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MASIELLO NOT THE ONLY DEMOCRAT COZY WITH PATAKI

In the weeks since Mayor Masiello crossed party lines to endorse Gov. Pataki for re-election, the Buffalo Democrat has become persona non grata among some of the state's top party leaders.

Yet Democrats across the state, including several of the party's most powerful elected officials, regularly have appeared at events designed to showcase the governor and boost his bid for a second term.

Examples of Democrats cozying up to him include:

The day after the Democratic primary, when Masiello endorsed Pataki in Buffalo and the wrath of party insiders descended upon him, several New York City Democrats were angling to get their photographs taken with him at a groundbreaking for a new train from Kennedy Airport. Even Claire Shulman -- borough president of Queens, home county of Pataki's opponent, Peter F. Vallone -- was there.

Last Thursday, Pataki seemed to have as many Democrats nuzzling up to him as Republicans. In the morning near the Capitol, an assemblyman from Albany was gushing over Pataki's role in gaining approval of a bill designed to protect children in day care.

A couple of hours later, Pataki found himself surrounded by a group of the Democrats' most liberal leaders, including a Manhattan assemblyman and Dennis Rivera, head of a influential health-care workers' union who also happens to be a top official of the Democratic National Committee in Washington.

In Queens, Assemblywoman Ann-Margaret Carrozza has sent out printed campaign material featuring a photograph of herself and Pataki at a Capitol bill-signing event. Her mailing mentions how she "stood up to party politics" and pressed Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver of Manhattan to return to Albany this summer for a special session to approve a tough, new sentencing law.

Political observers say the situation merely shows the workings of an undisciplined party lacking a powerful central leadership. That stands in sharp contrast to the state Republican Party, whose generals would never permit GOP officeholders to show up at events to help candidates from another party in the waning weeks of a campaign.

Those who have lent their faces -- and often kind words -- to Pataki at these events insist that they have gone nowhere near as far as Masiello and four other Democratic mayors -- including Niagara Falls Mayor James C. Galie -- have by endorsing the governor. Rather, they say they have an obligation, as elected officials, to appear, for instance, at signings of bills that they supported or authored.

But the trend is not going unnoticed, leaving some party officials upset.

"I think they're making a mistake," said G. Steven Pigeon, chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party. "They should be challenging the policies of the governor . . . rather than acting as if his policies have been good."

But party realists say that given Pataki's huge lead in the polls, they merely are trying to appease someone likely to be in Albany for another four years.

"When the guy's positive ratings are in the 70 percent range, you're going to bash him? To what end?" asked one Western New York Democrat.

Republicans, of course, don't mind the Democratic appearances.

"It helps Republicans from the perspective that in Erie County, we're down 120,000 voters (compared with Democratic enrollees), and we need to gain support from Democrats to help at the polls," said Robert E. Davis, chairman of the Erie County Republican Party.

Nowhere have the Democrats been so visible with Pataki as at bill-signing events.

After criticizing Masiello's endorsement of Pataki, Assemblyman John J. McEneny of Albany dismissed any suggestion that his turning up at a Pataki event last week just a month before the election did not do much to help Vallone.

"It was my bill," he said. "I always show up for my own bill-signings."

Like others, McEneny rejected the notion that Pataki handlers might have been using him for GOP advantages.

"What he did was a good thing. He deserved credit for him, and I gave him credit," the lawmaker said. He acknowledged, however, that his appearance might have helped Pataki.

One man who could put a stop to all this, insiders say, is Assembly Speaker Silver. But Silver insists that Democrats have an obligation to turn up for these events, designed by GOP handlers to make Pataki appear as everything from tough on criminals to the consumers' protector.

In fact, a beaming Silver recently was seen on television with Pataki, supposedly his sworn political enemy, at a bill-signing for a new Manhattan park.

"The governor is claiming credit for things that were the initiatives of Democratic members of the Legislature," Silver said, arguing that the Democratic presence helps show that the legislative ideas were not Pataki's alone.

Pataki's aides, however, used one of Silver's own to help them in an event widely considered an attack on Silver. The bill, dubbed "Shelly's Law," would have given vacation home owners a tax break.

Pataki went to the unusual step of publicly vetoing the bill. For the setting of the event, he chose Sullivan County, where Silver owns a vacation home. But it wasn't just Pataki lashing out at the measure. Assemblyman Jacob E. Gunther III of Forestburgh, Silver's fellow Democrat, appeared with Pataki and praised him for "vetoing this nefarious legislation."

Not all the attempts by Pataki's handlers to employ Democrats go so well, though.

Last Friday, Pataki's office tried to persuade Assemblyman Sam Hoyt of Buffalo to attend an event where Pataki was giving away some Environmental Bond Act money to a local project. Hoyt acknowledged that he was probably being invited so Pataki could be perceived as having Democratic allies in a strongly Democratic county such as Erie. But he said that both sides benefit from such gatherings.

"It's an election year for us, too," Hoyt said. "You could call it double exploitation. In a sense, he's exploiting us, but then, we're also exploiting the opportunity he's giving us."

So did Hoyt go?

"It was nice of them to invite me, but I'd rather take my son to a piano lesson," he said.

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