Democrats in Cheektowaga are in for the biggest political brawl in years, but this time it's with each other.
Town Democrats -- who have rolled over political opponents and dominated town government for decades -- are choosing sides, dropping the gloves and gearing up for a knock-down, drag-out fight for control of the town's Democratic Party.
Nearly 250 town residents are vying for committee seats up for grabs Primary Day, Sept. 15, in 65 of 111 districts, a record number of Cheektowaga Democratic Committee races as far as anyone recalls.
Two camps have emerged from the town's Democratic Party and both sides are trying to establish a power base through the Cheektowaga Democratic Committee, which selects a party chairman and endorses candidates for elected office.
Furthermore, Democrats said, the committee races lay the groundwork for efforts to oust some of the town's elected officials next year, including members of the all-Democratic Town Board and Supervisor Dennis H. Gabryszak.
"This is the most intense struggle I have witnessed in my 30 years in politics," said former town Democratic chairman and current Cheektowaga Councilman James J. Jankowiak.
Some describe this simply as a classic power struggle for leadership, but specific explanations for the bad blood in the party vary.
On one side is current Democratic Chairman James R. Burst, general crew chief in the town's Sewer Maintenance Department and a former Town Board member, whose supporters include Gabryszak and some longtime town Democrats.
On the other side is Frank C. Max Jr., a committeeman and chairman of the Progressive Democrats, a growing political booster club filled with town Democrats who are disgusted with party leadership.
Max has been organizing a slew of committee challenges in districts where the committeemen are in the Burst and Gabryszak camp. Likewise, Burst has organized opposition in districts where committeemen are Max backers.
"Their motive is to take over the party," Burst said of the Progressive Democrats. "For what reason I have no idea. Our goal here is to elect Democrats and we've been doing that, so why is there dissension?"
Part of the frustration, some said, comes from some Democrats who feel they're working hard for the party but are excluded from playing a more active role.
There also has been growing criticism about poor leadership in the party and from the supervisor.
"They're trying to portray us as power-hungry maniacs," said Max, interim Sanitation Department chief, who ran for the Town Board a few years ago. "It's not a power game. I think there is a general view that the Democratic Party and the town is not going in the right direction."
Although Max -- whose aggressive and pointed style has concerned some Democrats -- said he hasn't officially announced he's running for town Democratic chairman, his supporters think he can help raise money and recruit new people for the party. "I just think more should be done for this town," said James "J. J." Majerowicz, a postal worker and committeeman from Cayuga Creek Road. "I like Frank. I find he's a terrific leader. He's a political dynamo. He's never had a chance to really show what he can do."
Max and Burst -- both of whom ran for Democratic chairman two years ago -- said they want to unify town Democrats, but the party power struggle is dividing them.
"There's a lot of hard feelings," said Julian J. Polanski, 73, a committeeman from Union Road, who sides with the Burst faction. "It's dividing me with some of my friends because they think I'm wrong."
"In the Town of Cheektowaga, we always had harmony," said Polanski, a retired railroad worker. "But what's happening right now is wrong. It's affecting (Cheektowaga) government and that's what I don't like."
All seven Town Board members are Democrats, but there's increasing confrontation among them. Gabryszak and Councilman Thomas M. Johnson Jr. are frequently knocking heads with Council Members Jankowiak, Patricia A. Jaworowicz, William P. Rogowski and Jeff Swiatek.
"His (Max) people have targeted certain elected officials they want to see out. It's no secret they want to see Dennis Gabryszak out as supervisor," said Gabryszak, throwing Councilman Thomas M. Johnson's name on that list.
"You have a classic power struggle that's taking place and I think it's unfortunate that we have to go through this process," Gabryszak said. "I think we've done a good job governing the town."