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Colossal clout; In decades of civic leadership, Robert Gioia has built a reputation as a master of compromise -- and a man who gets things done

On the surface, Robert Gioia is a study in contradictions.

In his smartly appointed corner office on the 36th floor of One HSBC Center, the president of the Oishei Foundation keeps a copy of "Leadership," a book by conservative former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani right next to a the late liberal U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's "Came the Revolution."

Though he has been a registered Democrat since his college days, Gioia identifies himself as a "Republicrat." He is fiscally conservative but advocates loudly and often for funding liberal causes. He considers himself a champion of transparency, but across his long and wide-ranging career in civic leadership, he has often fought against it.

He is now the subject of renewed attention and criticism from both sides of the aisle for his dual role -- as public-funding advocate and private-sector savior -- in Erie County's recent cultural funding crisis.

And here is perhaps the biggest contradiction of all about Robert Gioia, a master of compromise and longtime local power player who has held just about every non-elected civic leadership post short of sewer commissioner: In Buffalo, a town infamous for its plodding pace and endemic infighting on public projects large and small, Gioia is a man who gets things done.

To wit:

In April 1990, three months after Gov. Mario Cuomo appointed him chairman of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, Gioia and his fellow board members voted to shut down the entire public transportation system of Western New York for two days. They did it to send a message to the Erie County Legislature, which had been futzing around for months while the struggling agency awaited a dedicated funding source.

The controversial move worked. Before the system had been dark for 48 hours, a flabbergasted legislature pulled itself together and set aside its political wrangling long enough to approve a deal that would keep the agency healthy for decades.

Years later, with those funds in place and the NFTA's image and effectiveness greatly improved, Gioia guided the highly contentious effort to design and build a new terminal at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, which was completed in 1997 to near-universal acclaim. This ranks as Gioia's proudest and perhaps most visible accomplishment in his long, highly lauded and ever-expanding career.

As chairman of Great Lakes Health, the board that oversees the growing affiliation between Kaleida Health and Erie County Medical Center, Gioia was instrumental in overcoming the fierce animosity that had prevented the institutions from working together. The medical center recently announced a $150 million expansion project, while Kaleida is currently constructing a $291 million, 10-story heart-vascular center in collaboration with the University at Buffalo -- major projects with which Gioia and his Oishei Foundation have been crucially involved.

And Gioia's work with the Buffalo Niagara Partnership on a 2006 report designed to save Erie County millions of dollars has in many ways contributed to the fiscal stability the county now enjoys under County Executive Chris Collins.

Long story short: Gioia has clout coming out of his pores.

Here is a man who, in 2005, briefly considered a run for mayor only to decide against it because it would have been a demotion.

And those apparent contradictions? Once you scratch the surface, they turn out to be little more than the tools of a lifelong pragmatist -- someone who has learned hard lessons about the art of compromise and seems to revel in the opportunity to apply them.

"My favorite saying to my kids is, 'You only need to win four out of seven to be world champions,'" said Gioia, who often speaks in sports analogies.

And what about his record? "Oh," he said, "I think it's more than four out of seven."

>Savior of the arts?

In his current position as president of Buffalo's largest foundation, a post he has held since 2006 and one which has greatly expanded his already wide sphere of influence, Gioia is not about to let his batting average slip.

Though he has never been far from the public eye since stepping into the public arena as Mario Cuomo's local political emissary at age 31, Gioia recently became the renewed focus of public attention for his turn in the ring of Erie County's latest local political boxing match.

As the county budget crisis came to a head late last year, Gioia attempted to broker a deal with the Collins administration and later with the County Legislature after Collins slashed 23 arts organizations from the county funding rolls.

On Dec. 21 of last year -- a day that will long live in infamy for Gioia and his colleagues at the Oishei Foundation -- Gioia appeared before the Legislature and was unceremoniously berated and branded as "arrogant" by chairwoman Barbara Miller-Williams, who was upset she hadn't been informed of his plan to help give the organizations a "soft landing" after being stiffed by the county.

Miller-Williams and other Legislature Democrats raked Gioia over the coals for not giving them control over his plan -- in which the local consortium known as the Fund for the Arts was to contribute $400,000 to local cultural groups if the county kicked in $100,000. The next day, he retracted the offer. And on Feb. 28, the Fund for the Arts, of which Gioia's Oishei Foundation is the largest contributor, announced it would distribute $430,000 to local theaters and arts organizations this year to make up for the county shortfall.

The move, which was hailed as a lifeline for cultural groups across Western New York, is just the latest step in Gioia's advocacy for the cultural sector. Going forward, he is advocating for a dedicated funding stream for the arts groups of the same sort that turned around years of strife at the NFTA.

"We shut the transit system down," he said at a recent meeting about arts funding. "So maybe that's what you have to do here to get everybody's attention: shut every cultural institution down in order to get everyone to really realize what the value is of these organizations."

>Rich man's duty

Gioia, who is 62, dresses conservatively, though he favors a series of cheeky ties, which tend to feature playful illustrations of monkeys or tiny airplanes, and wears a pair of small, black-and-silver-frame glasses that give him a vaguely artistic air. He has a ring of silver hair surrounding his bald pate, a white beard flecked with gray and what seems to be a perpetual healthy tan. His look projects equal measures of confidence, nonchalance and affability, three qualities that have stood him in good stead across his career.

