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BITTERSWEET GOODBYE
GORSKI LEAVES OFFICE WITH FEW REGRETS, MANY MEMORIES

Dennis T. Gorski seemed to genuinely savor the moment a few days ago as he packed away box after box of photographs that chronicled his 12 years as Erie County executive.

There was one with Buffalo Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson, another at one of the Bills' four Super Bowl appearances and another of the 1993 World University Games that brought thousands of athletes to Western New York.

But unlike others suddenly shorn of power, Erie County's only Democratic county executive is at peace with himself as he ends a political career that dates from 1971.

He is winding up details of a local private-sector job -- which his employer will announce soon, but he won't now -- is reconciled to the end of the rough-and-tumble of politics and, most of all, looks forward to spending more time with his family.

At 55, Gorski embarks on what he acknowledged in an interview is an adventure. He does so with little regret or tinge of shame in his November defeat by Republican Joel A. Giambra.

In Gorski's mind, he leaves with a "well done" stamp on his record, a victim primarily of a desire for change.

"I think the issues we've faced over the past 12 years are possibly some of the most significant a public official can face," he said in his 16th-floor office in the Rath Building last week. "And I think we addressed them well. In that sense, I'm satisfied."

Growing up in a political family, the retiring county executive has lived at the center of public life in Western New York as far back as he can remember. The photos attest to that and to the fact that Gorski has always been part of it.

"I always thought I would run for public office," he said, recalling a career that began in the County Legislature and moved to the Assembly before he defeated Edward J. Rutkowski for county executive in 1987. Gorski believed that he would have been majority leader of the Assembly had he stayed in Albany, acknowledging that he has always relished his public persona.

"I remember one time sitting with the president and having him pick my brain on how I got elected," he said. "In this business, if you don't admit thriving on being at the center of attention, you're being less than honest."

Assemblyman Paul A. Tokasz, D-Cheektowaga, one of Gorski's closest personal and political allies, said his friend was shaken in the days immediately after the election. There was a sense of rejection that was hard to escape, he said. But that gave way to the realization that this one just wasn't in the cards.

"If there is a frustration, it's that in this business, no matter how hard you work at it, there are certain things you can't control," Tokasz said. "And after 12 years, no matter how hard Dennis worked at it, the end result was still, 'We don't want you.'

"I don't know if you ever get over a loss, but I know he feels he did everything as well as he could."

With his office walls bereft of the plaques, awards, and photos with presidents and governors, Gorski does not blame his defeat on any personal failure.

He said he confronted and solved the problems of public-transportation funding, spearheaded waterfront development and construction of Marine Midland Arena, retired a $75 million deficit upon taking office, retained the Bills, and reduced the welfare rolls and the size of county government.

Rather, he said, it was the familiarity of his face, the desire for change -- the shelf-life factor. There were 1,511 news conferences during his tenure, 5,000 pages of press releases, and speeches and public appearances too numerous to count.

"People were tired of seeing me on TV and reading my name in the newspaper," he said. "Everybody knew who I was. Essentially, I was running against myself."

Gorski, too, acknowledged that defeat came hard. He believed that his last-minute run in the polls portrayed a real chance to overcome his underdog status, that voters would recognize and embrace his message of an efficient and scandal-free administration.

"As we approached the election, I thought people would take a look and say, 'Yeah, he's been around a long time, but he's a good person and should be entitled to another four years.' But that wasn't as strong as it was four or eight or 12 years ago.

"In reality," he added, "I always had the notion it would be very difficult."

He agreed the campaign had some rough spots. In retrospect, entering the Independence Party primary was a mistake because of his unfamiliarity with those voters. Losing that effort decisively, he acknowledged, handed his opponent a burst of momentum.

Gorski was also widely criticized for the negative tone of his initial campaign commercials, even drawing fire from Mayor Anthony M. Masiello for his "anti-city" or even "anti-Italian" themes.

Gorski said he now understands the negative reaction to those ads. But he insists that he needed to draw a distinction between Giambra and himself, followed by a message of his accomplishments and vision for the future.

"It just didn't resonate as well as I thought," he said. "In the end, I don't know how I could have changed anything."

The county executive said that during the past month, he has rediscovered some of the joys of fatherhood that his job seemed to obstruct. Though he always worked hard to carve out time for his wife, Mary Jo, and their five children, he acknowledges that it was never easy.

Since the election, there has been more time for helping with homework, attending hockey games and doing Christmas shopping. It's a trend that he views as the most positive perk of his new station in life.

Tokasz has witnessed that already.

"I stopped over there the other day and asked his son Jonathan if his father was getting in the way," Tokasz said. "He said, 'No, it's fun having Dad around the house.' "

After lying low for a while, Gorski said, he will be involved in the community as much as his new job will allow. He may get involved in some causes and organizations, and it is possible that he will drop by an occasional political fund-raising event for a friend.

But the days of Dennis Gorski as a political force are over.

"This is part of life; it's part of the democratic process," he said. "And it hurts. It hurts a lot."

He thinks that despite the rough economic times plaguing Western New York -- conditions contributing to his defeat -- the area will rebound because of all it has to offer. He cites the low cost of living, the strong work ethic and the strides made by government to reduce taxes as attractions that industry will eventually recognize.

"I still think Western New York is poised for success," Gorski said.

As for his successor, Gorski wishes him well. Though they have blasted each other during the transition about some of the dying administration's last moves and appointments, the county executive said he will leave a note of encouragement for Giambra -- the contents of which are "between him and me."

"I've already told him to hire good people, to look to the common good rather than succumb to any special-interest group," Gorski said. "And if a decision is politically unpopular, it's probably the right decision."

Perhaps significantly, the only framed article still remaining on Gorski's office wall is the magazine cover that named him national county leader of the year in 1998. It's an award of which he is particularly proud, one that some advisers said he didn't stress enough during the campaign.

That memento, too, will come down on Friday afternoon, when he closes up shop and leaves politics behind, probably forever.

"I'll miss this office," he said. "It will be a very sad day when I have to take everything down. But I leave knowing I've had a pretty good run."

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