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WHAT WILL HAPPEN IN '98? HERE'S A LIST

It's time to don our wizard's hat, dust off the trusty Crystal Ball of Politics, and gaze into 1998, and its promise for a frenzied political year. We'll have races for governor, senator, Congress, State Legislature, county clerk, and a few others. So keeping in mind that the Politics column of The Buffalo News will claim credit for all predictions that come true and disavow any knowledge of those that don't, here are a few thoughts and prognostications for 1998:

Erie County Democratic Chairman Steve Pigeon will declare his candidacy for re-election early with an impressive display of support. Though coup rumblings will continue (especially from organized labor), Chairman Steve will survive -- as long as he retains the confidence of County Executive Gorski.

GOP Chairman Bob Davis will emerge as a major figure on the statewide scene, especially after his big 1997 showing in Erie County. Most credit Davis with recognizing the potential of successful sheriff candidate Pat Gallivan, and with helping Legislator Jeanne Chase eke out a victory over a tough Democratic opponent in Fran Pordum.

With turbulence clouding the relationship between Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver and Majority Leader Mike Bragman of Syracuse, nobody really knows what will happen. But if things get nasty in Albany and Bragman is replaced, Cheektowaga's Paul Tokasz would be considered a top contender for Bragman's No. 2 spot in the Assembly.

Outgoing Council Member Bonnie Kane Lockwood will remain a favorite in City Hall after helping carry the administration's fight for a garbage user fee. Mayor Masiello might even like to see her continue working in the big building on Niagara Square.

Democrat Joan Warren, whose all-but-invisible campaign against incumbent County Comptroller Nancy Naples resulted in one of the all-time great clobberings, will be rewarded with a judicial nomination somewhere, somehow.

Erie County Conservative Chairman Ralph Lorigo will encounter some organized opposition after some of his top candidates fared none-too-well in last fall's contests.

Mayor Masiello and Gov. Pataki will keep on saying really nice things about each other as they play footsie through election year. The big question will be how far the mayor, who secured GOP backing last year, takes the mutually friendly relationship.

Assemblyman Dick Keane will amble down to the Capitol personnel office one day and check out the possibility of retirement. If he decides to forego all those weekly trips along the scenic Thruway, it could be time for former Council Member Brian Higgins to flash his new Harvard degree with an Assembly bid of his own.

Just as they have in every election since 1982, area incumbents of the State Legislature will return to office. The one exception could be GOP Assemblyman Rick Anderson of Amherst, who faces a tough re-election contest in which two arrests for Driving While Ability Impaired will figure heavily.

New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani will start showing off his tough-guy image north of the Bronx as he contemplates life after Gracie Mansion. In fact, we'll go out on a limb and flatly predict he will speak at the GOP Dinner in Buffalo on Feb. 19 (mainly because local Republicans already have him inked in for the event).

County Legislator Al DeBenedetti will explore a challenge to Sen. Anthony Nanula with some special prodding from his new best friend, Niagara County Democratic Chairman Nick Forster.

And speaking of Forster, relations will deteriorate between he and Erie Chairman Pigeon as they continue to disagree on virtually every political subject.

And still speaking of Forster, he will join the list of upstaters supporting Congressman Chuck Schumer in his bid to win the Democratic Senate nomination against Al D'Amato.

Congressmen Bill Paxon, Jack Quinn and John LaFalce will all face cream-puff opponents in 1998 as each solidifies himself as a big-time political power.

Buffalo Comptroller Joel Giambra will get around and about in Erie County, preaching his message of consolidation and government efficiency -- just in case he ever decides to run for higher office. And he will grow even more adept at cultivating friendly relations with the Erie County Republican Party.

County Clerk Dave Swarts will head into a re-election year with no Democratic primary opponent, even though he remains persona non grata among ruling Dems for his disastrous challenge to County Executive Gorski in 1995.

After a 1997 that had trouble firing up even hard-core fans of politics (people resorted to getting excited about the sheriff's race!), 1998 will prove a most interesting year. And it's more than safe to predict that politics watching will continue right behind the Buffalo Bills as the top spectator sport in Erie County.