Brian Nowak, a former Bernie Sanders delegate, was recently elected to the top office of Cheektowaga, New York, a 90,000-person suburb of Buffalo. He’s faced continuous attacks but won by focusing on local issues that matter to working-class voters.
Crews at Buffalo Niagara International Airport scramble to clear runways in Cheektowaga, New York, on December 27, 2022. (Fatih Aktas / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
In 2017, Brian Nowak won a town council seat in Cheektowaga, a ninety-thousand-person suburb of Buffalo, the second-largest city in New York State. Though predominantly Democratic by registration, Cheektowaga is a conservative town with a sizable Donald Trump fan base, and Nowak is a former Bernie Sanders delegate.
This year, Nowak, thirty-six, was elected Cheektowaga’s town supervisor, the suburb’s top office—making him the youngest town supervisor in Erie County. His margin of victory was slender enough to trigger an automatic recount under state election law. He ultimately won by fifty-three votes — 9,045 people voted for Nowak, and 8,992 voted for his opponent, Republican Michael Jasinski — proving that an avowed democratic socialist can win executive office in a conservative suburb of Buffalo, even after democratic socialist India Walton’s high-profile defeat in the 2021 Buffalo mayor’s race.
Nowak tried to stay above the fray on big national debates, instead focusing on hyperlocal issues and pitching himself as a family man and volunteer firefighter who wants to improve town services. He managed to prevail even after New York City mayor Eric Adams bused hundreds of asylum seekers to Cheektowaga, at a time when the situation was dominating local news coverage. In the months leading up to the election, two of his fellow town council members accused him of offering a bribe; the alleged bribery scandal also dominated headlines in the local press, despite the fact that the Erie County District Attorney’s office found no evidence of criminal conduct on Nowak’s part.
In this interview, Raina Lipsitz — a Buffalo native and author of The Rise of a New Left — speaks with Nowak about how he ascended to executive leadership after a barrage of last-minute political attacks.
The Recent Attacks
Some crazy stuff has been happening in the Cheektowaga town supervisor’s race. Let’s talk about this bribery allegation, which seems like a product of people’s reaction to you calling attention to a town resident who flew a Confederate flag outside of her home.
Let’s start with the Confederate flag situation. Cheektowaga has an ethics board that’s comprised of five members, and no more than three can be from any one political party. We had a full ethics board until June of this year, when we had a member resign. Our town code is written to prohibit people on political committees from being members of the ethics board; that’s the letter of the law. The spirit of the law is that we don’t want overtly political people involved with the town ethics board.
So Ms [Julie] Parke applies for the ethics board opening. I recognized her house, because when I was campaigning for office in 2017, there was a Confederate flag hanging outside of it for most of the summer.
At our board meeting that evening, I give the town board printouts of photos that I had and said one of the concerns I had about putting this individual on the ethics board is that she was willing to make very strong political statements. That alone doesn’t disqualify somebody, but the combination of factors for me said this isn’t somebody we should have on an ethics board.
So we take a vote and the nomination fails; there’s three votes for her and four against, myself included. We get to our first meeting in September, and these folks raise holy hell, acting like I just doxxed somebody or attempted to ruin her life. I think I was pretty reserved in my comments, and I have no regrets. But everything blew up from there, leading to this allegation of bribery.
What was the bribery allegation?
The highway superintendent [who lodged the allegation] and his deputy have had issues with me for a number of years. There were behind-the-scenes threats not to pave my street. He wanted to punish the whole neighborhood because of his dislike for me.
There was a meeting in 2022 that six of us, including myself and the highway superintendent, attended. We were talking about how to restructure the highway department. The allegation is that I attempted to bribe the highway superintendent at that meeting, which is ridiculous.
That meeting was about how to restructure the department. Our deputy highway superintendent right now is basically a glorified scrap-metal collector earning $100,000 a year. For the sake of saving money and making the department more efficient, I and a few others took the position that we should abolish this position to stop wasting town money.
It was just a way to get revenge on a political opponent.
And from there, the screws got turned. People said things [to the effect of] they were going to make my life very difficult, which obviously they did. Fast-forwarding to September of this year, they decided to go forward with this nonsensical bribery allegation, which is based on $400,000, or the value of his job over four years. They basically said I was going to guarantee him the endorsement of the Democratic Party in exchange for his job. No person can do that. It was just a way to get revenge on a political opponent.
So this all blew up because of this schism between you and a couple of colleagues, and it became this larger debate about the meaning of the Confederate flag. I watched one of the September town board meetings [which are recorded and posted on YouTube], and it wasn’t really about town issues, but much more about these bigger-picture fears people have around national politics — cancel culture and so on. Is that some of what’s going on?
A fair amount of the Confederate flag situation that you saw from the more conservative folks was rooted in local issues — it was a way to discredit my candidacy for town supervisor, to show how, in the views of some folks, I lacked the proper judgment to be a town supervisor or to run our meetings and be the CFO of the town. I do think an underlying part of it was probably these national concerns of me being seen as this cancel-culture guy or this leftist culture warrior or whatever you want to call it.
