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For a while, it seemed that Patrick Gallivan was adding stripes or brass to his gray State Police uniform every other week. Tops-in-the-state on the sergeant's exam; ditto on the lieutenant's exam.

Then in 1994, at 33, Gallivan became the youngest captain in the division's history, with a stint at the FBI National Academy and a master's degree in criminal justice along the way.

Gallivan was definitely on the State Police fast track.

But last April, he ended his 14-year career by resigning from the State Police to accept the Republican nomination for Erie County sheriff.

Now it's up to the voters on Tuesday to determine if his decision means more fast track mileage or a political dead end. The decision was not easy, he said.

"There were a lot of tough things that went into this decision," he said. "But when we came right down to it, my wife and I both returned here to raise our kids. It's where we want to be; it's where we want to retire."

At only 36, Gallivan has burst onto the Erie County political scene as a formidable -- if unexpected -- force. After testing the Democratic waters reserved for opponent Rocco J. Diina, he headed toward an initially skeptical GOP.

Since then, Gallivan has convinced Republicans of his strength by becoming a tireless campaigner and raising the money needed to run a countywide campaign. Some say that if he wins, he could become the Republican Party's next rising star.

But don't even mention the word "politics" to Gallivan -- not at this time in this race. His whole approach is to de-emphasize the nuts, bolts, and down and dirty aspects of running for office -- even if politics at its worst has characterized this very nasty campaign.

"If someone tries to perpetrate crimes against your children or steal your car, do you care if whoever shows up is a Democrat or Republican?" he asks. "Or do you want a qualified, professional police officer?"

Indeed, Gallivan stresses his professional credentials in every one of his public appearances. The son of retired State Police Captain Richard Gallivan (his uncle and brother are also in the ranks), he points to his meteoric rise and the training and experience forged by his State Police career.

Like Diina, he has presented a comprehensive plan of initiative and administration that will guide his tenure in the sheriff's office. But mostly he emphasizes his status as a political newcomer, addressing practically every topic by contrasting himself with Diina -- whom Gallivan calls a "politician" or "political appointment" at every opportunity.

"There's nothing inherently wrong with politics, but I maintain it has no place in law enforcement," he says. "When the citizens choose a law enforcement leader, he should be a professional and not a politician. It's a clear cut choice."

Gallivan has released his tax returns, a move designed to show he has no outside interests like RJD Security -- the private security firm co-owned by Diina and a centerpiece of Gallivan's campaign attacks. He continually blasts Diina about the potential for conflict, making it the crux of the campaign
ads airing during the campaign's final days.

And he has linked Diina to alleged illegal fund raising in the Sheriff's Department that has resulted in a probe by the district attorney.

"I don't see any place in my administration for someone who has committed crimes," he says, referring to reports of sheriff's department command officers soliciting deputies for Diina's campaign.

But for all his clean cut image, the rookie politician has not escaped unscathed. Diina has scored him for allegedly lying about his voting record and about misrepresenting his resume.

Diina also claims Gallivan took the Liberal Party endorsement after promising Conservatives he would not and also says Gallivan lied by claiming to have personally arrested murderers and rapists.

Gallivan does not directly address Diina's claims except the resume charge, indicating he never misrepresented his relationship with the board of Central Police Services, a county agency. Gallivan does not offer explanations about Diina's other falsehood charges, except to counter that Diina is fixated upon politics.

"It's about law enforcement, and all Rocco wants to talk about is politics," he says.

Gallivan's entrance into the political game has Republicans believing they can win -- even with a county sporting 120,000 more Democrats than Republicans. They count Gallivan's Irish-Italian heritage a plus, look to a big turnout in the GOP suburbs, and think they have devised a positive message for the campaign's last days.

Gallivan has also attracted support from a number of area unions, including the powerful United Auto Workers and the AFL-CIO. It's an unfamiliar feeling for an Erie County Republican to attract so much labor support.

A sure sign of the priority placed by the GOP on the Gallivan effort is the money and manpower poured by headquarters into the campaign. Assembly Minority Leader Thomas M. Reynolds has dispatched a top aide to assist Gallivan, not to mention photo opportunities with Gov. Pataki and every other visiting GOP luminary.

For Gallivan, there are no guarantees. Although he's eligible for State Police reinstatement should he lose, it does not always happen. He acknowledges his decision has left him living off his savings in hopes of moving up one more rung on the ladder.

"All through my career I've worked to someday be the chief executive of a law enforcement agency," he said. "My business is law enforcement. I'm fully prepared."

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