Crazy politics

Oct 18, 2000 at 12:00 am

You have to be nuts to run for Hamtramck City Council. At least that is the impression council members give when describing the job: It can include death threats, insults, bickering and the occasional slashed tire or punch in the chest. That's not to mention a $2.5 million deficit and the prospect of a state takeover.

So why are five candidates vying for a single open seat?

Since a council member resigned last August the council has been perpetually deadlocked 2-to-2 between the city's new and old guards. The next council member could permanently tip the balance of power, or at least break the ties as a swing voter.

"Clash of cultures"

Hamtramck politics have been explosive since Gary Zych was elected mayor in 1997 — beating 18-year incumbent Robert Kozaren by nine votes. Some residents in this traditionally working-class city of about 20,000 view Zych — who survived one recall and faces another — as an outsider, a college-educated artist, a union-busting carpetbagger neither born nor raised in Hamtramck.

Zych supporters, like City Council President Phil Kwik, who was born and raised in Hamtramck, also are seen as political interlopers. And every Tuesday night, residents pack council meetings to let them know how they feel.

Kwik says he is used to the ranting, but the punch he took in the chest last year was too much.

Joseph Strzalka, who took office in January and supports Zych, also has had his share of trouble. After a council meeting last winter, he found his car tires slashed.

"It has been one-sided guerilla warfare," says Walter Wasacz, a reporter for The Hamtramck Citizen, who recently wrote a 14-part series on the town's political history. "If you go to council meetings, you will see one person after another make charges against the administration."

Wasacz calls this a "clash of cultures."

Zych supporters represent an educated elite determined to bring Hamtramck into the 21st century by computerizing City Hall, embracing the town's various cultures and balancing the budget by cutting union jobs. Old-timers also distrust the Citizen, which is viewed as pro-Zych, says Wasacz.

Council members Chris Cornwell and Bernard Bator, who regularly vote against the mayor, are aligned with city workers, particularly police and firefighters, who want to preserve union jobs, Wasacz says. Police and firefighters ran Hamtramck politics for decades, says Wasacz. But now that they are allowed to live outside the city, they are a smaller, less persuasive presence.

Zych opponents also resent his hard-headed aggressive style, which he demonstrated at a recent session. Everything was calm until Zych entered, accusing Bator and Cornwell of being uncooperative for not backing his balanced-budget plan.

The budget debate highlights the city's divisions. When the mayor proposed eliminating some of the $2.5 million deficit at this week's meeting, Strzalka and Kwik pushed to cut city jobs; they say about 33 of the 170 positions need to go. Bator and Cornwell proposed cutting Zych-appointed department heads instead.

"I believe there are other ways we can make the cuts," says Conrnwell, who accuses the mayor of trying to bust the city union.

This deadlock resulted in the council missing an Oct. 1 deadline to submit a plan for cutting $630,000 of the $2.5 million debt. If they don’t agree soon, the state may take over the city and make the cuts itself.

"The state will be much more brutal than we will be," says Kwik.

Bator, in contrast, welcomes a state takeover because he thinks it will preserve union jobs.

The contenders

Despite these hellish tales of running city government, five candidates are competing for the only open seat on the council.

But Wasacz says that only the following three contenders stand a chance:

- John Justewicz, a severe critic of Zych, lost the last council election by six votes. He helped spearhead both efforts to recall the mayor, says Wasacz.

- Doug Rojek, whom Zych endorsed, has strong name recognition as the son of a former council member. Rojek says he wants the job because he is willing to eliminate the city’s $2.5 million deficit by cutting city union jobs and consolidating departments.

"I would hate to see people lose their jobs but there will be some cuts," says Rojek.

- Chester Wozniak is a political veteran, a state representative for 12 years, a Wayne County commissioner for four years and a former city officeholder. He is said to be running as an independent, neither supporting nor opposing the mayor. What he will do if elected is anybody's guess.

Wasacz gives less of a chance to:

- Robert Zwolak, who served as the Hamtramck city clerk for eight years in the 1980s and also served three years on the Charter Revision Commission. Zwolak says that he will remain neutral if elected, but Wasacz and others say that he has been a severe critic of the mayor.

- Mark Niekra, who has no political experience, promises to bring a "spirit of cooperation" to the council. He also says that layoffs may be unavoidable when trying to balance the budget.

Whoever wins has the sympathy of former council member Ellen Phillips; she resigned last year in frustration.

"We couldn’t get anything done," Phillips says.

Phillips describes a screaming match that erupted when the mayor suggested hanging international flags throughout the city to honor Hamtramck’s various ethnic groups.

"It became a huge topic that went on for hours," says Phillips.

Despite this, Phillips gives the candidates credit for running and offers this advice to the winner: "The person has to be willing to make difficult decisions because you are affecting people's jobs. It will come to that."

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. Send comments to [email protected]