But part of the reason the folks on the other side voted to put this woman on the ethics board was rooted in local politics. I don’t think their driving force was, “We want to defend the flag of traitors and the flag of slavery.” It was, “Nowak wants something, so we have to not want it,” or, “We need this person on the ethics board because they’re going to be favorable to us and not so favorable to other people.”
Serving on the town ethics board is a volunteer position; there’s no salary associated with it.
All Politics Is Local
You were a Bernie Sanders delegate, and you are a democratic socialist. That’s a tough combination to lead with in a conservative town. How did you walk that line, and how have you won people over?
I put it down to just hard work, going to meet people where they are every day. My political philosophy very rarely comes up in discussions with people. There have been a number of times where residents reach out and I’m the only one that answers an email or gives them a phone call back.
I remember meeting a conservative Republican [while campaigning in 2017]; she was a Trump supporter and adamantly opposed to supporting any Democrat. But I talked to her on her porch about various issues for maybe twenty minutes to a half an hour, and single-payer health care was one thing we found common ground on. I explained to her how it increases take-home pay and makes sure that people are healthy and you’re doing proactive work for people so you don’t have to treat disease at the same rate and people’s teeth aren’t falling out of their face. She said, “Ok, that’s something I like about you, and I like some of these other things.” So I ended up earning her vote in that election.
When we did this recount, I saw ballots where people voted straight-ticket Republican and then voted for one Democrat, and it was me.
When we did this recount, I saw ballots where people voted straight-ticket Republican and then voted for one Democrat, and it was me. A big part of it is just showing up. I think one of the things that happens when we get good and not-so-good left candidates running for office all over the place is, they don’t [necessarily] put that type of energy into their campaign; they get too lofty, too into these high ideals, especially when they’re running for local office.
It’s different when you’re running for Congress; you’ve got to speak to climate change and firearms regulations. But when you’re running for these local, even some of the state offices, it’s hyperlocal stuff: How do you feel about changes to a highway or park service? I think too many candidates that run the local races don’t do a good enough job of focusing their race and their election on that.
That’s what I did. Of all things, I talked about the need for responsible redevelopment — not really the type of issue the typical Jacobin reader would be excited about, but it’s important for Cheektowaga. We’ve got a large shopping mall that’s like a ticking time bomb on our tax base. We need to think differently about our zoning laws, commercial properties. I talked to people about that — and when they’d expect somebody to show up at their door and say, “I’m going to confiscate your house and nationalize grocery stores,” what they’d actually get is, “That mall is going to close someday. What are we going to do about it? I’m thinking about it. The other guy isn’t.” And that wins people over.
What are your thoughts on ensuring that any development benefits working-class people in Cheektowaga?
The development plan has to help working-class people because our housing shortage is impacting them the worst. We have to have a plan for multifamily housing that gets wide buy-in from residents while also helping to slow cost growth for those with single-family homes. Cheektowaga being fully developed means there’s no silver bullet left to use a new housing development to cover costs of a new park or other major initiative.
How did you come to think of yourself as a democratic socialist?
I come to my political philosophy from both life experience and a study of history and economics. Market economies, when left unregulated, lead to monopolies and eventually crash. I consider myself a democratic socialist rather than a free-market capitalist because I’ve seen how Alan Greenspan’s approach to things has failed. I’ve seen the need for major bailouts a few different times in my adult life already.
I’d recommend the written works of Hyman Minsky and Gar Alperovitz as just a few that both explain what has gone wrong and explain alternatives. Minsky was heavy on describing the problem, and Alperovitz came to the table with real solutions.
How would you describe your base of support?
My base of support was organized labor and multiracial working-class folks in Cheektowaga’s lower-income neighborhoods. My campaign depended on financial support from labor, labor-adjacent folks, longtime Democrats, and others. We funded it with zero corporate contributions.
How did New York City’s decision to bus migrants to Cheektowaga affect local politics?
It certainly had an impact on the election. I got maybe 33 percent of the vote in the district closest to one of the migrant hotels. But part of the issue is, I’m a Democrat. So obviously every Democrat is complicit in whatever was seen as pro-migrant; that was just the zeitgeist.
I did a couple interviews on WBEN, one of the local right-of-center radio stations, and in those remarks I was measured and probably said things some of the folks on the far right would not be happy with. I can see how that comes down to where they see me as a source of the problem, because I’m not out there calling these folks “illegal” and saying we should throw them all on a bus back to New York City, or whatever the rhetoric was that my opponent was using.
My base of support was organized labor and multiracial working-class folks in Cheektowaga’s lower-income neighborhoods.
There was a mailer that went out against me that said I wanted to abolish police unions, make Cheektowaga a “sanctuary” town, and defund the police. Those are the different reasons that I probably became the face of the “pro-migrant” side of the town’s debate over asylum seekers.
But there’s also a scenario here where you’ve got a growing African American population, a growing Bengali South Asian population, and the vast majority of people in this town are welcoming to a small or large degree. They’re happy to see the neighborhoods being stabilized with homeowners.
