By Robert J. McCarthy
Even by politician standards, State Sen. George D. Maziarz ranks in recent days as the meanest attack dog in the Albany junkyard.
The Newfane Republican is growling at Democrats on radio and television and barking in the newspapers.
He rants at public hearings, submits letters to the editor and isn’t bashful about calling reporters.
Following passage last month of a $131.8 billion state budget that cuts jobs, raises taxes and hikes fees, Maziarz has especially bared his teeth at State Sen. William T. Stachowski, D-Lake View, who is deemed politically vulnerable by some after a tough re-election battle last year. Sources in the Senate say the two no longer even speak to each other.
Critics say Maziarz’s long tenure in Albany makes him just as responsible as anyone for New York’s budget troubles. They also say his new profile is part of angling to become Senate leader should the Republicans recapture the majority in 2010.
In addition, they say his fantastically wealthy campaign fund—more than $629,000—and his alliances with political kingpins such as Buffalo Sabres owner B. Thomas Golisano already make him a power to be reckoned with.
But Maziarz says the new and total domination of state government by New York City Democrats demands that an upstater fight back. The alternative, he said, is more policies that ignore upstate and its continued loss of business and jobs.
“Yes, it’s a departure for me,” he said. “But it’s because I see, unlike at any other time, Western New York being targeted by [Assembly Speaker] Shelly Silver and [Senate Majority Leader] Malcolm Smith.”
As a result, Maziarz has gone on a tear. He lodged the first complaints about the Legislature’s “sweep” of Power Authority funds into the general budget to help reduce the deficit.
He has railed against Stachowski and State Sen. Antoine M. Thompson, D-Buffalo, for voting to approve the new budget. And he has singled out the hike in the utility tax, which he says will especially hurt big energy consumers—and big employers— such as the General Motors Powertrain plant in the Town of Tonawanda.
He even theorizes that the New York Power Authority will someday absorb the troubled Long Island Power Authority in order to stave off bankruptcy at the expense of upstate.
“Who’s going to stop them?” he asked. “Stack? Antoine? [Assemblyman] Robin Schimminger? I just think they’re getting more blatant about targeting upstate.”
His new and brazen tactics have shocked observers of the local political and governmental scene. They note that when Deputy Assembly Speaker Arthur O. Eve, D-Buffalo, and State Sen. Dale M. Volker, R-Depew, led the local delegation in Albany, decorum ruled.
The local contingent often worked together and boasted— rightfully or wrongfully—of its cohesion in bringing home money for Western New York.
With Democrats in complete control of Albany, all that appears to lie in the past.
“There have been a couple of guys making noise, but nobody as much as Sen. Maziarz, and nobody as personal,” said Stachowski, who could be targeted again in 2010.
“He’s trying to convince people that a ‘no’ vote on the budget would make the deficit go away, there would be no tax increase, and everything would be wonderful,” Stachowski added. “He’s more open about it, but the reality is that he’s always been political.”
Republicans like what they see in the new Maziarz, 55, a longtime behind-the-scenes power in Niagara County politics. Erie County Republican Chairman James P. Domagalski noted that when Maziarz opted not to run for the seat of retiring Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds last year, he made a strong commitment to the Senate.
“He’s cast his lot with the importance of the Senate majority coming back,” Domagalski said. “I don’t feel anyone should hold back on that, and he’s not.”
Erie County Democratic Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan, meanwhile, says it’s part of a GOP effort to beat up Stachowski before the next election. And he charged that as the “king of pork and patronage,” Maziarz has a credibility problem.
“He played a role in putting the state in the mess it’s in,” Lenihan said. “Now, when he attacks people who are trying to straighten it out, I find him very disingenuous.”
Democratic sources in the Senate say Stachowski was “assigned” to Maziarz by GOP leaders to soften him up for 2010—a charge Maziarz denies. They point out that they deem Stachowski vulnerable in an upper chamber that holds a slim 32-30 advantage and that defeating him could prove the key to a resurrected Republican majority.
All of this leads to a whole new atmosphere in recent weeks. Stachowski says Maziarz even ignores the traditions of the Senate, which dictate that no member is criticized by name on the chamber floor unless speaking there first. In a recent Senate speech, Maziarz said that the careers of Stachowski and Thompson would end because of their affirmative votes on the budget.
“To say you could have done it any other way is disingenuous,” Stachowski said. “It’s all about Sen. Maziarz trying to enhance his position on the Republican side of the chamber.”
Longtime participants like Volker acknowledge Maziarz is playing by different rules. He said politics was not as personal in years past but does not blame his Republican colleague for going on the offensive.
“It’s not good for Western New York, but the situation is inevitable,” Volker said.
But Volker also said Maziarz’s new persona may prove the right approach. His recent criticism of the Power Authority after a start-up steel company in Orleans County failed to get the low-cost hydropower allocation it wanted, Volker said, represents a genuine issue that must be pursued.
“George is right on the ball on this,” he said.
Maziarz says he has been tough on Stachowski because he never contested Smith’s decision to bypass Stachowski and award the Senate Finance Committee chairmanship to a New York City senator—another setback for upstate.
“A real telling moment for me was when Malcolm Smith last summer so outwardly promised at Chef’s [restaurant] that Bill Stachowski would be the next chairman of the Senate Finance Committee,” he said. “If someone doesn’t stand up for Western New York, we’re going to get trampled.”
Maziarz said he will not be inhibited by Senate rules if the region’s interests are jeopardized. He said he is not happy with Republican leaders either, with several sources indicating he was denied the ranking position on the Finance Committee after raising significant amounts of Senate campaign cash. He called Minority Leader Dean G. Skelos “angry,” adding that Democrat Smith is too “weak” to confront Silver.
“It’s a recipe for disaster,” he said.
Maziarz now claims credit for the “no” budget votes of several upstate Democrats in the Assembly after he so publicly criticized the “sweep” of Power Authority funds into the budget and later the utility tax increase.
He dismisses any thought he is only aiming for the top spot in the Senate. “I don’t see anyone from the far northwest corner of New York playing that major a role,” he said.
His position in the Senate minority provides a perfect platform to fight for upstate, he said. And his brimming campaign coffers act as a hedge against any Democratic attempt to eliminate his attack dog bark come reapportionment in 2012.
“They’re going to come after me, and Newfane will end up with Jamestown,” he said. “I like where I’m at, and I hope to be in the Senate for the rest of my career.”