For nearly three decades, Bernie Kraft has been a fixture on the county legislature.
But after Dec. 31, 2009, he won’t be anymore.
Kraft has decided not to run for reelection to the second district seat in November for health reasons. He has been in and out of the hospital with a leg infection and heart troubles since the beginning of May.
“My doctors tell me I don’t have the stamina for it anymore,” he said. “They said I shouldn’t put myself through another campaign. So it’s with great sorrow that I tell people I’m not running again.”
Longtime public servant
This will be the first time Kraft’s name hasn’t been on the ballot in the second district since 1981, when he lost the election to incumbent Caryl Frawley. That run came after an unsuccessful bid for the Clay town board in 1975.
Kraft said he first decided to run for office when the government started to take more and more of his money.
“I worked for a number of years, and I was starting to make some money,” he said. “I wanted to use that money to take care of my family. But every time I started to move up, the government wanted more and more from me. So I started to frequent the places where government was exercised. Eventually I saw a door open and an opportunity to get become more involved.”
Though he lost in 1981, Kraft ran again two years later, defeating Ed Szczesniak for the legislature seat. He has since mounted 12 successful campaigns.
Even this time, though he hasn’t been actively campaigning, Kraft, 71, believes people would still have elected him to the legislature.
“In order to get on the ballot, you have to collect 255 signatures,” he said. “I had nothing to do with it because I’ve been in the hospital, but my friends and supporters have been out there, and they collected 700 signatures to support my candidacy for reelection. It’s just awesome.”
Kraft is heartbroken that he will no longer be able to serve for the community he loves.
“I’m so sad,” he said. “I had wanted to always be in office. I’m so sad that I won’t be a part of it anymore. The legislature is in my mind, it’s in my body, it’s in my soul, but most of all, it’s in my heart.”
But Kraft will complete his current term, meaning he’ll be around to help County Executive Joanie Mahoney and the legislature put together one more budget, something on which he’s widely considered to be an expert.
“I made it my work to know more about it than anybody else,” he said. “I used my 46 years of experience in the insurance industry to try to reduce that budget and to make it more manageable for my community.”
And he believes he was successful in that endeavor.
“Everyone will tell you that the county budget is less today as a result of my efforts than it would be if I wasn’t there,” he said.
A family man
While the legislature is near and dear to his heart, nothing is more important to Kraft than his family, his ?? children and wife of 25 years, Eileen.
“I call her Saint Eileen,” Kraft said.
The nickname was first coined seven years ago, when Kraft had heart surgery in Rochester. He was on a ventilator for 10 days after the surgery, and his wife was by his side every day. At night, she went back and forth from Kraft’s son’s house to a hotel, essentially living out of her trunk.
“I wanted to tell her how much I loved her and how much I appreciated her being there, but I had a tube down my throat and I couldn’t talk,” Kraft said. “So I got the idea that I was going to write it down.”
Kraft said he took a pad and wrote the only thing he could think of to express all of his feelings of love and appreciation: “Saint Eileen.”
“She is my saint,” he said. “I’m so lucky to have her.”
The legacy he leaves
It’s with his loved ones in mind that Kraft reflects on his life.
“I have a visual image of my life as a mountain,” he said. “I see myself having spent all of this time climbing that mountain. I’ve worked and played and raised a family on that mountain. Now, for the first time, I’ve stepped off the mountain, and I’m resting in the meadow below, and it’s very peaceful. I’m looking at the mountain, and it’s full of lights. I come to realize that those lights are my many, many friends, the people I love, and I look at all of those lights, and I realize that I’m a very lucky man.”
In addition to his many friends and loved ones, Kraft also believes he leaves a legacy of impassioned service to his community. In order to illustrate that legacy, Kraft shared a story.
“There’s a lady by the name of Anita Letgab, who’s the branch manager at the Chase Bank on Route 57,” he said. “I have some accounts there, and so I’d talk to her once or twice a year — nothing social, just business stuff. One day, I was in the bank and she called me over and asked if I was still on the legislature, and I said yes. She said, and this is a direct quote, ‘We all know you’re down there fighting for us.’
“That was the best reward I ever got.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.