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Give Gaughan credit for hanging on

Kevin Gaughan knew he'd need every break and every piece of luck to beat Byron Brown.

He got none of it.

Most thought that Brown, the state senator with a huge edge in money, endorsements, party support and the army of campaign workers it brings, was unstoppable in the Democratic primary for mayor. His broad appeal and deep strength among African-Americans anointed him as the frontrunner. With it came campaign dollars from every developer, attorney and contractor who wants to do business with the city.

Challenging Brown was a huge task. But Gaughan, the civic leader who believes the city needs the big ideas he brings, risked a likely beating to give voters a choice. On Tuesday, they resoundingly chose Brown.

Hardly anything went right for Gaughan, right to the end.

The cluster of wannabes who swelled the early primary field to five denied Gaughan the one-on-one race he needed, until the final four days.

"The [other candidates] took up time in the debates," said Kevin Hardwick, Canisius College political science professor. "They let Brown stay in the background, they dispersed the [voters'] focus, and they got some of the money that otherwise would've went to Gaughan."

Businessman Steve Calvaneso, who didn't drop out until four days before the primary, was Gaughan's worst nightmare.

"I had four days of one-on-one competition," Gaughan said. "I wish I'd had four months."

Two weeks before the primary, knowing that a three-way race divided the anti-status quo vote and handed Brown a victory, an offer was floated to the two reform candidates: Take a poll, and whomever finishes behind the other drops out and endorses the other.

According to sources at the meeting, Gaughan agreed -- but Calvaneso declined to go as far as the endorsement, scuttling the deal.

"Calvaneso wouldn't support Gaughan," businessman Newell Nussbaumer said.

Barely a week later Calvaneso bailed out, saying he didn't want to divide the reform vote. Others thought he merely wanted to avoid the embarrassment of a lopsided defeat. Either way, it was too late to do Gaughan much good.

"If Calvaneso had dropped out [earlier], then it's a one-on-one race with all the attention on Brown and Gaughan," Hardwick said. "Gaughan didn't even get any of the one-on-one debates he wanted."

Other forces beyond Gaughan's control killed him. The county's lengthy budget woes -- the sales tax wasn't increased until late June -- distracted the media from early primary coverage. Katrina grabbed the media focus the last few weeks.

Gaughan's problems went beyond lack of media focus.

Joel Giambra's fall from grace this year cost Gaughan his prime political ally and tainted his biggest issue -- regionalism and a city-county merger. The discrediting of Giambra also shifted voter focus from Albany's dysfunction and took Brown, a state senator, off the hook for his Albany connection.

Granted, Brown probably would have won anyway. He's personable, he had the money and the party backing. His Grassroots political organization gets out the vote, and the prospect of a black mayor energized his core supporters.

In the teeth of that storm, Gaughan deserves credit for hanging in. Mayoral wannabes such as Sam Hoyt and Bob Gioia took a look at running and ran the other way. Primary pretenders either faded away or, in Calvaneso's case, bailed out days before the vote.

Gaughan stayed in. He did the right thing by everybody who wrote a check to him or knocked on doors for him. He did the right thing by the voters, who deserve a choice. Brown was the big winner Tuesday. But don't label Gaughan, who had the guts to take on an uphill fight and stay with it, as a loser. Not hardly.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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