By Andrew Kulyk

Sometimes people enter politics and get involved for all the right reasons. Not for a job or patronage, not to seize power, not for ego or selfish ambition, not to pad an already bloated pension. But just to be an advocate for positive change in the community.

Cheektowaga’s Joan Adams was one of those persons.

Adams died earlier this week at the age of 75 after lengthy and numerous health battles. She leaves behind her husband Joe, son Wally and her two grandchildren.

Joan Adams was the feisty type of neighborhood organizer who burst on the Cheektowaga political scene in the early 2000s. She and her family were residents of the Cedargrove Heights district, a hardscrabble neighborhood of mostly working poor families and renters in subsidized housing properties. The neighborhood was in constant need of better infrastructure, better policing, better municipal services, and Joan was always at the forefront fighting for that attention.

In 2005, a developer named Dominik Piestrak approached the Town of Cheektowaga with a bold proposal: to buy out every home and parcel in Cedargrove, demolish the entire district and replace with an entirely new planned development of condominiums, row houses, apartments, retail, entertainment venues and greenspace. It was an ambitious proposal, and an especially intriguing one, because it would offer an upscale housing option in proximity to downtown Buffalo and the airport going the other way, and invigorate a first ring suburb needing a jolt of massive investment. 

Just one problem. Where would the thousands of residents, many low income or on pensions, and facing a dearth of subsidized or affordable housing elsewhere, go?

Joan was outraged. She organized the Cedargrove Coalition, got her neighbors energized and involved, and took her case to the halls of power to see that their voices were heard.

The development proposal was scuttled and withdrawn.

Joan then joined the Cheektowaga Democratic Committee and got her allies elected to the committee as well. In all three districts representing Cedargrove. Now her passion and energy would be channeled on a bigger stage… the betterment of Cheektowaga.

People took notice of this brash and loud activist and grandmother. Right around that time, an upstart group of Democrats, named the “Progressive Democrats of Cheektowaga” and led by Frank Max, were quietly electing and growing their committee roster over the past decade. Many rank and file Democrats in the committee had come to believe that the party leadership had become old and stale, that they only genuflected to the powerful politicians and they had no seat at the table in making decisions for the growth of the party and the betterment of the community.

In 2006, Joan Adams was invited to run on a “Frank Max slate” of officers for the Cheektowaga Democratic Committee as female vice chair. That slate won convincingly, despite the last minute push by Assemblyman and Deputy Assembly Speaker Paul Tokasz, to keep intact the old power structure.

courtesy Wally Burgett Facebook page

Just like that, Joan was an officer of the party. She was later given an appointment to the Cheektowaga Planning Board, a position she candidly admitted she was not ready for. Yet she did her best to learn zoning law and procedure on considering and voting for everything from small commercial landscape plans to major development initiatives.

Her grit and work detail as a committeeman was almost legendary. Joan would be the first person to sign up for petition drives, envelope stuffing, canvassing, the minutiae of electioneering, and she would bring her friends to help. Aspiring politicians and elected officials took notice. Running for office usually meant a pilgrimage to Joan’s kitchen table or a coffee meeting to solicit her support.  Her grilling of candidates was always the same …”Will you be an honest person? Will you fight corruption? Will you remember and represent the little people, the powerless?”

The vision and dream of a “Jeffersonian Democracy” on the Cheektowaga Democratic Committee under Max’s leadership soon faded after that heady 2006 upset win.  Many rank and file Democrats who were part of that movement saw through the bulls**t and dropped off. Not Joan. She soldiered on and became a voice of discontent in that room. Never more so than 2010.

That year, a 30+ year incumbent State Senator named Bill Stachowski was running for yet another term in the legislature. Stachowski had it all… a good Polish name, a history of dispensing favors in his district, a backboned political organization culled and grown by his father, Stanley “Tickets” Stachowski.

Stachowski was also very disliked by the general populace, seen as aloof and mean. In 2008, after winning every two years with a campaign on auto pilot, he barely won re-election against the very popular retired detective Dennis Delano. 

Then here came a brash and young County Legislator named Tim Kennedy, ready to challenge Stachowski.

Max was no big friend of the Stachowski clan, yet clung steadfastly to the career politician.  At a Cheekdems executive committee meeting, Joan told Frank “Go to Tops and listen to the people. Stack is dead man walking. The people don’t like him. If we stick with him we will have a loser. Let’s all chip in tonight, buy this guy and gold watch and send him to Florida!”

Max would have none of it. “There will be discipline in this party! In this committee we take the direction of the Chair and we’re going with Stack and that’s the final word.”

So much for Jeffersonian Democracy.   

“Discipline my ass”, Joan muttered as she left that meeting. The next day she called me (I was literally just moving to the City of Buffalo and had resigned as Executive Vice Chair of the Cheekdems, but the committee kept me on as “ex officio” in honor of my service), and said a lot of committee people were disgusted and wanted to support Tim Kennedy. What could we do to help?

I suggested we organize them and put them to work. And we did. She and I contacted literally dozens of committeemen and others who wanted to get on board the Kennedy for Senate team. Some had to be discreet about their involvement, fearing reprisals. Others were in full throated support. But Joan and I were blown away at the numbers of operatives who were all too eager to join our team.

She devoted her entire summer of 2010 to the Kennedy campaign. Working. Calling. Walking. Organizing. Her hard work, and that of many others, paid off. Come primary night Kennedy was a big winner over an atrophied career politician with the long Polish name. Kennedy had won big in Cheektowaga and it was in no small part to the efforts of Joan Adams.

Kennedy went on to win that senate seat in November, 2010. Today Tim Kennedy still serves as Senator and as a member of the majority conference serves as Chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. Got a big transportation project funded by New York State coming your way anytime soon? You might want to quietly thank Joan. The genesis of that office was in part from her kitchen table and her phone nearby.

In recent years Joan slowed down as health issues consumed her life. She would call me from time to time, to vent about this and that in Cheektowaga Democratic politics or what went down at the last Town Board meeting. I never had the heart to tell her I really didn’t care anymore. I had turned the page on my Cheektowaga life when I moved into the city.  And after 2013 I retired altogether from my political engagement, choosing to devote my time to other pursuits. Yet I would listen, and commiserate. And advise as best as I knew how.

But Joan never stopped caring. In her final years she still focused on issues within her community, only topped by her devotion to her family, especially her grandchildren who she spoke of all the time.