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QUINTANA UNDONE BY HIS DEMONS

I remember Robert Quintana in 1993, when all seemed good. People thought he was crazy, taking on Niagara Council Member Carl Perla and his West Side political machine. Quintana had no money and no organization, just whoever heard his Pied Piper's tune.

Each day, more did. The believers ranged from fellow Hispanics to progressive whites who'd never before worked for a candidate. He was bright and charming, worked hard and cared. In a crumbling district, he was the cool breeze of hope.

He just missed that time, but two years later took the seat. It was going to be a new day, led by a man of the people.

Quintana had a different kind of day Friday, getting a conditional discharge on his guilty plea in an altercation involving ex-fiance Millie Castro. He must continue anger management counseling, and an order of protection remains in effect.

It was the bottom of a years-long fall that had elements of Greek tragedy; the hero undone by flaws. For Quintana, it was ego, insecurity and a taste of power that went to his head.

For a while, it was all rags to riches. Quintana grew up watching his father pummel his mother, or line the family up and threaten to shoot them. His mother fled Puerto Rico with the kids to safety in Buffalo and its social agencies. Odds were he'd end up running the streets.

Instead he became a community icon, a city cop who told his story in more than 100 cities for the United Way.

Even during his first political run, there were cracks behind the energy and charisma. He seemed tightly wound and hungry for admiration. A fixation with image extended to tailored suits and gleaming shoes. You'd sooner see nuns dance naked on Grant Street than Quintana with a hair out of place.

The ego that drove him seemed fed by a well of insecurity -- not surprising, given his background. I remember hoping his better instincts would prevail.

But winning went to his head. Supporters he'd hired as Council staff were later replaced by his fiance, her teenage daughter and other relatives. Quintana went from the hardest working man in show business to a frequent no-show at meetings and community picnics. He tooled around the tattered district in a Jaguar. Even calls from other politicians sometimes went unreturned.

The real losers, of course, were the people in the community who weren't better served.

"Once he made it, it was like he forgot how he got there," said Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, an early supporter. "I hope he gets the help he needs, to return and do good things in the community."

Small slights were big deals. A staffer remembers him being furious for days after being turned aside at the legislative chambers in Albany. He berated an older staffer as if he was a child. There were run-ins with community activist Dick Kern.

"It was like there was two of him, one charming, the other volatile and insecure," said an ex-staffer, who asked not to be named. "If you questioned anything he did, you were on the outs."

It started coming apart two years ago, when he lost a race for at-large Council member. He became sick with what turned out to be fibromyalgia, a degenerative disease which added embarrassing pounds to the proud man's lean frame.

"It was a mind- and body-changing problem," said friend and attorney Ross Runfola.

Two months ago, Quintana was arrested in the domestic dispute. The man who'd met Bill Clinton in the White House had hit bottom.

There's time for redemption. He's just 39. Quintana, after court, said he'd learn from experience.

"When you're young," he said, "you take some things for granted."

Yet he blamed his troubles as much on others as himself. "Next time I'll be more careful," he said, "and not trust everybody."

I don't know what happens next. He's an unusual guy, an odd mix of vulnerability and arrogance, need and ambition -- with a rare ability to both attract and repel.

"The good thing about hitting bottom," Judge Tom Franczyk told Quintana, "is there's only one way to go."

The question now is whether Quintana will be led by his angels, or his demons.

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