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60th Minutes

The race for the 60th State Senate District is beginning to resemble a dream sequence in an episode of Fantasy Island: There are lots of familiar faces, but the ground keeps shifting, the mood is dark and conspiratorial, and all the guest stars seem to be looking for a Ricardo Montalban to cut through the fog of sleep and resolve the conflicts.

That’s not us, folks. But here’s a primer on the characters and the latest twists:


• First, let’s examine the incumbent. Mark Grisanti ran a primary against fellow Democrat Antoine Thompson in 2008, lost, and returned in 2010 to challenge Thompson in the general election on the Republican and Conservative lines. He beat Thompson, not so much because he had the Conservative line, as Conservatives like to suggest, but because Democrats who were tired of Thompson voted for Grisanti on whichever of those two lines felt less odious to them. Mostly they voted on the Republican line.

• Immediately after his razor-thin victory over Thompson, there was much speculation that Grisanti might switch back to the Democratic Party. The speculation intensified last summer, after he joined three other breakaway Republicans in voting to legalize same-sex marriage in New York State, earning the reproach of state and local Conservatives, especially, and Republicans, too, though local Republicans muted their criticism at the insistence of the state party, because protecting Grisanti is considered a key to the GOP retaining control of the Senate.

• Still, Grisanti is losing traction. Last week, attorney Ralph Lorigo, chairman of the Erie County Conservative Party, announced that the Conservatives would abandon Grisanti and endorse Chuck Swanick, a former Erie County legislator, in the 60th District race. Swanick, a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned Democrat, has been largely absent from politics for six years; he recently retired from his job as a railroad engineer; he was once a close ally of Joel Giambra, Grisanti’s chief political sponsor, and remains close to former Erie County Democratic chairman Steve Pigeon, a guy whose influence in the State Senate diminished with the departure of Pedro Espada and who might be looking for a way back in.

Is Swanick looking for a comeback? Or is he holding a spot on that Conservative line for someone else? Maybe Swanick is serious. Maybe he’s doing a friend a favor and hopes for something, perhaps a job, in return.

• Waiting in the wings, playing the good soldier, is Jack Quinn III, who relinquished his Assembly seat to run for State Senate against Democrat Tim Kennedy. Kennedy won, and Quinn professes to be happy in private life and uninterested in the race so long as Grisanti is the GOP’s guy, but those are the demurrals of a candidate. (“If drafted, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve…”) Everybody likes Quinn, whose political base is the Southtowns, into which the proposed new 60th District has been extended by Senate Republicans, in an attempt to make a seat Grisanti might win, despite the insuperable Democratic enrollment advantage. And there have been several meetings among local GOP leaders focused on replacing Grisanti with a bona fide Republican.

• Grisanti countered Swanick’s endorsement this week by announcing he’d won the support of the state Independence Party. Grisanti’s campaign committee donated $13,500 to the Niagara County Independence Party last fall; presumably, that helped consolidate the support of state chairman Frank MacKay.

• The proposed new 60th District is contained entirely within Erie County. Of course, that proposed redistricting might not stand: Senate Republicans have also tried to add a 63rd district, believing that doing so increases their dimming hopes of holding on to the majority in this presidential election year. The proposed lines face multiple challenges in the courts unless some compromise is reached quickly; sources say that such a compromise might emerge late this week or early next week. If the eventual 60th District includes any part of Niagara County, then Lorigo will not be the only voice in determining the Conservative candidate. If the district does not stretch into the Southtowns, Quinn may not be a viable candidate.

• But if the new district does reach into Hamburg, it also makes a viable candidate of Democrat Kevin Gaughan, who is native to those climes, and who performed very well in the west and north of Buffalo—critical parts of the existing and the proposed district—when he ran for mayor in 2005. Some reports have Gaughan considering a run against new Assemblyman Sean Ryan because of his strength on Buffalo’s West Side; our guess is that Gaughan would rather play that strength against a Republican candidate who does not share it, like Quinn, than against a fellow Democrat with the same support base.

• Erie County Democratic Party chairman Len Lenihan is holding his peace for now, as is Gaughan, as are other Democrats, waiting on the district lines to be finalized. At least, that’s what they say. Meantime, State Senator Mike Gianaris, who is charged with regaining the majority for the Democrats, is not waiting, and neither are Governor Andrew Cuomo’s operatives. It has been suggested that, even at this late date, Albany Democrats have approached Grisanti about returning to the party.

And who knows? Maybe there’s another Democrat waiting to enter the fray.

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