Tonawanda News — Russ Rizzo has been a part of the local political scene for 14 years, capped off with his selection in early January to lead the North Tonawanda Common Council.
The retired business owner will now serve double duty as First Ward Alderman and council president, a position he was chosen to by his peers after former councilman Rich Andres was elected to represent the Eighth District of the Niagara County Legislature.
Rizzo, 80, has taken an about-face from his time as a lifelong Democrat, a change he made in 2006 and a decision he said was spurred after receiving unwanted mandates from the former North Tonawanda Democratic Committee.
He’s now a registered Independent who has caucused with the nearly all-Republican council and Mayor Rob Ortt.
But while Rizzo once voted against Ortt’s appointment as city treasurer, he now has established himself as one of the mayor’s biggest backers, crediting the youth and vision of the 34-year-old and the cooperation among the one-party council with launching a turnaround in a city that like much of Western New York has endured a decades-long period of economic stagnation.
“Rob has turned this city around and it has become a destination,” he said, in a recent interview. “He’s the youngest mayor we’ve ever had. He has new ideas. And it’s not just because of Rob. The council has worked together, we agree with many of the things he wants to do and we’re willing to help get it done.”
Rizzo said he’s seen a change from his first eight years as an alderman, when the Democrats held a 4-1 edge over the Republicans from 2000 to 2008. He jumped to the legislature for a two-year term before returning to the council in 2010.
And while Democrats have often criticized the stranglehold the Republicans have had in North Tonawanda government during the last three elections cycles, Rizzo said that dominance is what has moved the city forward.
He said during the last four years he’s experienced a swing in momentum in the Lumber City, where Webster Street has started a buzz, summer concerts have returned and where a master plan to highlight the municipality’s waterfront currently is centered around Gratwick Riverside Park.
And while the city must still contend with a slumping populace, that optimism is now veering toward the future, according to Rizzo.
“People can see the change, we have experience on the council we’ve never had before,” he said. “I’m excited about that and I’m excited and humbled that my colleagues have voted me to be their leader. We’re going to keep the city going in the right direction.”
Ortt’s State of the City, planned for Feb. 5, is expected to highlight some of those sentiments, including plans to revive Oliver Street. Rizzo himself noted his attention will remain fixated on Gratwick Park and a second phase of a project addressing Witmer Road flooding.
Ortt recently acknowledged Rizzo’s support, stating he never held the “no vote” against him, calling him a “gentleman” and noting his attention to detail.
“Every since that vote, over the years, he’s been a very big supporter of mine,” Ortt said. “He brings a lot of experience and he’s a natural fit for the presidency.”
Rizzo, who has never lost an election, said his success in part is rooted in his time running Rizzo and Ricotta Office Products, with two former locations in Niagara Falls and the City of Tonawanda, adding that it taught him the benefits of customer service.
“I honestly believe the reason I’ve won every one of those is elections is the service I give to my constituents,” he said. “Because I did that for 20 years with my business. It wasn’t something I had to do, it was something I want to do.”