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Bob McCarthy: In Cheektowaga progressive, a sign of things to come for Democrats?

Robert J. McCarthy

Brian Nowak’s tattooed arms were wrapped around something titled “A Century of Wealth in America” a few days ago as he waited for a Politics Column interviewer.

A little light reading for the Tim Hortons on Walden Avenue.

But studying concepts like pay inequity and universal health care is what drives the 31-year-old Cheektowaga councilman. It’s why he is emerging as the local face of a Democratic Party faction that these days inches more and more leftward. The issues espoused by “democratic socialists” like Sen. Bernie Sanders or newly elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of Queens are his issues too, and they will also dominate the Democratic presidential primary discussion beginning to unfold.

“I don’t worry about labels, but I guess I call myself a progressive,” Nowak said. “There’s a lot of overlap in what I believe and FDR’s New Deal.”

Before his election to the Cheektowaga Council in 2017, Nowak found himself unexpectedly bursting onto the local political scene just as Sanders was unexpectedly commandeering the national discussion. At the time he worked as a 7-11 store manager (he is now a Pepsi-Cola merchandiser), and signed up with Sanders after the all-but-crowned Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid failed to excite him.

All of a sudden, Nowak was the local guy for Sanders. And in the process, he was gathering like-minded Democrats around him. After walking through most of Cheektowaga, knocking on thousands of doors, and losing 65 pounds in the process, Nowak finds himself in the Council chambers of Town Hall.

His victory remains fascinating. This was Cheektowaga – home of the ethnic, Catholic, working class Democrats that over the years spawned big names like Dennis Gorski and Paul Tokasz. Until Democrat Monica Wallace came along in 2014, nobody in memory ever claimed the Cheektowaga-based Assembly seat without backing from the Conservative Party.

Nowak notes that Cheektowaga supported Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary and Donald Trump in the general election – more out of dislike for the former senator than anything else, he thinks. But the trends there and in other Democratic strongholds – including Ocasio-Cortez’s outer borough congressional district – demonstrate that his kind of politics is now mainstream.

It will all play out in a major way over the coming year as a herd of presidential hopefuls kick off their campaigns. Progressives like Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Corey Booker are already generating lots of discussion, and may make their mark in a primary sure to generate a healthy turnout among the party’s most liberal voters.

As always, the general election will offer its own dynamics – not necessarily friendly to the left-leaners.

For Nowak, it all reflects the thinking of the everyday Democrats he meets in working-class Cheektowaga. He throws out statistics from his thick book: Only 20 percent of the population has accumulated the bulk of investment wealth over the past 35 years. The gap between rich and poor widens, he says.

“If you look at the long-term trajectory,” he says, “we are not on a good path. We need to have a serious discussion as a country on how to deal with that.”

The Seneca High School and SUNY Buffalo State graduate sought appointment to a County Legislature vacancy earlier this year. The “downtown Democrats” as he calls the party regulars, went with Tim Meyers – a Cheektowaga Council colleague. He still feels like an outsider among the downtown Dems because of his Sanders past, but thinks relations are getting better.

Some say he will run in a September Democratic primary for the seat, which includes other interesting battlegrounds like South Buffalo. But he’s not saying.

“I’m still weighing my options,” he says.

For politics watchers, a Nowak primary for Legislature might prove a major focal point of Erie County politics this year. So far, his left-leaning politics is playing in places like Cheektowaga, like it may on the national scene.

And as anyone who follows Erie County’s rough and tumble politics knows – as goes Cheektowaga, so goes the nation.

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