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ROSS NOT READY TO 'PAY DUES' BEFORE RUNNING

At Assemblyman Sam Hoyt's fund-raising auction Thursday at Kleinhans Music Hall, the true-blue Democrats didn't know quite how to react to their newest member -- Lt. Gov. Ross.

In her first visit here since dumping the Republicans for the Democrats earlier this month, she was the center of attraction.

While some Democrats considered her the guest of honor, she has a long way to go before she sheds the "party crasher" image.

"As mayor of the city, I'll certainly be gracious," said Mayor Masiello just before Lt. Gov. Ross arrived. "But like everybody else, she's got to prove it and earn it. And that's a long way off."

Would she make a good opponent against Gov. Pataki?

"I think there are a lot of people ahead of her," Masiello said.

The mayor's cautious reaction typifies most of New York's official Democrats, many of whom say she must "pay her dues" before earning the right to move into top party leadership positions.

But the Manhattanite doesn't buy that, vowing to announce her political plans in a few weeks.

"I've been hearing all the politicians say she has to 'pay her dues,' " she said. "But it's only politicians who say that. What they're really saying is, 'Running for office is our little club, and we don't want you in it.' "

"To most people, a career of 20 years in office is not paying dues," she added. "Buying groceries, standing in line at the DMV and providing health care for their children is paying dues."

The lieutenant governor has not changed her political tune much from her battles with Pataki, Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato and the rest of the GOP hierarchy, citing her push for easier access to experimental drugs, improved prekindergarten and a fairer budget process.

"All human beings care about the same issues, and I made my decision because the Democratic Party responds to those issues," she said. "This decision required three years of soul-searching. But I found myself farced to choose between what I knew was right and what the D'Amato-Pataki machine expected me to do."

Fillmore Council Member David A. Franczyk said the party should welcome her whether her switch is one of "conversion or convenience."

"She's the No. 2 person in the State of New York, so it's a real blow to the Republicans," Franczyk said. "She's personable, she comes from money, and people like her -- women like her."

County Legislator Judith P. Fisher said Lt. Gov. Ross may make her mark on the Democratic Party with her appeal to women.

"The Republican Party has a track record that makes it extremely difficult for women to be taken seriously," she said.

Should Lt. Gov. Ross run as a Democrat for statewide office?

"We ought to give it some consideration," Mrs. Fisher said. "The naysayers ought to see that she's extremely well received here."

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