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Talk Back

It’s not often we get a chance to talk about the people and things we encounter in a more relaxed format, so to speak. In our new column, “Talk back …” our writers will have space to discuss what’s on their mind.

By Charles Sercombe

This past election got me to thinking of the very first election I covered for the former Citizen newspaper and my first introduction to one of the city’s most canny and crafty (and I mean that in a good way) politicians.

I’m talking about Chester Wozniak. Chet’s no longer with us, having died just last year at the age of 87. I hope his sons, Bob and Paul, Chet’s sons, don’t mind me talking about their dad. Up front, I having nothing but respect for Chet, and I credit him for giving me a real-life schooling of politics, campaigning and the art of analyzing voting data.

Chet took me around to all the campaign headquarters in town and just outside the Hamtramck boundary. What a hoot and what a bunch of characters I ran into.

I’m not nearly the wizard Chet was in dissecting voting trends, precinct-by-precinct and whatever else he used to chart his way through the battlegrounds of elections. Back then, Hamtramck had 36 precincts. Today we have seven.

Chet would look at those numbers and was able to divine all sorts of abstract information, He could almost tell who voted for whom and could predict which candidates would do well in each precinct.

I wish I could still pick up the phone and ask Chet what gives.

He made my job far easier.

But more than that, he made me realize you can never commit yourself emotionally to any campaign. I don’t mean you can’t be personally passionate about a candidate or a cause. For me, that would have been Robert Kennedy when I was kid as well as George McGovern. Don’t bother getting too close to any candidate Chet would say because it’s more than likely you will eventually be on the losing side.

Chet was a lot smarter than me when it came to politics (and probably a lot of other things). He knew it’s all about numbers, who is running, their support, their opposition and who is likely to vote.

For some candidates, winning an election is a cruise because of their name. For others, it’s about angling your way in by a matter of who’s going to neutralize the other guy.

Chet enjoyed a long history of holding political office. He was a state representative, a county commissioner, and a state representative once again for one term in 1991-92.

That was an important victory for Chet in more than one way, but more on that in a moment.

Besides holding office, Chet was also an insurance agent, real estate agent and an investor. Chet was a busy guy with a lot of irons in the fire, and his business savvy paid off. Chet also had a good sense of humor. During his tenure in the state legislature during the 1950s, he was part of what was informally labeled “The Polish Mafia” – so called because there were a number of Polish-Americans in office at that time who tended to stick together.

Chet’s surprise comeback win to the state legislature in 1991 was pure Chet political acumen. That election was sort of up in the air and a number of so-so candidates vying for this district’s seat had the potential of cancelling each other out and allowed the outside chance for a Hamtramck candidate to come up from behind and win.

Chet saw that and seized upon the moment. By then he was in his 70s and largely long forgotten outside of Hamtramck. Hamtramck’s state Rep. district included larger portions outside the city — Highland Park and part of Detroit.

Chet, a white Polish guy, was running for an office long dominated by African-American candidates.
I rolled my eyes after hearing Chet say he had a chance.

But this was Chet and in his study of the voter/candidate breakdown, he insisted he could pull an out-of-nowhere victory.

Dang if the old guy wasn’t right. Chet –the assumed dark horse — strutted into victory. Even he knew it was a one term only thing once a stronger candidate emerged for the next election in two years.

He predicted his own loss in his re-election bid and took it in stride. No big deal.

But sly old Chet had something up his sleeve. You see, he needed those last two years to qualify for a state pension. Go ahead and be outraged. But remember, Chet won fair and square.

As much as I liked Chet, he did have a bad habit of choosing the wrong words. In his farewell speech to his colleagues in the state legislature, he thanked them for “making me rich.”

Oh, the press had a field day with that comment.

When I asked him to explain that comment, which he made on the floor of legislature and which was not broadcast, Chet insisted that the press didn’t include the rest of what he said.

“Thank you for making me rich … with friends.”

Those dot, dot, dots represent a dramatic pause.

I miss people like Chet. Maybe he was a bit of a scoundrel. But at least he was an honest one.

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