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Tokasz leaves political life Never made it to principal, but championed Western New York for 181/2 years in Assembly

When Paul A. Tokasz was starting out in his professional life, his career goal was to become a principal or schools superintendent.

The onetime elementary school teacher never reached that objective, but he did pretty well anyway.

Tokasz leaves office today as Assembly majority leader, retiring as one of the most powerful politicians in New York State.

"You know, it's bittersweet," Tokasz said in an interview Friday, during a break from clearing out his Buffalo district office.

Friends say the Cheektowaga Democrat was an adept consensus builder who fought for this region's interests and brought millions of dollars back to Western New York.

"Paul didn't seek publicity. Paul sought solutions to problems," said Dennis T. Gorski, the former Erie County executive.

But critics say he didn't do enough to reform a broken legislative process in Albany that burdens this region with costly government mandates.

However, even those who pointedly blast the workings of state government say Tokasz's retirement is a huge loss for Buffalo Niagara.

"I think he has had the region's interests at the front of his mind forever," said Andrew J. Rudnick, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. "The fact that he didn't [fix Albany] isn't his fault. It's the system's fault. I think he made the best of a bad system."

Tokasz announced in July that he would not seek re-election to the Assembly seat he held for 18 1/2 years. He said that he wanted to spend more time with his family and that the job's burdens had worn on him.

"There are amazing peaks and amazing valleys in this job, and I'm looking for more of an even plane as I move forward," said Tokasz, 61.

Initially, Tokasz's ambitions were focused on the classroom.

The Hobart College graduate, who earned a master's degree at Buffalo State College, started teaching in the late 1960s.

But he said the notion of public service runs deep in his family.

His grandfather, Frank, and father, Edward, served for years in volunteer positions in government and the Doyle Hose Company in Cheektowaga.
Tokasz joined the Cheektowaga Democratic Committee in the early 1970s, and was elected chairman on a reform ticket while he was in his late 20s.

He began full-time work in government when he was appointed clerk of the Erie County Legislature, and later won appointment as deputy and first deputy Erie County clerk.

Tokasz won a special election in 1988 to complete the Assembly term of Gorski, who was elected county executive the year before.

Friends and colleagues say Tokasz succeeded in politics because of his intelligence, an ability to find compromise and a talent for relating to others.

"Paul was always good at describing to business leaders in Buffalo what is possible and what is not possible in Albany, and trying to find that middle ground," said Mark A. Meyerhofer, who managed Tokasz's Buffalo district office from 1995 to 2005 and is now National Grid's government affairs manager.

His break came after Assembly Majority Leader Michael J. Bragman launched an unsuccessful coup against Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in 2000.

Seeking a new and loyal majority leader, Silver in 2001 tapped Tokasz for the post.

Allies say Tokasz worked to help bring millions of dollars to Western New York and to pass legislation favorable to this region's interests.

The Buffalo School District, Roswell Park Cancer Institute and Shea's Performing Arts Center are a few of the entities that saw the fruits of those efforts, local leaders said.

"There's no question that having him in the leadership position he was in was extremely beneficial to this region," County Executive Joel A. Giambra said.

Tokasz and Giambra clashed during the recent Erie County budget crisis, when Tokasz secured approval of additional state aid and a one-cent increase in the local sales tax.

Tokasz fought for that extra revenue on the condition that the county share it with Buffalo and other local governments.

"I personally believe without him, Erie County would not be solvent and Buffalo would not be emerging solvent [from its own financial problems]," said State Sen. Dale M. Volker, R-Depew, who worked closely with Tokasz over the years.

Critics argued that Tokasz wasn't able to do enough to rein in expensive programs such as Medicaid that drove up the cost of living and the cost of doing business in upstate New York.

Tokasz bristles at the criticism.

He said the Assembly has made key reforms and the view of Albany decision-making solely as the product of "three men in a room" is one of several "myths" perpetuated by the ill-informed.

He said he never saw things as strictly upstate vs. downstate, but he did advocate on behalf of his constituents.

"When I'm in the room where these decisions are being made, I brought that upstate perspective," Tokasz said. "I think working on the inside, I was able to accomplish things."

He pointed to the physical legacy of the 1993 World University Games and the growth of the Reinstein Woods Nature Preserve as highlights of his tenure.

But Tokasz also talked of further changes needed in Albany.

He called for public financing of state election campaigns, opening party conferences in the Assembly and Senate to media coverage, and providing relief to property taxpayers by boosting state aid to school districts.

A last Tokasz news release issued Friday restated his opposition to the recommended closing of St. Joseph Hospital, which is in his district.

Tokasz spoke to Gov.-elect Eliot L. Spitzer about St. Joseph's on Thursday, and he has hopes the hospital won't close.

But Tokasz said he strongly suspects that the commission wouldn't have targeted St. Joseph's at all if he were remaining majority leader.

"I don't want to be that cynical, but I've had reason to believe that's a consideration," he said.

His term officially ends today, and Dennis H. Gabryszak, the longtime Cheektowaga supervisor, begins his term as Tokasz's successor the next day.

Friday, the walls of his office in the Donovan State Office Building downtown were bare and the shelves were empty.

Looking ahead, Tokasz said he has had discussions with lobbying firms, representatives of statewide associations and local not-for-profit groups that seek his fundraising expertise.

He said he wants to stay in Buffalo and he'll make a final job decision by the end of January.

Tokasz got some help to that end Saturday during Mass at his longtime parish, Our Lady of Czestochowa Church in Cheektowaga.

Following his homily, the Rev. Harry Szczesniak noted Tokasz's presence and his impending departure from the Assembly.

"I think he's looking for a job, and maybe we can get him to be an usher," the pastor said, according to Tokasz.

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com

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