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KATE'S WAY MAKING THE ROUNDS WITH BUFFALO'S FIRST LADY

When, during last year's state Democratic Convention, the new mayor's wife set her baby daughter on an empty table at the Buffalo Convention Center and began removing the child's soiled diaper, the symbolism was too potent to pass up.

A fresh beginning. A clean start.

Change.

Seizing the opportunity, a newspaper photographer snapped a picture, and Mrs. Mayor and Ariel were captured for the next day's edition.

"I didn't know it was the press table," Kate Masiello says, laughing at the memory. "It was just a big, open table, and the bathrooms were so far away. I thought I would be hidden. I should have known that would not be the case."

That was six months into Anthony Masiello's tenure as mayor of Buffalo. These days, 18-month-old Ariel is learning how to master the potty, and her 33-year-old mother is learning a few lessons herself.

Among them: How to prioritize better. (Her New Year's resolution was to just say no to the crusaders who call asking her to join X, Y or Z cause.) How to adjust to constant scrutiny.

How, as Mrs. Masiello says, to "chill out" about the little stuff.

"I find myself acting like a cat trying to protect her kittens, but in this case the kitten is a tiger who can protect himself very well," Mrs. Masiello says of her spouse of 2 1/2 years.

"Still, when I hear on the radio or read some things in the paper that I know are false, I just really get crazy. I want to go out there and set all these wrongs right."

Instead, the Hudson Valley native has devoted herself to raising her child and raising the public's awareness about children's issues. She serves on the board of directors for the Buffalo Police Athletic League, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Buffalo and the Success by 6 Leadership Council.

She is a spokeswoman for "Caring for Tomorrow's Children," a program designed to encourage women to seek prenatal care.

Between family, functions and fighting for kids, the filigreed pages of Mrs. Masiello's day planner are filled.

It's 8:15 one recent Tuesday morning and Mrs. Masiello arrives at the Gloria J. Parks Community Center for a breakfast meeting of Success by 6. Temporarily relieved of watching her daughter by one of her brothers-in-law, the chairwoman of the early childhood education/child care committee presents a draft of the group's mission statement.

First, she gets a kiss on the cheek from University at Buffalo President William R. Greiner.

"Kate gets things done. She's organized, she's smart, she's got great people skills and she's got a smile that lights up the room to go along with all that talent," Greiner says.

"She's open and friendly," he adds, "but she's always careful about what she says, because there's that fear that someone's going to pounce on your every word. She knows a person in her position has to be careful."

A speculative mention about the sex life of Buffalo's first couple that appeared in The Buffalo News failed to amuse Mrs. Masiello. At all. She was hesitant to grant an interview with The News for this story because of the remarks.

"Before, when Tony was a senator and wanted to hold a press conference for an issue, he had to send out the flags," Mrs. Masiello says. "Now they're omnipresent, and it's just a level of intensity and a level of scrutiny that you can't understand or really anticipate.

"It's really one of the most difficult things to do and I, in reaction to it, have become much more guarded about my privacy."

By 10 a.m. Mrs. Masiello is back at her family's North Buffalo home to tend to Ariel.

By noon, she is on the city's south side for a lunch meeting of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Buffalo. There, the date book is pulled from a scuffed Liz Claiborne bag. More times and events are jotted down.

"There's just not enough hours in the day to really do everything that needs to be done," she says.

"I think we thought we had an idea of what it would be like, but you just never know until you're in it. It's a lot more intense. There are so many hats you have to wear.

"When most people find out Ariel doesn't go to bed until 11 o'clock they probably think, 'terrible mother.' But otherwise, she'd never get to see her father, and he'd never see her," she says.

When Masiello decided to run for mayor -- something he hinted to his future wife when the two began dating in Albany in 1989 -- they pledged to help make Buffalo a city where parents would be proud to raise kids.

"I think everything else hinges on us getting our priorities straight, and that's that children have to come first," she says. "Crime has been identified as one of our biggest problems, and that's true, but to an extent I believe that's a function of our not having invested, wisely enough, in children early on.

"All levels of government and business have to understand that children are the future, and the future work force is dependent on us investing in them now, and that it's in businesses' best interest to ensure that children have the wherewithal to become productive members of society later on."

If any -- or all -- of this sounds like it comes from the mouth of someone who has spent more than a few hours on or near a podium, consider that Mrs. Masiello's connection to politics is not merely by nuptials.

Her undergraduate and master's degrees -- both from the State University at Binghamton -- are in political science.

An inductee into the national honor society for public administration and affairs, Mrs. Masiello -- then Kate McCue -- won a fellowship from the New York State Senate Student Program Office in 1985 and served as a budget analyst with the Senate Finance Committee.

