Today, I am sharing the stories of both town justice candidates: Republican candidate Mark Frentzel, 62, and Democratic candidate Eric Soehnlein, 33.
I interviewed them separately but, because the election is coming up soon, I am presenting them together. Please remember to vote on Tuesday, November 7th.
Mark: I grew up in Buffalo. My dad worked for the steel plant (Republic Steel), and my mom worked for the Buffalo Board of Education. She was one of the first teacher aides. I have an older brother and a younger sister. My mom, Rose, is still alive. She is 90 years old. My dad, Ernest, passed away when I was 21. I’ve worked since I was 12 years old, as a paperboy for The Buffalo News. My first real job was a summertime job at Republic Steel. So I learned the value of hard work. I always remember the guys telling me, stay in school. I did. I started at Erie Community College in criminal justice.
I wanted to become a police officer. We owned a double in Buffalo and rented the lower flat out to a police officer and his family. I remember him telling me the stories of what he did, and I found that interesting. So I graduated from Erie Community College and then went on to Buff State. And, after I was at Buff State for a year, my father passed away. That was the same year that I went hitchhiking for two months. I went from Buffalo all the way down to Key West, all the way across the south to New Orleans and then to Texas. I hitchhiked up to Colorado. I went to New Mexico, Arizona, and eventually to California. I went with my high school buddy, a close friend of mine. I was amazed at the kindness of the people that picked us up. To think of it, to pick up two men 21 years old hitchhiking, you have to have a certain level of confidence and kindness to do so. I then hitchhiked all of the way to Vancouver, Canada. The remaining part was through the provinces of Canada to Toronto and back home. It was a great trip. And we never stayed in a hotel. We camped and used our sleeping bags. We found a few youth hostels.
Eric: I am a husband and a father, and my wife Sara Niland and I moved to Grand Island to start our family. We moved here in 2013. By day, I am a trial lawyer. I primarily do federal white collar criminal work, and I also do a lot of what people would consider to be regulatory enforcement work, which is litigating against the SEC, the FTC, the CFPB (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau). I also try civil and criminal cases in state court. I am an honors graduate of Columbia Law School. The only focus that I’ve had in my professional life has been the law and the application of the law.
What motivated you to become a lawyer?
Mark: When I came back, I had taken several civil service tests for police departments, and I was offered a job with the Campus Police at UB. I took the job and went to the police academy. While working there, I went back to school and got my bachelor’s degree and, when I worked at the police department, they actually had a set of law books in one of the conference rooms. I used to enjoy reading those books because, as a police officer, my only focus had been the criminal law aspect of everything. But you can see there’s a lot of law. There are many different aspects to the practice of law. So I decided, once I graduated, I was going to apply for law school. Right before I was going to law school, I was offered a job with the Buffalo Police Department. I had to make a decision on whether to go to law school or take a job with the Buffalo Police Department. So I got a one-year deferment on taking the job to see how law school would shake out. After one year of law school, I decided to stay in law school.
I worked for the campus police for five years and then went to law school.
Eric: The book To Kill a Mockingbird (by Harper Lee). I wanted to be Atticus Finch. In fact, there’s a quote from that book about what real courage is. It’s not a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re beat before you start but you start anyway and you see the process through to the end. He’s telling Jem that’s the reason why he sent him over to work with the woman with the opioid addiction (Mrs. Dubose). That’s what has always been the goal. It’s a job I love because I usually help people when they are facing serious consequences, and I am often the last resort for them. In doing my job, I get to make sure that the government is fair and meets its burden of proof, and I get to use my creativity and my hard work to help someone who is really in need.
What do you enjoy most about being an attorney?
Mark: I really enjoyed law school because it allowed me to apply my criminal justice background to the legal aspect. While I was going to law school, I worked part time with Joseph Galownia, who was a local attorney in Elma, who eventually became a state supreme court judge. The work the work that he did there is the work that I do here. I don’t have corporate clients. I don’t have what I would call high end clients. It’s more of a people practice of law for everyday problems that people have. I’ll do wills, I’ll do their house closings, I help them out with the estate if a loved one passes away. So it’s a very personal approach to the law. I see people every day. I have an interaction with people every day.
Eric: I love my job. There is nothing else better suited for me than what I do. I love being in court. I love everything about it. I don’t think that I could be one of those transactional guys who is back at the office. The courtroom is where I live.
It developed over time. I knew very early in college that law school was what I was interested in. From first year of law school on, I knew that I wanted to be a trial lawyer, not just a litigator but someone who was actually in the courtroom.
Tell me what you do outside of work.
Mark: I have three kids with wife, Pattie. Three boys. I have two grandchildren and one is a girl. The first girl in our family so it’s been fun. It’s different. I like being a grandfather. I’m getting a chance to be a dad all over again, with a lot more experience. I work a lot. I’m here on the weekends. Up until recently, I played softball in the Grand Island recreation leagues. I still play volleyball. I’m on a couple of community groups. I’m a member of the Moose here, the Lions Club, and I’m on the Young Life Golf Committee. My one son was very active in Young Life when he was in high school and Kevin K , when he asked me to help and be a member of that committee, I was more than happy to. I think that I’ve been doing that for about seven years. We’ve raised a lot of money for the kids to go to the camps.
