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REPUBLICANS GAINING GROUND ON DEMOCRATS

According to the most recent figures from the Erie County Board of Elections, Democrats hold a hefty edge on Republicans around here when it comes to card-carrying members.

Latest score: Dems 286,938; Reps 166,785.

But the GOP has launched a mini-registration drive among new occupants of the Rath Building's 16th floor, the place County Executive-elect Joel Giambra and company will settle in come Jan. 1. Starting with incoming chief of staff Bruce Fisher and going right down the line, several lifelong Democrats expected to join Giambra's inner circle have jumped ship to sign up as Republicans.

All of this started last year, when Giambra himself, a natural Democrat in a naturally Democratic city, was lured across the aisle by Erie County Republican Chairman Bob Davis. He had been ignored at Democratic Headquarters, he said, and found himself mired in a party that no longer reflected his views. A year after announcing that switch, Giambra was celebrating his Republican county executive victory.

Fisher, who had worked for Democratic senators like Joe Biden, Paul Simon and Carol Mosely- Braun -- as well as for former national Democratic Chairman David Wilhelm -- followed suit a couple of days ago. So did Angela Filippone, Giambra's assistant ,who will soon join his executive staff. So did Warren Galloway, another new staffer. So did Kathy Gregorie, soon to join the 16th floor.

All of these sudden converts made the move of their own free will, they assert, under no pressure from Giambra or his new buddies in the GOP. But nobody is denying that some strong suggestions were directed their way.

"I said to Bruce after the campaign: If you're going to be a member of the Republican team, are you going to wear the uniform?" Chairman Davis said. "He told me he wanted to do that."

For sure, Fisher's defection looms as a major prize for the Republicans. This guy used to hang out at Frontier Democratic Club meetings and formulate Democratic tax policy during a stint in Washington, not to mention running campaigns for Democrats here and around the country.

"I found myself in deep and fundamental disagreement with the Democrats on many social welfare issues," Fisher said. "And if there's any local economy that should shape how government should change, it's this one."

Davis says he has not made joining the Republican Party a condition for joining the Giambra administration. But he has encouraged it enough to raise a few eyebrows from observers of all these born-again Republicans.

"I think the Republican Party has a mantra; this is what people voted for, and this is what we represent," Davis said. "Is it a requirement? No. But it does make sense."

So much sense, he says, that about 40 people have switched from Democrat to Republican in the wake of the Giambra victory. They're mostly part of a group called Democrats for Giambra that raised funds and campaigned hard for their own former Dem.

It was a big switch for Filippone, too. We're talking about someone calling herself a "JFK Democrat," someone who was president of Bobby Kennedy's local club during the 1960s, and someone who served as the Niagara District Council member from 1975-1978.

"I did it because Joel is a Republican and I thought I should be, too," she said. "I had no qualms whatsoever. Our party kind of left us."

Galloway made the big switcheroo back in the summer, when he was one of the most active African-Americans in the Giambra campaign.

"I didn't like the local Democratic organization, and I thought that if I was going to work for a Republican, maybe I ought to be one," Galloway said. "I also think that the Democratic Party has always taken black folks for granted. To address that, we need more blacks in the Republican Party, so there will be a real two-party system."

Of course, not everybody is so fired up about this mass exodus to the GOP. Legislature Chairman Chuck Swanick, now head of the Loyal Opposition, thinks it smacks of the kind of partisanship he expects from the new administration.

"Joel has expressed a desire to run a bipartisan and issue-based office," Swanick said. "While that sounds good, I don't see it working out that way. These examples show that the Republican administration of Joel Giambra will be based on a Republican philosophy and viewpoint. The bipartisan issues will fall to the wayside very quickly."

However it happened, the Republican Party has around 40 more members as the Giambra administration prepares to take over. Now he needs 120,153 more to even the score, and Davis thinks he's got a shot with all those Democrats who pulled the GOP lever for Giambra.

"I'd like to enlist this army and take it to war again," he said. "I always said that if we won this election, we as a party would only get stronger."

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