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MEET THE NEW JOEL GIAMBRA

County Executive Joel Giambra doesn't exactly top the area popularity charts these days, as the locals struggle with shuttered parks, long lines at the DMV, and the prospect of even higher taxes to pay for all this luxury.

If budget cuts haven't yet axed the county medical examiner, you can almost picture him signing Giambra's political death certificate.

But of all the epithets thrown Giambra's way, few accuse him of naivete. This is a guy who has not only survived, but vaulted to the area's political pinnacle by fighting, scrapping and constantly reinventing.

Now it looks like he's doing it again.

Just after calling for the resignation of Republican icon Sen. Dale Volker, Giambra is embarking on an independent Republican course he hopes will take him to the new promised land. Though he is persona non grata in many parts of his own Erie County GOP, the county executive is not submitting to the medical examiner yet.

As noted here a few weeks ago, he has launched stinging broadcast ads aimed at Dennis Rivera and his health care workers union. He is self-administering pats on the back for the limitations on Medicaid costs noted in this year's budget, and is not aiming at revered party figures like Volker for nothing.

"Two years ago Medicaid wasn't on anyone's agenda," he said. "It tops everyone's agenda this year."

This is the new Giambra a pol who genuinely believes he is on the cusp of channeling all the negativity of his own local flock into political capital. Maybe even statewide.

Giambra isn't making any announcements, but there is no question that the chaos and confusion of Erie County in 2005 has derailed none of his statewide ambition.

"I believe my options are still very wide open for 2006, from what I'm hearing statewide," he said.

That could prove a tough sell for the parents shut out of the Chestnut Ridge sledding hill, or the people grousing in long DMV lines, or the 1,500 county workers who lost their jobs. The county executive recognizes that.

"We've got to finish the education process," he said. "People were not buying it for a while because our sales job was not effective."

That's why, over the next few months, you will hear more and more about progress on the Medicaid issue. That's why you will hear him proclaim Erie County's taxes as a bargain compared to other counties, and that's why he thinks spreading that gospel wherever he goes will eventually result in the statewide attention he still craves.

"We're going to talk about what got us here," he said, "that we don't need 19 police chiefs or 47 general-purpose governments."

In some other place -- where politics is mundane and boring -- the idea of a resurrected Giambra would rank right up there with a comeback for Saddam Hussein. But this is Erie County, and Giambra knows that anything is possible.

You gotta love it.

On the mayoral front, State Sen. Byron Brown continues to look and act like a front runner. The senator expected to raise about $50,000 at a Thursday fund raiser at the Saturn Club. That won't vault Brown into the well-financed category yet, but it will get him started.

But what Brown really covets is a nod from Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who has already endorsed in the Albany and New York City mayoral primaries. As the presumptive Democratic candidate for governor next year and new leader of the statewide party, Brown's folks have asked for the same consideration.

That hasn't come yet. And it may not until Mayor Tony Masiello decides whether to seek a fourth therm.

But there is no question Brown wants Spitzer's nod -- and wants it big time.

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com