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JOCKEYING BEGINS AS GIAMBRA EYES TOP COUNTY POST

Buffalo Comptroller Joel A. Giambra is gazing from City Hall toward the Rath Building and a shot at county executive in 1999, and that is already spawning maneuverings among both Democrats and Republicans interested in succeeding him.

Though Giambra has not ruled out running for comptroller once again, it appears certain that some type of citywide contest for his post is inevitable. After Giambra switched from Democrat to Republican in November, he incurred the wrath of Democratic leaders who vow they will challenge him in either a primary or general election to ensure his defeat.

As a result, these familiar City Hall names are declaring their interest for the number two executive post in Buffalo government:

- Delaware Council Member Alfred T. Coppola, a veteran member of the Council who claims he can win citywide and attract support from key minor parties like Independence.

- Masten Council Member Byron W. Brown, who is often mentioned as a future mayoral candidate and would become the city's first black comptroller.

- University Council Member Kevin J. Helfer, a registered Conservative who runs on the Republican line and who also is mentioned as a future mayoral candidate.

On the Democratic side, no front-runner has yet emerged -- though the jockeying for the early lead is already under way. Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon has so far expressed no preference as far as an early endorsement is concerned, and that is not expected for several weeks.

"I like both of them," is how Pigeon summarizes a potential contest between Coppola and Brown.

Still, there is already discussion of the race in City Hall circles, with Coppola much more out in front at this point than Brown.

"I'm not some new guy on the block," Coppola said, citing his status as a Council veteran since 1983. "And I'm not a guy who accepted a $10,000 pay raise or voted for the user fee. That's my theme."

Coppola finished third in a three-way primary for comptroller in 1990.

Brown, elected in 1995, is at least giving thought to the comptroller's office.

"It's a possibility I would certainly consider," Brown said. "A number of people have come to me and asked me to think about it -- and I'm certainly thinking about it."

But the picture would change for both Brown and Coppola should Giambra somehow sign up for another campaign for comptroller. Though he is thought to be under serious consideration for the GOP nod for county executive, party veterans such as County Comptroller Nancy A. Naples and former state Attorney General Dennis C. Vacco have also expressed interest. Most party insiders acknowledge the Republican nomination belongs to either for the asking.

Still, should Giambra somehow stumble in his countywide ambitions, he acknowledges another term in the comptroller's office is a possibility.

"I feel my infrastructure is in place," Giambra said. "And I feel very confident that I would be able to convince the voters that I deserve another term."

Also, Giambra could still run in a Democratic primary this year because of the timing of his official switch. He said he did not know if he would compete in that contest, however.

For the Republicans, Helfer is also waiting for Giambra's final decision in an effort to become the city's first Republican comptroller since Alfreda W. Slominski.

"It's all predicated on what Joel does," he said. "If Joel makes the move, then I make the move as well."

Elected to the Council in 1993, Helfer said he would also be guaranteed the Conservative line by virtue of his registration.

"But I've always been elected on the Republican line, and that's the party I'm closest to," he said, adding he believes he has a good shot at Independence, too, if Independence ally Coppola does not make the race.

Giambra has said he would like to arrive at a county executive decision sometime in the next two weeks, which could begin putting some shape to the city comptroller contest.

If he does run for county executive, he already has some backing.

Russell Carveth, chairman of the Cheektowaga Republican Town Committee, said last week that he will recommend Giambra to his committee -- with approval expected to follow -- because of the "vision and courage" he has shown in advancing regional cooperation in local government.

"I've been watching this young man for many years now, and I always thought the only thing wrong with him was that he was a Democrat," Carveth said. "Now he's taken care of that, and we're happy to support him."

Carveth said the message Giambra has taken all over Erie County in recent months impressed him.

"He has the ideas we need to get things done," Carveth said. "These ideas of consolidating government are way overdue. We're probably the most over-governed community in the State of New York and this guy has some answers."

Erie County Republican Chairman Robert E. Davis said the county executive candidate situation for his party is "still fluid," but that he expects other town committees may also be expressing preferences soon.

"Other town chairs have been talking to me in recent weeks," he said, "and are encouraged that we're getting out fast and early."

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