WEIGHING IN – An Amsterdam alderman has been charged with owning an illegal firearm, and there’s a part of me that wants to support him staying in office.
Part of me wants 4th Ward Alderman Stephen Gomula, a 49-year-old Republican, to remain because while, yes, he seems to have made some grave mistakes, banishing him to the sidelines will only serve to further stigmatize those experiencing mental health issues.
The problem is I just can’t reconcile the charges of having an illegal .223-caliber rifle and 30-round magazine.
Police reported discovering the illegal gun and ammo after a scary incident on Dec. 10. That day, Gomula was in a bad place, he told me. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder about two years ago following a nearly 20-year career in emergency services, Gomula said he has long been tormented by demons.
He’s been out of emergency services for several years, but the PTSD symptoms have been especially acute recently following a breakup with his former fiance about six months ago. The symptoms have been exacerbated by long nights this time of year and the holiday lights of the season – a reminder that this will be his first Christmas without his fiance.
“It’s been a bad couple of weeks,” said Gomula, who has openly shared that he receives professional mental health services. “The holidays are coming, the first holiday after my breakup, and just a lot of things. It all swirled in my head.”
On Dec. 10, Gomula went to his grandfather’s gravesite – a place where he said he goes to meditate – and considered self harm. He said he was carrying a legally owned and registered shotgun, not an illegal gun. The two felony counts of third-degree criminal possession of a weapon for allegedly having an assault weapon and a large capacity ammunition feeding device came Dec. 14.
Instead of harming himself at the cemetery, Gomula called a friend.
“Maybe I have some sort of filter left in my head, and something told me to stop and I did,” Gomula said.
He went to St. Mary’s for three days of treatment and says he’s in a much better place – he even attended Tuesday evening’s Amsterdam Common Council meeting. Members of the council have encouraged Gomula to resign, but they have refrained from taking any action to remove him from office — and Gomula remains resolute in his desire to stay on the council.
He should reconsider.
Without the illegal possession charges, I’d stand by Gomula completely. I’d embrace Gomula’s messaging about wanting to use this experience as an opportunity to reach others who are teetering toward their own breaking points.
“I’m not hiding from what I did. I plan on using it as a springboard going forward,” Gomula said. “I want to help others like me. I want to help other first responders, nurses, doctors. We’re in a tough spot, and people don’t realize it.”
I get that this messaging could be an attempt at self-preservation by a leader who refuses to resign, but I’d stand with him because forcing out an alderman dealing with a severe mental health situation furthers stigmatization. Casting Gomula aside reinforces the notion that people dealing with mental illness don’t deserve seats at the table. It also risks perpetuating a false, but commonly held, belief that mental health issues are somehow abnormal and less understandable or relatable than physical health issues.
If Gomula’s situation were solely about mental health and Gomula’s PTSD, I’d stand by the alderman, even though showing up with a gun to a public place such as a cemetery demonstrates a lack of judgment and points to Gomula’s potential as a threat to public safety. I’d argue that, as far as we know, the only person in danger was Gomula himself. What’s more, in the end, he made the right decision. He made the difficult decision. He called for help when he was most vulnerable. That should be commended as a sign of courage and held up as proof that Gomula is strong enough to let reason prevail.
But I can’t support Gomula’s alleged possession of an illegal rifle and magazine. Not only could these charges spell legal trouble that ultimately forces Gomula from his seat, the alleged presence of these deadly tools points to a concerning level of poor decision making that undercuts the powerful choice Gomula made at the cemetery.
Gomula says the investigation will tell the more complete picture about the weapons.
“When everything does come out, you will see that it isn’t as nefarious as it sounds,” he said.
But there’s no good reason for owning illegal weapons. And it hurts Gomula’s case that this isn’t the first time he’s had trouble with firearms. In 2003, he was charged with second-degree menacing after pulling out a gun and aiming it at another man during an argument. Gomula was a Montgomery County sheriff’s deputy at the time and displayed his service weapon while off duty before eventually lowering his weapon.
As a result of the incident, Gomula ultimately resigned and later pleaded guilty to the menacing charge and served 30 days in county jail.
The fact that Gomula might now be harboring illegal weapons two decades after this incident demonstrates a lack of growth and erodes confidence in his leadership.
And the residents of Amsterdam’s 4th Ward deserve an effective leader right now. After all, the ward was recently represented by Rodney Wojnar, who resigned in 2018 after he was charged – and eventually pleaded guilty to – patronizing a prostitute.
Still, my first instinct was to argue that Gomula remain an alderman. I want so badly to support him because of how open he is about his mental health. He has a record of speaking publicly about his own PTSD, and on social media he’s not shy about sharing personal details of his life. After this most recent incident and weapons charge, he wrote a post practically bearing his soul.
I want to encourage all of this. I want to encourage it not just for what allowing him to remain in office would do to remove stigma surrounding mental health, but I want to encourage it because we need leaders who are honest and open. Gomula’s case seems to stand in stark contrast against the bombshell New York Times investigation that dropped earlier this week revealing that Long Island Republican George Santos, who just won election to Congress, may have fabricated much of his resume, including about employment at Citigroup and Goldman Sachs and where he went to college.
When leaders lie and fictionalize foundational elements of their own biography, I worry that our democracy is heading toward a dark and unhappy ending. A degradation of trust eats away at our systems.
That’s why I’m refreshed by the fact that Gomula is an open book.
This situation doesn’t have to be the end of Gomula’s story in politics, but a new chapter must start. In the coming days, he should step aside from public life and focus on his own self-healing. He should dive into mental health advocacy as an unelected member of the community.
Then, if the investigation into the illegal weapons truly resolves as benignly as Gomula suggests it will, he can take up the charge there, too. He can run for office again, folding crackdowns on illegal weapons and the importance of red flag laws into a political platform that also emphasizes support for mental health services.
Gomula’s willingness to be honest is encouraging and shows the potential for a meaningful future as an elected leader – one equipped to address two of the most important issues of our time from personal experience.
But if Gomula is honest with himself, I think even he would agree that, for the time being, everyone would be better served by him stepping aside.
Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.