Eric: Job number one is being dad. My son, Jack, is two and half. He was the biggest game changer. I’ve completely reshaped my schedule and the way I work and my entire life to maximize the amount of time that I get to spend being a dad. I like everything about it. I love watching him learn. I love to play games with him. I love watching him interact with new things, like taking him to the science museum or the aquarium or any new place. I can’t spend enough time with him. When he was born, my father told me that the key to being a good dad was time and undivided attention, and I’m going to try to do my best to give him as much of that as I can.
I’m also a pretty avid runner. I run every day. I race competitively, even though I’m getting old. The thing that I like about running is that every day, you’re trying to get better. It’s a chance for self-improvement each and every day. The project is never done, but there is still a reason to go and do it the next day. I’ll do everything from a mile to a marathon. I won 5K on Saturday morning in Delaware Park. A couple weeks ago, I was second at a 10K up in Canada. Some days, it feels effortless and, some days, every step is a challenge. It’s always worth the effort.
I also a pretty avid jazz musician. I play several instruments. I have played jazz guitar for a very long time. I used to take lessons from some really incredible players, including some professors at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester and the Berkeley School of Music in Boston. I used to play a lot of gigs when I was younger. That’s fallen to the wayside because of my trial calendar but now my son really likes music. So teaching him some pretty basic things is a fun way to connect with him.
What made you decide to run for town justice?
Mark: I’ve been an attorney for 32 years. I’ve been judge for twelve years.
When I graduated from law school, and having worked in a small local practice, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I’ve had my own practice for almost the entire length of time. When I graduated from law school, I knew that it would be extremely difficult to hang a shingle out and say here I am. Give me your business. I had bills to pay and whatnot. So what I did was that I met with Bud Pritchard, who had a law practice here on Grand Island, and he was the Grand Island Town Justice. I started working for him and having my own practice in his office as well. At the same time, I still worked with the campus police full time. Believe it or not, I worked 3 to 11 at the campus police. And my days off were Monday and Tuesday. So I would come to office all day on Monday and all day on Tuesday and on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, I would work from eight o’clock to almost three o’clock and then went to job at the campus police. Worked 3 to 11 on Saturday and Sunday. My five days were from Wednesday to Sunday. So I worked about 70 hours a week. I did it for five years.
I had ten years of police experience and twenty as a practicing attorney, and I regularly appeared in Grand Island Town Court and all of the other town courts, and with those two levels of experience and some mentoring from Judge Pritchard, when the opportunity came to run, I believed that I could make a difference for Grand Island and I could do a good job. I’ve done all of those cases that the town court does. I’ve represented people in all of those circumstances.
Eric: I wanted to improve the town for my son, in particular. My wife and I were a little surprised at some of the crime activity on the island. When I did some investigating, I learned that our courts really weren’t doing everything that I thought that they should be to try and combat those issues. That got me out the door. My hope in running was that we’d start a conversation about what our court system was and what it should be. It seems like that’s working. At the town court level, I think that the judge has to be fair minded but also compassionate. It’s not enough to simply put someone from our town into the court system, even if it’s a therapeutic court that we’re talking about. The town court judge has the ability of getting know the people who come before him but he also knows those people’s community, and he should be working closely within that community to give people an opportunity to right their wrongs and also to improve themselves.
I think that a town court judge has to be actively engaged in cases that come before him that are dealing with substance abuse offenders and people with mental illness. Those types of offenders have a better chance of improving and not reoffending when they have a treatment plan that works within the framework of their specific circumstances. In other words, there’s no one size fits all solution. But what our town needs is someone who is not only competent but also compassionate and willing to invest the time on a case-by-case basis to address the specific issues of each offender.
What is your vision for Grand Island?
Mark: As a resident of Grand Island, I moved here 25 years ago because of the green spaces and the people I got to know from working here. It was a nice community. It reminded me a lot of south Buffalo because everyone knows everybody and it’s a friendly town. It really is. I’d like to see that continue.
Eric: I’d like to see a community where we don’t have the divisions that we seem to have right now. There’s no difference between an old islander and a new islander, a Republican or a Democrat or even a north sider vs. a south sider. I feel, in some ways, we are a town that has artificial divisions, and giving credence to those divisions is keeping us from working together. We need to start understanding that we are all on Team Grand Island. We all have an opportunity to make our town a better and more caring place.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
Mark: As a perspective from being a judge, I’ve always maintained integrity, fairness, and impartiality. Those aren’t just words. I live by that. I think that, if you ask anyone who has appeared in front of me, either as a defendant or a lawyer, they would support that statement.
Eric: I’m really happy that my wife and I moved to Grand Island, and I’m very pleased with having run for office. The campaign process has been an opportunity to get to know so many wonderful people who care about our town. As someone who is raising a family here, it means a lot to me to know that there are so many thoughtful and engaging people in our town, who are committed to making it better.