But you’ve also got some folks that just want Cheektowaga to be an all-white town — that’s a minority, those types of people are outnumbered, but they’re here. And that fueled some of the social media chatter.
How would you compare your race and your approach to running for office with India Walton’s 2021 Buffalo mayoral campaign?
I don’t want to comment on India’s approach, because it was a Buffalo mayoral race and there were a lot more people involved and it was right outside of a presidential year. I will speak to mine. I looked at this as a job interview, where the hiring committee could have been as many as 58,000 people, had they all chosen to vote.
Why should I have the job? Should I have the job because I was a Bernie Sanders delegate, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, a card-carrying democratic socialist? Should I have the job because of supporting universal health care, or should I have the job because we need to catch up on issues in our sanitation department where the trucks are starting to fall apart, or maybe we need a department of public works to make better use of resources or streetlights that are going out all the time? That’s the kind of stuff I talked about every day, and the national stuff didn’t come up all that often at the doors. People wanted to talk about trees that were dead in their yard, or do we have to pave these streets as often as we are?
Cheektowaga is still a Democratic town by registration. Do you think it’s trending Republican?
Let’s call them the Roosevelt/Truman-style Democrats — they’re moving away or passing away, and the oldest bloc of voters are now these Reagan Democrats, pretty conservative folks. With that part of the electorate, getting my start in politics as a Sanders delegate and running his campaign in Western New York didn’t necessarily help my cause.
Part of my success was busting my ass. I went to nearly six thousand doors in the spring, summer, and early fall and burned holes in my shoes.
We also have a growing population of folks from Bangladesh and the Middle East and South Asian communities, and they haven’t quite built voting patterns yet. We’ve got a growing black population too, so there’s a sort of racial politics that I don’t think too many people are comfortable talking about that is changing the direction the electorate is going on certain things.
Part of my success was busting my ass. I went to nearly six thousand doors in the spring, summer, and early fall and burned holes in my shoes. I qualified myself for ballot access pretty much on my own. You need five hundred signatures to get on the ballot; I collected 504 that were not challenged, and our Democratic committee got a little over a thousand.
These newer residents — different immigrants and the growing black population — you’re saying they’re changing local politics in the sense of bringing to the forefront conflicts between Republicans and Democrats? Or are you saying that some of these folks are voting Republican?
I think their patterns are to support the Democratic Party, but we’re not entitled to anybody’s vote. I went out into every neighborhood I could to meet people and try to earn their support, and in some of those areas where these new populations are moving in, I did very, very well, because I went to meet them and I’ve tried to earn their support through the years.
And in other neighborhoods their presence is making some folks uneasy. There’s a little bit of intra-class conflict going on. We’ve got a lot of folks that are working-class whites who don’t have two dimes to rub together, and some of them see the folks coming in as one of the many sources of the issues they’re dealing with, and you got folks that are feeding that narrative for them, and it’s not getting countered effectively enough.
Others are working-class people, union folks, and they stick with the Democrats because they’re pragmatic. If you could think of a constituency of voters, we have them in Cheektowaga. It is kind of like a microcosm of national politics in some ways.
Tell me about your opponent’s postelection allegation that you “cheated” and broke “several” election laws.
There are two counts of violating election law that Jasinski asserts. They’re both ridiculous. The first one was saying that I was inside of a polling place on the first day of early voting, when I was outside of a polling place along with the county executive and the Republican county chairman and the Republican candidate for the county legislature — outside of the one-hundred-foot barriers.
The other involves this piece of mail I did where we’ve got a new police training center, and I was at the groundbreaking for that, because well-trained police officers help keep people alive.
I used that picture on one of my mailers where there was myself, the county legislator, and our chief of police doing the whole golden shovel deal . . . and all of a sudden it’s, “You’re implying the police chief is endorsing your candidacy” and “You can’t have these police officers in uniform.” And it grew out of that.
Tell me about the resolution your opponent introduced to reduce the size of the town board and eliminate your seat.
We have a town board of seven in Cheektowaga. The idea [to reduce it] has come up every now and again; I think the most recent instance where a resolution was introduced was in 2008 to study the possibility of downsizing the board.
So this is the first time it’s come up in fifteen years. And coincidentally, it comes up about two weeks after I win election as town supervisor. What I heard going into Election Day was if the Republican won, they had ideas of who they were going to appoint to fill my seat. Had Jasinski won, this resolution would never have been introduced.
How directly is this related to national politics and to the idea Trump has promoted, that we can’t trust our electoral processes and all politicians are committing fraud?
The idea of, “All politicians are crooks” — that’s held by basically everybody.
The election result stuff is a different animal. We had two Republicans elected to the board, and I’ve not heard them speak election-denial-type language or question the results of any of the races. They don’t doubt the honesty of the board of elections. But my opponent seems to be going the MAGA/Trump route on this stuff, saying that I cheated and implying that people voted who shouldn’t have been allowed to vote.Original post