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FRICANO TO RETIRE AT MIDYEAR AS UAW REGIONAL DIRECTOR

Thomas M. Fricano, regional director of the United Auto Workers and an unsuccessful candidate for Congress, will retire from his powerful union post July 1.

Nominated as Fricano's successor is Geraldine R. Ochocinska, assistant director for the region since 1994. If elected by delegates at the union's convention in June, she would become the first woman regional director of the union and the second woman on its 18-member executive board.

Thomas J. Monaghan, Buffalo area director for the UAW, also is retiring, leaving his union staff post at the end of January, a family member confirmed. Monaghan couldn't be reached for comment, but union sources said they believe his retirement is unrelated to the other changes in the regional leadership.

Fricano, although young for retirement at 58, said he's "not looking for another job," and called another foray into politics unlikely.

"I don't rule anything out," he said. But after a 39-year career, rising from the factory floor of a Chevrolet plant to the top circles of the 1.3 million member UAW, "I want to save some of the good years left for my family," he said.

The Clarence resident and native of Western New York said he's considering moving to Atlanta, where two of his three sons live.

Fricano said he has offered to help former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley -- a possible Democratic candidate for president -- in his push for campaign finance reform.

"I understand his frustration (with campaign finances)," Fricano said. "I went through it personally last year."

Fricano challenged Rep. Bill Paxon, R-Amherst, for the 27th Congressional District seat. The newcomer to politics lost by a 60 percent to 40 percent margin against Paxon, a four-term incumbent who was prominent in Republican party leadership at the time.

Fricano said he got to know Bradley during a stint as assistant UAW regional director during the 1980s, when the union's regional headquarters was in Cranford, N.J. He returned to Western New York after becoming district director in 1989.

As head of the UAW's Region 9, Fricano is responsible for a territory that includes 55,000 active and 50,000 retired auto workers in New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Fricano's retirement and possible move out of Western New York would subtract not only a labor
leader, but a community leader as well, colleagues said.

"You have to admire his courage and his desire to articulate his values," said County Executive Gorski. "He ran against Paxon when nobody said he could win, against a much better-funded candidate . . . because he felt the incumbent didn't have the best interests of the community."

John J. Kaczorowski, president of the 60,000-member AFL-CIO Buffalo Council, said Fricano will be missed by the regional labor community. "Whenever you needed him, he was always there," he said.

In addition to other roles, Fricano has served as a vice president of the New York State AFL-CIO, as a board member of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Western New York, and was the first union leader selected as a governor of the Buffalo Foundation.

"He's been a great asset to the men and women in the labor movement," said Daniel Boody, president of the Buffalo Building and Construction Trades Council.

Fricano joined UAW Local 486 in 1959, when he was hired as an apprentice electrician at the Chevrolet Tonawanda Forge, now owned by American Axle and Manufacturing Inc. After rising to president of the local, he was appointed in 1975 as a UAW international representative.

A 1959 graduate of what was then the Erie County Technical Institute, Fricano returned to school at Buffalo State College in 1970 and gained a bachelor's in education.

Fricano said the most exciting moment of his career came in 1981, when he met with Solidarity leader Lech Walesa in Poland.

"To see the courage of the Polish people taking on the communist regime -- it was amazing to be there," he said.

His address to the Democratic National Convention in 1996 was also a high point. "It's just 3 1/2 minutes in the spotlight," he said, "but its 3 1/2 minutes that many people never get."

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