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Demler fighting for his political life Wheatfield supervisor has served for 14 stormy years

In his 14 years in office, Wheatfield Supervisor Timothy E. Demler has cultivated a reputation as a swaggering populist unwilling to back down from a political fight.

He has called critics "pip-squeaks."

He took on the Niagara County Health Department over a tire-squealing burn pit at The Summit mall.

And in the face of rampant skepticism, he continues to insist that a Wizard of Oz theme park is going to be built in his town.

That mix of confidence and bluster led to seven election victories. Now it also has soured his relationship with his own party and landed him in the fight of his political career.

Town Republican leaders have unleashed a primary battle against Demler by recruiting a former town justice, Robert B. Cliffe, to challenge him at the polls Tuesday. Demler does not have any other party lines in the November election, which means that -- barring a write-in campaign on minor party lines -- a loss Tuesday could effectively end his tenure.

It would be a sudden fall for a man who has steered one of Western New York's fastest growing communities for more than a decade.

The split with his party has not been amicable: Demler's political opponents charge that he has paid campaign contributors for town work without Town Board approval; that he allowed two businesses to ignore a Zoning Board ruling; and that he has had relationships with two female workers at Town Hall, including one with the wife of a town Republican committeeman.

"He's a king. He acts like a king and nobody can tell the king what to do," said Arthur Palmer, an 11-year councilman who resigned last year and moved to Alabama. "He was a terror and probably still is. He would walk into Town Hall yelling and screaming and using foul language, really vulgar language, and threatening employees' jobs unless they did what he wanted."

Demler, who is separated from his wife, disputes all of the allegations and says they are political payback for his support of a proposition last fall that merged the offices of town clerk and receiver of taxes, giving the town GOP committee one less office to fill.

"The people recognize the fact that a bunch of restless Republicans resent the fact that they don't control this office," Demler said.

>Attacks turn nasty

Demler, 49, made his political debut and first run for supervisor at 35, in the midst of double-digit population growth in the town.

He was a transplant, moving to Wheatfield in his early 30s. The fact that he had lived in the town less than five years became fodder for an anonymous political flier that circulated during his first run for office.

Fourteen years later, the political attacks have grown salacious.

In May, a town GOP committeeman, Michael Gurnett, publicly accused Demler of having an affair with his wife, a town employee. Demler denied the accusation, but a week later, the committee revoked its endorsement of the supervisor. Committee members at the time refused to explain why.

Palmer, the former councilman, said he thought the allegations of Demler's improper relationships were what clinched the decision. But James D. Heuer, the town Republican party chairman who engineered the revocation of Demler's endorsement for re-election, disagreed.

He said it had more to do with allegations of Demler overstepping his authority, such as allegedly writing letters to two Niagara Falls Boulevard property owners giving them permission to operate businesses that had been rejected by the town Zoning Board of Appeals.

Those allegations were outlined in a letter sent out last week by Councilman Larry L. Helwig, an 18-year board veteran and Demler's chief antagonist. Two weeks before the primary, he sent out a two-page letter detailing what he and other board members contend are examples of the supervisor's abuse of authority.

Demler has called the accusations an "orchestrated" effort to oust him from office.

But questionable town spending practices -- which Demler's opponents have put into the hands of the Niagara County district attorney, the state attorney general and the FBI -- involve incidents from 2006 and 2007, before his last re-election bid.

Demler has countered with a packet of documents he claims show that several councilmen, including Helwig, approved the spending items they are now questioning. The documents, however, do not clearly explain which bills they authorized.

Demler also disagrees with the charge that he blocked a zoning decision involving the two businesses. He acknowledges that he wrote a letter in 2003 allowing a storage business at one Niagara Falls Boulevard location to continue operating, only until the City of Niagara Falls approved a plan to move the business into the city. That approval never came, however.

"You can't modify or amend a decision of the Zoning Board of Appeals, and you don't delay enforcement of the zoning ordinance for anyone," said Robert O'Toole, town attorney for all but two of the last 20 years.

>Cell phone records

Demler's problems seem to have started with the allegations of improper relationships with town employees.

Town cell phone records inspected by The Buffalo News under the state Freedom of Information Law show that during 2008, Demler made scores of calls outside business hours, some between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. -- some lasting as long as 40 minutes -- to Michelle Campbell, a female worker listed on the town roster as "a floater."

Campbell said, "I've had a boyfriend for the past year and before that I was dating someone else. I do work for [Demler] and I like him as a person, but that's as far as it goes."

"She's had a boyfriend for two years, and I'm not him," Demler said.

Meanwhile, Michael Gurnett has provided photographs and other information to The News, alleging that Demler, his former friend, ruined his marriage by starting a relationship with his wife Tracy Gurnett, a town building department employee, earlier this year.

Gurnett went public with his charges at a county GOP meeting in May, leading to the town GOP session that chose Cliffe instead.

Gurnett in June was charged with second-degree harassment for an incident in which police allege he wrestled his estranged wife to the ground when she attempted to grab a camera from his hand, according to a police report of the incident.

Photos exist of Demler and Tracy Gurnett holding hands on a visit to Jamestown in May and at the town July 4 picnic. Demler, who said he has faced similar accusations in previous election years, denies having an affair with her.

"I've known Tracy Gurnett for nine years. We're good friends," Demler said. "Tracy and I are very close. I'm not going to deny that."

O'Toole said, "I believe several of the women with whom he has allegedly been involved say that was not the case."

Asked what he believes, O'Toole said, "The pictures speak for themselves."

The tone of the election has taken even political veterans by surprise.

"The only place I've experienced dirty politics like this was Niagara Falls," said Tom Stevenson, Demler's longtime campaign manager. "And there it was opposite parties."

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com and djgee@buffnews.com

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