When Abdulsalam K. Noman won Lackawanna's 1st Ward City Council race in 2008, it marked a banner accomplishment for the estimated 6,000 residents of Yemeni descent who at the time made up one-third of the city's population.
“The Yemeni community pretty much established themselves throughout the city,” said City Clerk Jeffrey DePasquale. “When Noman got elected, it was a big deal.”
Noman, a youth soccer coach who works as an aide at Lackawanna High School, won the 1st Ward seat for two consecutive terms and then left the Council because of term limits. He was appointed to the vacant 1st Ward seat earlier this year.
But in September, Noman lost the primary to hold onto the seat. For the estimated 7,000 Yemenis who now live in Lackawanna, his loss was a big deal.
For the first time in a decade, Yemenis will not have a candidate on the general election ballot.
Earlier this year, leaders in the Yemeni community had been buoyed by the interest of a new crop of candidates in the 1st Ward Council race.
But then came the disappointing primary results.
Noman, 59, was one of three Yemini candidates who lost on Democratic and Conservative lines in primary balloting on Sept. 13. Noman lost to John Ingram, 61, for the Democratic Party nod, 454 to 435.
Yemenis Naef A. Al-Hajjaji, 26, and Ali M. Saleh – both political newcomers – were the other losing candidates. Al-Hajjaji finished a distant third in the Democratic primary for the Council seat with 20 votes.
“We’re trying to encourage the younger generation to take the lead,” said businessman Mohamed Albanna, a leader in the Yemeni community. “But a loss is a loss. There are a lot of us who are very disappointed."
Anwar Al-Kalai, president of the Lackawanna Islamic Mosque and principal of Al-Rasheed Academy, believes a Yemeni on the City Council is critical for his community.
“We never thought that we had to have one of our own on the City Council. We never looked at it that way,” said Al-Kalai. “It changed when we saw our community needs were not being met. That’s when we thought we needed someone on the inside to speak, someone who knows our community,” he said.
Albanna, who won election to the City Council in 2016, was ousted after a series of court challenges that targeted his status as a felon. He was replaced by Noman.
“We were in support [this year] of the youth movement, but it wasn’t the right time,” Al-Kalai said. "They made their decisions [to run] late in the game with no campaign, nothing like that. Noman was the only one at the time who put his name in the hat. He gained the endorsement from the Democratic Party.”
Ethnically rich ward
There are 2,803 registered voters in Lackawanna’s 1st Ward, according to the county Board of Elections. Registered Democrats account for 2,152 voters. There are 154 Republicans, 131 Conservatives, 73 Independents, two Green Party members, 21 Working Families Party members and 270 unaffiliated voters.
Lackawanna's 1st Ward shines today as an ethnically rich community – much as it has since 1909 when residents voted to split from West Seneca and form the Steel City.
Since the 1900s, 1st Ward Council members have mirrored the waves of Irish, Italian, Croatian, Polish, African-American, Hispanic and Middle Eastern immigrants who have settled in the ward.
From McGovern, McDonald and McGuire in the early 1900s to Milano, Grosso, Marciesjewski, Kowalik and Filipetti through the '60s, the City Council seat reflected the people it represented. Adolph Overton was the first African-American to serve the 1st Ward in 1974. Ricardo Estrada was elected in 1998.
“They come and they go, the different ethnicities. There were Polish mayors, Irish mayors. They are no different than anyone else,” said Nicholas Korach, former Lackawanna City School superintendent and author. “They’re all good people. "I don't view the Yemenis any differently. It's just another melting pot group in Lackawanna."
Ingram, the endorsed Democrat, built his reputation as a community leader. A resident of Glover Gardens, Ingram recently succeeded in lobbying the Niagara Frontier Transit Authority for continued and expanded bus service for the 1st Ward. His extensive door-to-door campaigns as well as his potluck neighborhood dinners signaled his commitment to the issues concerning 1st Ward residents, said Joseph Jerge, former 3rd Ward councilman.
“The difference between winning and losing for John Ingram are the people he convinced to vote for him when he went door to door,” said Jerge. “Those little things make all the difference.”
Ingram attends all City Council meetings, and has spoken out over abandoned property, lack of grocery stores and the economic decline that tops the challenges facing the 1st Ward. Ingram also serves as Glover Gardens Tenant Council president and was cleared of any wrongdoing in the misuse of $2,900 in tenant council funds from the Lackawanna Municipal Housing Authority.
“We need better communication from the Council, someone who is available for all of the residents,” said Ingram. “I will be at City Hall where they can come and see me. They know I care and, I work hard. The voters will decide.”
Daniel Koziol, 41, the Conservative Party candidate for the 1st Ward seat, won the primary on a write-in campaign. Koziol knocked off Saleh, 33-27, to win the Conservative Party line.
“I’m kind of throwing a monkey wrench into everyone’s plans by jumping in the race when I did,” said Koziol, who announced his candidacy less than a week before the primary. “I thought about it and thought about it,” Koziol said. “My dad tried talking me out of it.”
Koziol is the third generation in a family of public servants. His grandfather, Stan, co-founded the Conservative Party. Stan Koziol also served as Lackawanna development director and he was a member of the Lackawanna Board of Education. Daniel Koziol's father, Dennis, served a behind-the-scenes role in the party.
"We have a lot of problems in the 1st Ward starting with the recent Center Street shooting," said Daniel Koziol, who lives on Center with his wife and two children. "There's too many zombie houses and absentee landlords. It's not looking good at all on Center, Lehigh, Steelawanna or Holland. You're driving all over the roads just to avoid the potholes. And there are no activities for the children."
Koziol scored an upset when he won the primary as a write-in candidate.
"I decided to mount a write-in campaign to show opposition, as the people need to have a choice on who to vote for and to support term limits," Koziol said.
Now, it's Noman who is expected to wage an aggressive write-in campaign in November.
Noman did not respond to several requests for an interview.
Write-in balloting is occurring more often throughout the state, said Ralph Mohr, Republican Party commissioner for the Erie County Board of Elections.
"Write-in votes are becoming more common because of the paper ballots," Mohr said. "With the old lever machine, you had to identify your candidate’s column, then lift the write-in slot and hold it open while writing in the name. There was a pencil hanging from a string in the polling booth. It's all much easier today."
Write-in voters don't have to worry about spelling, either, added Mohr.
"The name does not have to be spelled correctly. It has to be identifiable as the candidate’s name," Mohr said. "Stefan Mychajliw would have a difficult time, but we’d take 100 different spellings of his last name. That’s one of the advantages of giving advanced notice."