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PASTA AND POLITICS ON HERTEL AVENUE

Oh, it was a lovely scene a few days ago at one of Buffalo's fine dining spots -- Cafe GarAngelo on Hertel Avenue.

There they were, packing away pasta like three pals from the old neighborhood. Lined up along Chef Gary Tenebra's food-filled table were the elite of Buffalo's Republican establishment, along with two GOP major leaguers -- Sen. Al D'Amato and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Now on any given day, the fact that these two former bitter enemies would travel to Buffalo to cement their new friendship and dine together on Italian specialties would be news enough. In fact, it was. The New York City press corps gobbled up the story faster than D'Amato plowed through the penne pasta.

But the third member of this most unlikely trio -- Buffalo Comptroller Joel Giambra -- was possibly the most intriguing aspect of the whole spectacle. The lifelong Democrat is now not only flirting with the GOP, he's practically going steady.

Calling D'Amato the "best senator" in the state's history and Giuliani the "best mayor" in the city's history, Giambra obviously is very much at home with his new Republican buddies. And when you sit down to antipasto and pasta with likes of these guys, it's serious business.

"I was very comfortable with the senator, and his seniority in Washington will do nothing but help New York State," Giambra said last week. "And it was a privilege to spend some real quality time with Mayor Giuliani. He's going to be doing some other things someday, and I would love to be part of his team."

But there is a flip side to this new romance, one that is playing loudly at Democratic Headquarters in Ellicott Square. It's one thing to carry on this courtship with the Republicans; quite another to publicly break bread with the man who runs the GOP in this state.

According to Erie County Democratic Chairman Steve Pigeon, Giambra has "made a deal with the devil."

"He's the prime example of an opportunist," Pigeon said of Giambra's GarAngelo performance. "He's completely prostituted himself."

To Pigeon, carrying on in public with Mr. GOP represents the last straw. Giambra might as well become a Republican, he says, because he's already jilted the Democrats.

"He's a person who has lived off the blood and sweat of Democrats his whole life, from way back when he was sergeant-at-arms for the Council," Pigeon said. "He's awaiting their orders. Around here we call him Benedict Arnold Giambra."

Of course, there is more than pure party philosophy at work here. Giambra and Pigeon have never been friends, especially since the chairman promoted his pal, Sen. Anthony Nanula, as a potential state comptroller candidate last year over Giambra -- a long-time aspirant for the job. And Giambra has received little party encouragement in his efforts to move up the political ladder.

But it is now clear that his expected betrothal to the Republican Party is also resulting in a bitter divorce from the Democrats. According to Pigeon, that means Giambra is through as Buffalo comptroller, even if the new Republican relationship is somehow never consummated.

"He's forfeited the endorsement," the chairman said. "He will not be the endorsed candidate under any circumstances."

Pigeon has even gone so far as to begin thinking about new candidates for the comptroller's post, which will be up for voter consideration in 1999 -- the same year Giambra is pondering a run at County Executive Gorski (with some sources indicating Giambra will probably form an exploratory committee sometime in September).

Pigeon, meanwhile, is especially high on Council member Barbra Kavanaugh for comptroller. Others thought to be in the mix are Council members Byron Brown, Al Coppola and Dale Zuchlewski, as well as Legislator Al DeBenedetti.

Giambra is not worried about his apparent excommunication from the Democrats.

"If I decide that another term as comptroller is something I want to pursue, I have no fear of running in a primary -- regardless of what Chairman Pigeon says," Giambra said.

So while Giambra and the Dems have undergone a trial separation over the past year, it's now apparent their differences are irreconcilable. Being spotted in public with new significant others like D'Amato and Giuliani, they say, is enough to break up even a once happy family like Joel Giambra and the Democrats.