As deputy director of communications for the Finance Committee from 1987 through 1991, she prepared speeches and testimony for Sen. Donald Halperin and briefed the Democrat on committee agendas, floor debate points and current events, among other duties.

"When they started dating there was some joking -- I think it was joking -- that because she did the same thing for another senator that I was doing for (then) Sen. Masiello, I better do something to scotch this relationship or I would be out of a job," says Stephen T. Banko III, the mayor's confidential aide for communications.

"Sometimes I get frustrated -- not by Kate, but by all of the people who want to have input in the process. But Kate certainly has a lot of positive stuff to offer. Kate knows when I'm getting too far away from Tony's tenor, and she's very good at bringing me back to the right page."

She isn't as involved as she was during the campaign, Banko adds. Brainstorming for the State of the City speech earlier this month was Banko's first involvement with her this year.

"This is someone who was in the trenches and at the command posts," Banko adds. "You can tell in the first five minutes if someone is going to be productive or if they just want to be part of the team. It was apparent from the beginning that Kate knew what she was talking about."

In 1989, Mrs. Masiello ran as the Democratic organization candidate for council in Albany. The 250-vote loss didn't embitter her, she says, but as long as her husband is mayor, one politician in the family is more than enough.

Even so, does her political savvy make her the proverbial power behind the throne?

Mrs. Masiello laughs.

"I think they say that about everyone: It's that 'behind-every-good-man-there's-a-good--woman-theory,' " she says.

"Tony's the one who was elected and I play a supportive role. Whatever I can do to facilitate his job and make his life easier, that's my job."

The book titled "Leadership" on a shelf in the Masiello family room?

Hers.

Gore Vidal's "Lincoln"?

His.

Joyce Carol Oates?

His.

"The Diaries of Mario Cuomo"?

Hers.

On the couple's recent vacation to Key West, Fla., Mrs. Masiello "ate up" every word of the 478-page book "All's Fair," a running account of the 1992 presidential election from Bill Clinton strategist James Carville and wife Mary Matalin, the political director of Bush's re-election effort.

"I couldn't get enough of it. We're going to rent (the political documentary) 'The War Room' one of these days," she says.

When her husband was running for mayor, Mrs. Masiello was present at the Saturday morning huddles. These days, she doesn't have time to do that.

"My contribution to this point is when we talk about the kind of points that need to be addressed (in a speech), and the tone," she says, adding that her involvement might be heavier when she gets around to hooking up her computer.

"It hasn't always been that way. I have written speeches for him in the past, and that may happen again. And I have no shortage of ideas or willingness to share them."

Compare this statement to anything uttered by former Mayor Jimmy Griffin's wife, Margie. If you can remember her saying anything at all.

"I think Margie (Griffin) chose to be behind the scenes and that was all right, but these are people growing up in two different times," says Patricia O. Rehak, the executive vice president of the Greater Buffalo Partnership.

Mrs. Rehak met Mrs. Masiello in 1992, after the mayor's wife secured a position as manager of government affairs with the Greater Buffalo Chamber of Commerce.

When the Chamber merged with the Greater Buffalo Development Foundation to form the Greater Buffalo Partnership, Mrs. Masiello served as director of government relations, lobbying Washington, D.C., and Albany on behalf of Western New York's private sector.

"When Mrs. Griffin was young, I don't think women had the opportunity to experience a kind of public life and the public roles that women have now, so Margie probably wouldn't have had the ability to work as Kate did in a Senate fellowship," Ms. Rehak says.

"Kate was born for this," she adds. "Does that mean she makes policy? Of course not. Does he respect her and does he look to her as a sounding board? I hope so."

It is Wednesday evening, and Mayor Masiello is about to deliver his State of the City address. Mrs. Masiello, wearing the blue dress she had on when Buffalo's first couple smiled for a photo with President Clinton, picks her nails, chuckles at the cameramen tripping over their own cables and, when her husband turns to wink at her a few seconds before the speech begins, tells him to "knock 'em dead."

If you ask any of Mrs. Masiello's friends to describe her, they will inevitably use adjectives like "quick-witted" or "wry."

While describing the "17 chins" she acquired during her pregnancy, Mrs. Masiello recalls how close the birth of her daughter came to Masiello winning the September primary. She accidentally knocks a glass of water over during the story.

Without missing a beat, she stares at the spilled water and quips: "I just thank God that didn't happen on the podium."

That night, her husband has his share of problems with a water glass. While fielding questions from television reporters after the speech, some ice cubes stuck on the bottom of the mayor's water glass came tumbling forward, splashing water on Masiello's cheeks and tie.

The mayor wipes himself off. The mayor's wife can't help herself. She laughs.

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