Today's candidate interview is with Jennifer Baney, Republican Party candidate for Grand Island’s Town Council. Jennifer, age 37, is running for one of two open seats on the Town Council. The incumbents, Ray Billica and Chris Aronica, have chosen not to run for re-election. The election will be held on November 7th.
Tell me about you.
I grew up in Wheatfield, in the hamlet of Bergholz. My dad worked for Harrison Radiator, which is now Delphi, and my mom taught kindergarten. Their names are Ronald and Sherryl. From my earliest recollection, I always wanted to be a teacher. In middle school, we were required to share our professional aspirations, and one teacher actually told those of us who were planning on becoming teachers to reconsider, as, by the time we graduated, all teachers would be replaced by robots. I would love to run into him again someday.
Fortunately, I did not heed his advice. I went on and got a degree in education and psychology from Houghton College. I actually secured a teaching position before I graduated. I spent the final week of my senior year teaching, and I had to take my exams at night and take a day off of teaching to graduate. I taught middle school English/Language Arts. There were no robots in the building whatsoever. That position led to a one year long sub position in North Tonawanda, which led to my ultimate career goal, which was nearly a decade as a tenured teacher in the Williamsville School District.
I met my husband, Brian, at Houghton, and we describe our 20s as our busy years. We were both teaching. Brian was teaching physical education and coaching wrestling, and we were both working on our master’s degrees. We were never home, so we decided to live in a trailer to pay off all of our school debt and to cash flow (pay cash for) our master’s degrees. It was one of the best choices we ever made. I earned my master’s degree from UB in education and literacy. I also spent a lot of time during those years involved in youth mentorship, working with high schoolers on evenings and weekends. It was one of the most demanding, yet rewarding, endeavors I have ever undertaken. To this day, those students who are now adults are very much part of our lives. We were busy but, being married at 23 and not having children afforded us some unique opportunities.
Could you describe some of those opportunities?
In 2008, we spent a portion of our summer in Swaziland, Africa. We were there for about two and a half weeks. At the time, Swaziland was believed to be the country with the highest HIV/AIDS rate in Africa. We showed up and learned that a whole generation was missing. Grandparents were raising their grandchildren and, when grandparents weren’t present, siblings were raising each other. We partnered with a man from Tonawanda to provide educational programming and hospital visitation, and we even prepared a retreat for women. He was working with an organization. We went through our church, Kenmore Alliance.
That trip was significant in the sense that it truly helped to mold my attitude toward service. So here I was at 25, having met my career goals and not sure what to do next. My principal sat me down and asked if I wanted to get on an administrative track, starting to learn about degree programs and go to some dinners regarding school administration. What I told him shocked him. That, within a few years I would be stepping back from education for quite some time to raise my children. He didn’t believe me until I turned 30, was pregnant with my first son, Simeon, and told him that I would not be returning.
What was it like to have a young family and to choose to be a stay-at-home mom?
It’s a very uncommon decision to make when you teach in Williamsville, but it was the right decision for us. Early motherhood was far from an easy journey for me. When Simeon turned one, I became very ill. My body stopped clearing itself of lactic acid, which resulted in muscle fatigue and even the inability to care for my son. My parents came to help me nearly every single day. I was passed from doctor to doctor until I was sent to Dr. Brass. He‘s an infectious disease specialist and often considered the Dr. House of Buffalo, the man who takes the cases when no other doctors know what to do. We examined everything from a mitochondrial disorder to an auto immune disease. I even went for genetic testing. Amazingly, a combination of his treatment and naturopathic treatment, including diet and vitamin supplement treatments very specific to my symptoms over a course of six months, led to a full recovery. Thankfully, I was even able to have another child, Titus Joshua, who was born in June of 2015. Simeon was born on 11/11/11.
Once you recovered, how did you get involved in your community?
This experience strengthened our marriage, and it helped me to focus on living every day with intention. So here I was, a mom with a one year old and ton of flexibility in my schedule. I got involved in two large moms’ groups, one of which I was the finance coordinator for. As my son got older, I was able to serve on his school board.
This past summer, I was asked to serve as the site administrator for a large youth camp. I committed to work at this camp if we could serve as a family. Brian headed up security and the boys were along for the ride. We feel that the best way to teach service is to model it for our boys. Additionally, next week, I am serving as chairperson of a large college fair coming to Buffalo. I was asked to fill this role to increase attendance and, so far, things are looking very promising.
There are many people who could teach full time and parent well at the same time. I couldn’t do both well at the same time. Plus, if elected, I committed very early on to not pursuing or accepting any employment during those four years. Our town deserves it.
