Fillmore District Council Member Mitch Nowakowski
A man with a plan
Mitch Nowakowski started his first term as council member in January.
PHOTO BY KC KRATT
“I believe former Mayor Tony Masiello was younger when he first joined the Council,” says Mitch Nowakowski, twenty-eight, who was installed as Fillmore District Council Member on January 1. Nor is he the first openly gay council member; that distinction—should we even be noticing this anymore?—goes to Barbra Kavanaugh, who served here as Council Member-at-Large from 1996 to 1999. Nowakowski brings to his new job a wealth of experience that belies his age. “I’ve been involved in politics since I was seventeen,” says the Orchard Park native. He cut his political teeth working on campaigns with an early mentor, former OP Town Supervisor Janis Colarusso. Nowakowski, who moved from the suburbs to the city when he was twenty-one, studied first at Erie Community College, earned a bachelor’s degree in urban planning and political science from Buffalo State College, and then went to work as an intern and aide in Rivera’s office. He was promoted to the Council’s central staff, and last year he prevailed in a four-way primary challenge, defeating three more candidates in the general election.
You represent a historic and crazily gerrymandered district with a wide range of constituents. How did you manage to get elected?
My district encompasses Allentown, the lower West Side, part of the waterfront and Marine Drive, Larkinville, the old First Ward, Broadway-Fillmore, and Genesee-Moselle. I put on my Sunday best clothes and knocked on doors. It was like a job interview with 4,000 people. I had to raise $35,000 myself. And here’s what I learned as a white guy campaigning in some mostly black neighborhoods: you need to listen more than you talk. I would tell people I can’t fix everything, but I can start the process. One thing I know is it’s not easy for many people to get to City Hall, where our Council offices are. I’m doing “Councilman on Your Corner” once a month, at different locations around the district. People who don’t look like me, didn’t grow up with me, have put their faith in me. I take that very seriously.
A big job needs big ideas. What are yours?
I basically have three goals for the Fillmore District, especially the eastern part. One is to develop more affordable, healthy, sustainable housing. That, to me, is a human right. And I hope to sponsor a lead ordinance, with state funding to help ameliorate costs. Second, we need to work on community policing, improving relations with neighbors by their presence, and better inclusivity training for officers. The third goal is to help get the whole city on a financially sound track. We need a healthy, sustainable budget.
Most surprising thing about the political process?
The kindness of others. I represent people with a wide range of means, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been offered coffee or a cold glass of water, a sit on a porch, in the humblest settings.
How do you decompress?
My partner [Gary Wilson, Commissioner of Labor Relations for Erie County] is better at that; he’s always trying to get me to relax. We’ve been together for seven years—that’s like ninety-nine in gay years. I do read a lot; I love politics and history. A lot of newspapers. And I like to go hiking or out for a run.
The twenty-four-hour rule: sleep on it when something hits you strongly. Wait until you calm down, then respond to that person. And I live by my grandfather’s advice: Be a lifelong learner. You have to keep growing as a person.