming the seat because of the heavy party turnout expected in a presidential election year.

Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy said Wednesday that as recently as a week ago, Wozniak was committed to running again on the GOP and Conservative lines.