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State politicians shoot . . . and hope to score with Golisano Endorsement by Sabres owner is a valuable political commodity

High above the ice in HSBC Arena, Buffalo Sabres owner B. Thomas Golisano may have the best view in the house.

Not just of the hockey game, but of the 2006 contest for governor as well.

A steady stream of gubernatorial hopefuls has begun trooping to Golisano's private box to join him for some NHL action and to talk over the issues facing the state.

Indeed, Nassau County Executive Thomas R. Suozzi -- a Democrat -- accepted Golisano's invitation to the owner's box Sunday night for the contest against the Boston Bruins.

Wednesday, Republican William F. Weld -- a former governor of Massachusetts -- joined Golisano for a game also against the Bruins.

Other candidates welcome an invitation.

Even former President Bill Clinton sat with Golisano in December for a game against the Dallas Stars.

When it comes to this year's campaign for governor, the owner's box is buzzing with plenty of two-way conversation.

"They use it as an opportunity to garner my support," Golisano said, "and I use it as an opportunity for the candidates to know more about upstate New York and what should be done."

Though the three-time Independence Party candidate passed on another run for the Executive Mansion this year as a newly minted Republican, nobody doubts that Golisano's endorsement -- and part of his $1.3 billion fortune -- could play a huge role in the election.

There's also the substantial influence he still wields in his old Independence Party, a line coveted by every gubernatorial candidate.

"I think it's fairly certain that, if they could extract an endorsement out of me, they'd think that was a positive," Golisano said.

There appears to be no question that securing the blessing of a billionaire bent on reform could rank as a highlight of a campaign marked by candidates attempting to "out-reform" the others.

"Tom Golisano is a reform guy and somebody who still advocates the need for significant reform in New York State," said Erie County Republican Chairman Robert E. Davis. "Any candidate who can convince Tom Golisano that he is the candidate of reform is someone to whom Tom Golisano will listen."

Golisano said he feels upstate New York's woeful economy must be the focus of anyone with serious plans to be governor. He said familiar themes of his campaigns of 1994, 1998 and 2002 -- reform of workers' compensation, health insurance, energy cost and tort law -- still need attention.

The founder of Paychex Inc. thinks state government treats upstate as a "caboose on the end of a train relative to economic issues."

"They seem to be applying a downstate rationale that doesn't work up here," he said. "We can't get any change, reform or creativity. It's just business as usual year after year."

G. Steven Pigeon, the former Erie County Democratic chairman and a Golisano adviser, said whoever lands Golisano's support must demonstrate the same enthusiasm for reform.

"Any endorsement that he gives will say a lot about the level of commitment to reform," he said.

In addition, Golisano believes special interests such as public employee unions, lawyers and, to some extent, the medical community control the process.

As a result, he's interested in candidates like Suozzi.

"Tom Suozzi has been on the reform bandwagon for a long time," Golisano said, "particularly in the way the Legislature operates. We have a lot in common."

Former Gov. Weld?

"I was sort of surprised," Golisano said. "He obviously experienced the same things in Massachusetts that we do in New York."

Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer, the Democrat with whom relations have been strained in recent months?

"I'll talk to Eliot anytime," Golisano said.

The Spitzer campaign did not return a call seeking comment.

Weld emphasizes the Independence line in all his dealings lately, and says he and the Sabres owner are on the same wavelength.

"The more I talk with Tom Golisano, the more I feel a commonality of interest," he said.

Suozzi spokeswoman Kim Devlin said the candidate looked forward to talking with Golisano about his efforts at government reform and his experience in Nassau County.

"He welcomes anyone who supports that and wants to see him as the next governor of New York," she said.

Republican John J. Faso, the former Assembly minority leader and a candidate for governor, is also interested in speaking with Golisano. Their relations have frayed since Golisano endorsed his 2002 Democratic opponent for comptroller, Alan G. Hevesi, and the possibility of a Faso invitation is unclear.

Still, Faso said he would welcome the support of someone with a such a "strong interest in public policy and the direction of the state."

"There are a lot of things we could talk about concerning reform and fiscal responsibility, the kind of things I've been talking about for years," Faso said.

Golisano said he is also concerned about the possibility of Democrats taking over the State Senate, especially if the balance of power is affected by Democratic control of the governorship, Senate and Assembly.

"There is a good chance I will help Republican [Senate] candidates around the state, including in Buffalo," he said, adding that he and Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno "have had some conversations" about what form that assistance might take.

But there is a rule in the owner's box, according to the owner. There's no serious talk while the game is under way. When the Sabres are on the ice, Golisano said, the talk is about the Sabres.

Clinton has proved the most vocal hockey fan of his famous political guests, he said, though Weld enjoyed himself, too -- even against his Boston Bruins.

"Every time the Sabres scored, [Weld] jumped out of his seat," Golisano said, acknowledging with a chuckle that such behavior just might prove in the candidate's best interest, too.

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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