“We need jobs and they’re giving us a guy in a rubber goat mask,” Rob Bilson says to me over a steak sub at Viola’s, his second. “I’ve never seen such a misplaced set of priorities.”
Bilson, the charismatic ex-rock star running for the Niagara County Legislature’s 3rd District seat, has been scrolling through the latest tweets to explode onto Twitter about the mascot of the Niagara Falls curbside recycling program, “Totes McGoats.”
Bilson is doing a follow-up interview to my previous article, in which he lamented his opponent’s—and the Dyster Administration’s—failure to address environmental pollution by the behemoth Covanta trash incinerator on the western edge of LaSalle.
“I’m deadly serious about cleaning up our environment. There is a smokestack over there that is going to fill our kids’ air with the soot and particles from a million and a half tons of New York City’s trash. From the people holding power, though, we get a guy in a cheap, sweaty goat mask telling kids to make sure they recycle their empty pop bottles.”
Totes McGoats is apparently the brainchild of the Dyster Administration, not part of the county government’s solid waste management efforts; is it fair to blame or praise Legislator Mark Grozio?
“My opponent and Mayor Dyster have stood shoulder-to-shoulder on everything when it comes to LaSalle, from the city’s plans for Jayne Park on Cayuga Island to not actively fighting Covanta’s expansion.”
“Now, they trot out Totes McGoats, and we’re supposed to look at them as these green, progressive friends of the earth,” Bilson says.
Bilson hands me a folder, marked “GROZIO LEGISLATION.”
“That’s what Mark Grozio has done over the past two years,” Bilson tells me. Inside are a dozen legislative resolutions.
“Not one deals with LaSalle,” Bilson adds.
There is resolution seeking to censure Dick Updegrove, the leader of the Republican bloc in the County Legislature, over the majority leader’s interpretation of the state statute providing casino revenue to Niagara County.
Another demands county employees be barred from attending meetings of the Majority Caucus, while another tries to change the time of the public comment portion of county meetings.
Another reads, “Resolution Supporting the Initiative for New York State to Gift the Nikola Tesla Statue to Niagara Falls” its title reads.
“There are people in LaSalle who can’t find jobs, and Mark Grozio is using his time in county government to bring surplus Hungarian statues to our dying city,” Bilson says.
I ask him why he keeps bringing up jobs.
“A couple years ago, when Mark Grozio was going around asking for our votes, I was furloughed and then the company shut down,” Bilson tells me. “It was a rough time—I even had to enter into a long-term structured payment plan for my mortgage and bills. I have never looked to my government to take care of me, but then again, I liked to think they at least wanted to give people like me a fighting chance.”
Since then, Bilson adds, he has managed to move up into the leadership of a company that, ironically, deals with consolidating consumer debt—a burden he himself had to deal with.
Bilson advocates for a more cooperative relationship with the Legislature’s Republican majority—which, with so few races in play, will most certainly continue for at least two more years.
He is not afraid to criticize them as well.
“The relationship between the Niagara Falls’ guys and the rest of that Legislature is toxic,” he says. “Mark Grozio didn’t do that by himself. But in two years, he only managed to produce a resolution every two months—and half the resolutions he put in were partisan attacks while the other half were feel-good bull---.”
I ask what Grozio could have done differently.
“Last week, all the Niagara Falls legislators went to a staged forum on the [Niagara County Industrial Development Agency],” he says. “It was put on by unions, totally one-sided. There were some good points made, but basically it was all for show. That agenda was Dead on Arrival.”
I point out that certainly, as a union business manager, Grozio has some unique perspective on the IDA, and its role going forward.
“Then why didn’t he ever submit a resolution about that?” Bilson asks. “Twelve resolutions, and he’s asking the state for a statue. Not once did he actually try to use his office to reform the IDA.”
How would Bilson reform the IDA, I ask.
“I’d look at actual economic data. They’re out there giving tax breaks to hotels at the behest of Mayor Dyster, but they’re not doing much for small business,” Bilson tells me.
His solution, he says, is to create a permanent small-business seat on the IDA.
“There are already seats set aside for education, for unions, even for the NAACP,” Bilson says. “In New York state, 3.9 million people are employed by small businesses. That’s over half of the state’s private workforce. And the people creating those jobs aren’t guaranteed a seat at the table.”
Bilson goes on to point out that, with Niagara Falls population estimates below 50,000, the city will no longer be eligible for much of the federal and state aid is relies on.
“What are we doing to grow our private sector? Government handouts aren’t going to keep us afloat much longer,” he says. “What is our county government doing to create jobs here in Niagara Falls? What is our legislator doing to create jobs in LaSalle?” A dozen resolutions. A statue. Where are the jobs going to come from? I’m surprised Mark Grozio hasn’t asked for a statue of Totes McGoats yet.”
From there, Bilson and I have a free-ranging conversation about his musical roots. When I last interviewed him, he played portions of a couple old Seven Day Faith tracks for me, as well as a country song he plays with his current band, Ransomville. Now, he hands me a second, thicker folder.
“That’s who I used to be,” he says with a smile. I open the folder and find a teenage boy-crush magazine, J-14.
There it is, on page 97: “Seven Day Faith: Hot New Band Plans World Domination.” A younger, spikey-haired Bilson stares out at me.
Tucked inside along with the magazine is the May 2004 Billboard charts, where the band’s self-titled EP was no. 1.
“Those were great times, and I still love making great music,” Bilson said. “But I’ve got a great family. I’ve got some beautiful kids and a loving wife, and I’ve worked hard to overcome challenges—just like a lot of people. I’ve had to get my financial life in order. It’s hard to do that as a rock-and-roller, unless you’re Springsteen.”
I ask him if that’s his goal, to be The Boss.
“We’ve had too many bosses around here, don’t you think? I want to work for my neighbors, because they’ve been through the same challenges I have. We’re all just trying to do the right thing, to stay ahead of our bills, to take care of our kids, to put some money away so they can go to college. It would be nice to think the people we elected weren’t wasting their time on vanity projects like moving surplus statues around.”
“I’ll be knocking on doors and trying to talk to as many people in LaSalle as I can,” he tells me. “There are 14,000 people in this district, and each one of them has a story, has had challenges—has challenges—and I want them to know that I’m just like them, that I’m on their side.”