He was the fourth of seven children born in 1948 to a large Sicilian-American family in Rochester, which moved to Buffalo shortly thereafter. He grew up in Eggertsville, attended Amherst High School and later began his career with his family's business, Gioia Macaroni, which was founded in 1910 by his great-grandfather Antonio Gioia and sold to a British company in 1976.

After that, Gioia held a number of leadership positions at Western New York food service companies, including Cliffstar Corp., CFP Group, Quality Foods, Red Wing Co. Inc. and Topps Meat. Some highlights of his long community leadership resume include productive stints as president of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, the Darwin Martin House Restoration Corp., the Community Foundation and the Erie County Stabilization Project.

As the president of Western New York's largest foundation, which has assets of more than $283 million and granted an average of $15.7 million annually over the past 10 years, Gioia places himself in the long lineage of corporate philanthropists, which ranges from the Medicis to Mark Zuckerberg. He expressed a firm belief in the tenet that great wealth carries great responsibility.

"Part of that responsibility -- not all of it, but part of the responsibility -- is to be a good corporate citizen in giving not only your time, but also some of your wealth," Gioia said. "What I've clearly come to find out is there's nothing wrong with those folks that don't have the same things that I have. They just didn't have the opportunity, and I feel -- even more so in this position -- I feel a responsibility to them more than ever before."

Anthony Gioia, a prominent local Republican and former U.S. ambassador to Malta, characterized his younger brother as a man with deep concern for the community, whose chief talent lies in his ability to bring disparate groups together to achieve a common goal. The proof, he added, is in projects like the construction of the new airport terminal, which overcame manifold obstacles and was the subject of some very close votes.

And while the two brothers rib each other over their differing political affiliations, the elder Gioia said there's never been a deep philosophical divide between the two.

"I think he's very well suited for his role as president of the Oishei Foundation. I mean, being a Democrat, those people are very good at giving away other people's money," Anthony Gioia said. "That's a joke."

Robert Gioia's many current and former colleagues seem to have nothing but praise for his accomplishments.

"We need more Robert Gioias. Any community needs Robert Gioias, somebody who's passionate enough, savvy enough, willing to spend the time and willing to stick his or her neck out on stuff." said Andrew Rudnick, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, a local development agency Gioia worked with to produce its extensive 2006 report on Erie County's woes. "Those are precious civic leadership assets that communities look for. Robert's one of the few we have here and he needs to be supported."

Ask pretty much any Western New York civic leader past or present about Gioia, and you're likely to get some variation of Rudnick's response. But over his career, like anyone in a position of power, Gioia has not been critic-proof.

He created more than a few detractors by insisting the bidding process for the construction of the new airport terminal remain open to union and non-union shops alike, a move which prompted 300 union protesters to gather outside his house. (The job went to a local union firm in the end.) Many were upset that throughout his tenure at the NFTA and into his recently relinquished chairmanship of Great Lakes Health, Gioia fought to keep many meetings private -- a move he attributed to a desire to protect Kaleida's competitive advantage.

One of Gioia's biggest critics is local economist and Buffalo State College professor Bruce Fisher, who served as deputy county executive and something of a brain trust during the ill-fated administration of Joel Giambra. Fisher's own political star descended along with Giambra's, whose term News Reporter Matt Spina called "perhaps the most meteoric flameout of any political career in county history" as it ended in 2005.

But from Fisher's perspective, Gioia is a key figure in Buffalo's entrenched power structure that -- contrary to its own narrative about helping the region progress -- has been a root cause of its long economic stagnation. That, Fisher said, is primarily because Gioia was a part of a self-interested leadership group that has consistently blocked plans to create a regional government merging Erie County and the City of Buffalo.

"I think that you are never going to find anybody who is going to do anything but stand up and salute Bob Gioia because he has been a part of the power elite around here for a while," Fisher said. "If the business community around here is so tied into the paradigm that they're tied into, which is to say finance, insurance, real estate, and they want all of the development dollars to go to real estate projects like Jordan Levy is doing on the waterfront, then it's that lonely voice that's going to say, 'Wait a minute, this isn't getting us where we need to get.' Bob Gioia has the bully pulpit. He won't ever be that lonely voice. So, that's unfortunate."

Gioia countered the notion that he was part of a self-interested group, noting that his own and his family's businesses have never had a quid pro quo relationship with the government.

"Some of our effectiveness is the result of the fact that there's no personal gain here. I don't sell anything to the government, I can't get anything out of it. I'm not a developer looking for tax credits," Gioia said. "Anything we do, whether it's Roswell Park, whether it's Kaleida, whether it be the food bank or hospice for everybody, it really is about what's for the better good of the community."

And Gioia, whatever his detractors might say, can always point to his achievements across a long career that shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.

"We got an airport built, we've got a transit system that runs pretty well, we've got a united health care system that's doing its best to survive in an environment that's going to be just so difficult going forward. So I would say that you can get things done," he said. "I think what happens is when people start to dig in their heels and are unwilling to compromise, that's when we run into trouble."

And that's when Robert Gioia goes to work.


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