When did you move to Grand Island and what do you think of the town?
We moved to Grand Island in 2009. We paid off our debt and, with the goal of wanting to stay at home, we wanted to find a community with a good school system, convenient location to our jobs, and a bit of open space. My husband always lived in rural areas growing up, so green space was a bit of a requirement for him. Grand Island was affordable in a way that other towns in Erie county weren’t, and we’re never leaving.
Grand Island is our home. I love the small town feel of it, having grown up in Bergholz. I like the fact that the school district has a strong emphasis on both character and achievement, as well as our proximity to nature. I can see Canada from my bedroom window, and that’s pretty fantastic. I’ve been known to make welcome packets for friends that I convinced to move to the island.
What made you decide to run for Town Council?
Unlike many, I did not pursue politics. Politics pursued me. My oldest son is ambitious and asked to go meet with our supervisor in the fall of 2016. He shared his four-year-old vision for the island, and the staff there was incredibly kind. This led to my increased involvement in Island happenings, which ultimately led to me speaking at a town board meeting about leadership. At the end of the meeting, Councilman Ray Billica came to find me and asked if we could talk. I was terrified. I had no idea of what I did but was glad to hear that he was not angry. He was direct in that he wanted to speak to me about pursuing a council position that he would be vacating and wanted to chat about both my skill set and willingness to do so.
Over the next month or so, he and I spent a lot of time talking. I asked the poor man hundreds of questions. I gave him a campaign bracelet, and until November 7th, no one will see him out in public without it on. In the end, I committed to pursuing the position, as the Baneys are not ones to squander opportunities. I committed to interviewing for endorsements and am proud to say that I received every party endorsement that I pursued. In some cases, my first time meeting those interviewing me was at a candidacy announcement meeting or an interview. Say what you will about political parties, but when someone not affiliated with a party can walk in, interview, and earn the endorsement, it’s noteworthy.
Tell me about your experience with the campaign process.
I’m somewhat of a realist. So I did not go into the process blindly. There have been hurtful things said or insinuated about me but, thankfully, I do have a pretty thick skin. I just don’t respond, and I often find myself asking the question, “How do good leaders handle adversity?” Then I would say, in my view, leadership, the majority of the time, is just service. Period. Most of the time, it’s not glamorous, and a lot of the time, if you’re doing your job well, no one will notice. I love this town, and I want to do my part to make sure the leaders of it are people of integrity with high moral character.
What is your vision for the town?
It’s really four pillars. My first pillar focuses on board civility. That will occur when the town demands it. It is not an unreasonable request. Surely, every one of us has had jobs, where we do not agree with people, yet are required to work collaboratively with them and not slander or belittle them in public or on social media.
There is guilt on both sides in this area, and it only hurts our town. All I can control is my 20 percent of a five-person board, but the town can control board civility in who they elect and in their communications to the town board on their behavior and actions.
My second pillar has to do with collaboration between the town board and our varied educational entities. With our schools being such a large part of our community, to me it’s a good idea that someone on the board should have a background in education. The better our district and our town work together, the more favorable results there will be for our citizens.
My third pillar has to do with citizen engagement. One can probably sense by now, I don’t run in political circles. In fact, if I had good friends or family members serving on the board, I wouldn’t pursue a position. Our job as council members is not to just provide guidance and make decisions, but to reach as many citizens as possible for their feedback and guidance. I know a great many people who excel in their workplace and give their volunteer time to worthy organizations, yet are not involved in town politics. I’d like to use my connections and relationships to see that change to benefit our town.
My fourth pillar is fiscal prudence. In our home, I manage the budget and have done so in a way that allows us to live on one income. I believe that, as a town, we can have nice things, but that we should access grants and be creative to do so. I believe that board members must trust our town employees in their area of expertise when we craft budgets or make financial decisions. In terms of issues, they change. We can discuss the current issues at the forum, but the issues before us in two years will be entirely different. That said, integrity and a strong moral compass should be considered when determining who to vote for.
I really want to win. I love collaborating with Pete Marston. We’ve approached this as a team from the beginning, being humble enough to admit our weaknesses and get feedback from each other. The feedback from within the town on this approach has been amazing. But, at the end of the day, if I were to lose, I will not be shaken. My identity is not found in a position. My faith, my character, and the support of my family will propel me forward, regardless of the outcome. But there’s nothing that I’d be more excited about or humbled by than the opportunity to serve this town for the next four years.
Coming tomorrow: an interview with Town Council candidate Celia Spacone.