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PIGEON HAS RUFFLED FEATHERS TO SMOOTH

If you just met Steve Pigeon for the first time Wednesday night, you'd think he won the lottery.

Wearing a huge smile and hugging dozens of friends and supporters, it was pretty much the equivalent. As someone who acknowledges few interests besides his all-consuming passion for politics, Pigeon had just beaten back Dave Swarts' serious challenge for the chairmanship of the Erie County Democratic Committee.

And for Pigeon, running Democratic politics in Erie County is even better than winning the lottery.

Pigeon's victory was not easy. Democratic insiders say that for weeks, the 40-year-old chairman had pursued retaining his post with a fervor exceeding even his boundless political enthusiasm. Some reports say the days just prior to the conclave at Shea's Performing Arts Center turned into a marathon of phone calls, visits and political promises.

In the end, Pigeon proved what some veteran pols had always wondered about. He showed he could count votes.

But now Pigeon looks ahead, where his most daunting challenge lies. His party is still fractured, as evidenced by the near bedlam inside Shea's Wednesday night. Democrats chanted for Swarts. They waved Swarts and Pigeon signs. They shouted at each other while security people looked nervous. This is now the party he runs.

And nothing that occurred Wednesday night will change the wariness with which statewide political figures view "Beirut on the Lake."

"He has to recognize significant numbers of people want change," Swarts said Thursday.

There is an opportunity for Pigeon to solidify his leadership here, but it is not yet clear if he will. While he traditionally blamed party figures like Swarts and former Chairman Joe Crangle for all his troubles, he now sets his sights on a new target -- County Executive Joel Giambra.

The Democrat-turned-Republican pops up in all of Pigeon's rhetoric in recent weeks, as he blames Giambra for rallying former Democratic allies to the Swarts cause in an attempt to rule over both major parties. Pigeon calls this "an unholy alliance -- the Party of Joel."

"Those are the Democrats who really have an agenda, and the agenda is helping the Party of Joel," he said. "I believe it is only those leaders who are really working to undermine the party."

He takes it a step further, saying his enemies in the party will even help Republican Senate candidate Rick Lazio over Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton. "I say Swarts and his group are either through acts of omission or commission helping Lazio," he said Wednesday night.

"I just categorically reject that," Swarts countered. "To say that people who stood up with me are with the Republicans flies in the face of reality. It's unfortunate a chairman would make such a statement."

But it is Steve Pigeon's new mantra. To a certain extent, it's his job to zero in on the other party's Big Guy. But it will prove most interesting to see if he continues to feature the county executive in his inter-party battles, along with his intra-party battles as well.

Other items picked up on the campaign trail:

Sheila Kee, the interim administrator of Erie County Medical Center, has made good on her pledge to resign from the county Democratic Committee. She submitted her resignation Thursday.

But that allowed the 30-year veteran time for one last political act. Kee cast her vote in the chairman race Wednesday night with a "STEVE PIGEON!!!" scream heard in the Shea's rafters, and possibly throughout Southern Ontario as well.

We don't know what the extra volume was all about, but it was done well.

Buffalo pollster Gerald Goldhaber's latest survey of Erie County shows the Clinton-Lazio race is indeed tight. His poll of 660 registered voters just after the pair debated in Buffalo practically mirrors a News poll -- Clinton, 46 percent; Lazio, 41 percent.

And like The News poll, Goldhaber reports an impressive number of Erie County residents -- 58 percent -- watched the debate. He said 38 percent thought Clinton won the debate, 32 thought Lazio prevailed, and 30 percent weren't sure.

Buffalo businessman Tony Gioia continues to bring smiles to the face of Republican money people. The soiree he and his wife Donna hosted at their North Buffalo home Wednesday night featured former President George Bush, and netted about $400,000 for the George W. Bush campaign.

That, according to most sources, is a record for Western New York.

President Bush's time at the fund raiser was short, not even long enough to sit down to the beef tenderloin and turkey breast the $5,000 tickets provided. Gioia confided, however, that the little bag tucked under the former president's arm as he left Wednesday night contained a few sandwiches for the plane ride back to Kennebunkport.

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