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It wasn't so much what Joel A. Giambra said during his swearing-in ceremonies Friday afternoon, but that he could even say the words -- strongly and distinctly -- officially making him the sixth Erie County executive.

In what could rank as the most emotional inauguration in local history, Giambra took the oath of office from State Supreme Court Justice Robert E. Whelan just 18 days after undergoing extensive surgery for the cancer that doctors discovered in his throat in late November.

Giambra swore on a Bible that he would uphold the federal and state constitutions and the Erie County charter, and "discharge the duties of the position of Erie County executive to the best of my ability -- so help me God," even as scores of hard-boiled politicos looking on were wiping tears from their eyes.

He glanced once at his wife, Michelle, during the oath to receive a reassuring smile, and used his first words to thank God and his wife.

"I love you," he said to her with a kiss. "Thank you."

Though thick-tongued and a little gaunt from his ordeal, Giambra thanked all of Erie County for its support and prayers accompanying his operation in Manhattan's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, indicating he did not believe he could have survived "what I've been through" without that support. Then he pronounced himself successfully treated and ready to face the future.

"I made a pledge a couple of weeks ago that I would take the oath of office as Erie County executive," he said just before receiving a standing ovation. "Here I am. I'm back."

Indeed, the new county executive made every effort to portray himself ready for business following surgery that attacked malignancies in his right tonsil and upper-neck lymph node. He entered Whelan's courtroom in City Court to the first of five standing ovations as he grinned and flashed the thumbs-up sign.

He was nattily attired in a business suit; beamed at his wife, his four children and his mother, Shirley Panarro; and exuded an air of confidence that seemed to say all is well.

"I feel so honored, privileged and humbled," he said before about 75 invited guests. "I've got a little more recovery time, but the past is behind me. I'm here in Buffalo, and the cancer is in New York City."

His only substantive remarks dealt with his promise to reduce taxes by 30 percent during his four-year term and his disregard for any Democratic attempts to assign this year's 18 percent tax cut to the reign of former County Executive Dennis T. Gorski.

"I promised to cut taxes 30 percent," he said. "Well, 18 down and 12 to go."

The ceremony included prayers for Giambra's recovery offered by Bishop Henry J. Mansell of the Diocese of Buffalo and Bishop Robert L. Sanders, senior pastor of Greater Refuge Temple of Christ. And Whelan, another longtime Giambra friend who was his predecessor as Buffalo comptroller, made special mention of Giambra's comeback.

"What Joel has shown all of us is the kind of courage I saw in him many, many years ago," the justice said. "Fortunately, he's triumphing.

"With the courage you've shown," he then told Giambra, "you'll be a magnificent county executive."

The county executive spoke only for about four of the ceremony's approximately 15 minutes. The speech impediment that doctors said would result from his extensive oral surgery was evident, but not overly pronounced. And his doctors and aides say that condition will be substantially alleviated in the months ahead following speech therapy and use of a special prosthetic device that will cover a soft-palate cavity resulting from the operation.

His staff said he once again would decline interview requests, opting instead to keep the ceremony low-key and short. Still, new Deputy County Executive Carl J. Calabrese, who acted as master of ceremonies, emphasized that Giambra has made a quantum leap in his recovery over the past few days.

He said Giambra spent more than 90 minutes on Thursday conducting a conference call on new appointments, that swelling in his throat has reduced substantially in recent days, and that his new boss seems to be gaining strength daily.

"The whole team will be in place at 8:30 Monday morning," Calabrese said. "Joel may even come up for a few hours."

Still, Calabrese acknowledged that Giambra's unexpected sickness sidetracked plans for a more accelerated transition process. He said only about 30 percent of the team Giambra is assembling has been appointed, but more will come in the next few days.

He added it may be the end of January before that process nears completion.

"Obviously, we would be much further ahead if we were not dealt this situation," Calabrese said. "But now Joel is back and will be able to participate, so things should speed up."

He and Chief of Staff Bruce L. Fisher will handle most of the day-to-day operations of the new government, Calabrese said, including supervision of the county's extensive computer operation and any potential Y2K problems over the New Year's holiday. He also said 21 holdovers from the Gorski administration are still on the job, mainly to help with Y2K problems as well as to help make the transition.

Several Republican officials attended Friday's ceremony, including Erie County Republican Chairman Robert E. Davis, Vice Chairman Ralph J. Vanner, Rep. Jack F. Quinn Jr., Comptroller Nancy A. Naples, Sheriff Patrick M. Gallivan, State Sen. Dale M. Volker and Assemblyman James P. Hayes, as well as most of Giambra's transition team.

Another significant guest was Mayor Anthony M. Masiello -- a Democrat who has a long relationship with Giambra, has been supportive of many of his efforts, and was not close personally or politically with Gorski. He and County Legislator Albert DeBenedetti were the only Democrats attending Friday's ceremony.

Giambra still faces an extensive period of radiation therapy. His aides said Friday they do not yet know his timetable for that treatment.

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