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Race unsettled by Swanick endorsement; Grisanti loss in a redrawn district may give Democrats chance to regain Senate majority

A political free-for-all centering on Republican incumbent Mark J. Grisanti that could eventually determine control of the State Senate swirled through Erie County on Friday after the Conservative Party endorsed Democrat Charles M. Swanick the previous day.

And while it remains far from being settled, the situation today looks like this:

*Republicans are minus a crucial minor-party line deemed essential by most observers for Grisanti's uphill chances.

*Democrats are dealing with the re-emergence of Swanick, a one-time major figure in Erie County politics absent from the scene for more than six years. He remains persona non grata in some party quarters after jumping to the GOP in 2003 and then returning to the Democratic fold in 2009.

*And Conservatives are enjoying their kingmaker role after dumping Grisanti, whom they enthusiastically embraced during his upset win in 2010. That relationship soured, however, when the rookie senator reneged on a promise to vote against legalizing same-sex marriage.

As confusion surrounded the situation, Swanick offered at least some clarity by officially declaring his candidacy and promising to remain in the race all the way to November -- even if he fails to win the Democratic nomination.

"This is a very winnable district with a Conservative and Democratic endorsed candidate," the former County Legislature chairman said in an interview at The Buffalo News. "I represented 50 percent of the district, and it has a conservative flair to it. And I have been on both sides of the fence."

Swanick said Friday he entered the race at the invitation of Erie County Conservative Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo, a longtime ally, and said he believes he conformed to Conservative principles when he outlined his opposition to abortion (except in cases of rape or incest), same-sex marriage and gun control when he appeared before the party's Executive Committee on Thursday.

He also said he will run mainly on an economic development and job creation platform, believing he can allay Democratic fears about his one-time membership in the GOP that allowed him to become chairman of the County Legislature.

"A lot of it was anger about what was happening with the Democratic Party and the County Legislature," he said. "The good news is that I'm 10 years older now, and I do not do things out of anger any more."

Erie County Democratic Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan did not return a phone call Friday seeking comment on the situation. But local sources say Sen. Michael Gianaris of Queens, who is in charge of restoring a Democratic majority in the Senate -- where Republicans hold a 32-30 edge -- was in town over the past few day to address the situation.

>Gaughan mentioned

The other main Democratic name being considered at the moment is Kevin P. Gaughan, the Buffalo attorney and government downsizing guru who has also been making his case with Democratic leaders.

Swanick said he had not spoken with Gianaris, but other sources say his candidacy is gaining favor with statewide Democrats who appreciate his durability on the local political scene. His candidacy begins just as Swanick -- 63 retires from CSX Railroad, where he was a locomotive engineer before entering his 26-year political career and for the last six years since leaving County Hall.

Swanick's promise to remain on the Conservative line appeared to dampen some speculation that the Republican Party -- desperate to retain its only foothold of Albany power -- might dump Grisanti in favor of a waiting-in-the-wings candidate like former Republican Assemblyman Jack F. Quinn III. That idea had centered around the possibility of Swanick dropping out of the race and allowing Erie County Conservatives to refocus on Quinn.

Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy would not comment Friday, but sources close to him said he remains committed to Grisanti despite this week's major setback. Those same sources say, however, the party will in all likelihood start serious polling to assess Grisanti's chances in the crucial seat. The sources say without strong polling numbers to support Grisanti, his candidacy and its statewide ramifications could prove a concern to the chairman.

Another Republican supporter of Grisanti, Sen. George D. Maziarz of Newfane, questioned why Erie County Conservatives acted even before district lines were finalized and said the party should be rallying around the rookie from Buffalo.

"I think Mark is an independent who has done a good job for Western New York," he said. "Though he obviously has not voted right down the road with Senate Republicans, he's independent, and that's why I like him."

Statewide sources close to Quinn, meanwhile, insist the former assemblyman is happily settled in the private sector and does not desire another shot at elective office at this time.

But signs of a Grisanti push back also began to surface. The senator would not answer questions posed by The News and instead issued a statement saying only he was "not surprised or shocked that a political deal was cut."

>Party fracture

And several sources say Grisanti will gain the Independence Party nomination, possibly as early as next week.

Meanwhile, the Niagara County Conservative Party weighed in by declaring strong support for Grisanti. Chairman Daniel Weiss noted nothing has yet been settled because definitive boundary lines of the Grisanti district have not yet been finalized through redistricting.

And in an indication of a significant party fracture, he also accused Lorigo of cutting a deal with political operative G. Steven Pigeon, a longtime Swanick ally and former chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party.

"The sad fact is that Lorigo abandoned Conservative principles long ago in exchange for patronage jobs and legal clients," Weiss said. "He is an embarrassment to the party."

Weiss continued to make the connection to Pigeon, a former employee of the Democratic Senate whom he said involved Lorigo in a deal that could cost Republicans control of the Senate.

"Chuck Swanick is a political opportunist and a fiscal nightmare who ran Erie County into the ground," he said. "And his mentor Steve Pigeon is a cheap political hack that lacks any true conservative principles.

"I'm also appalled at the lack of understanding of political ramifications statewide for this move that could see a return to downstate liberal control of the Senate," Weiss continued. "This again proves Lorigo stands for nothing but his own personal gain."

Maziarz also noted Swanick's connection to Pigeon, which also presents a problem for Lenihan -- a longtime Pigeon adversary.

>Another theory

Niagara County, which is cut out of the Grisanti district in preliminary lines drawn by a legislative reapportionment commission, could influence the situation in a yet another way. One theory under discussion involves the Senate reinserting Niagara County into the district, handing the ultimate decision in the Conservative endorsement to state Chairman Michael R. Long of Brooklyn by creating a multicounty district.

Long has vowed that Grisanti's vote to legalize same-sex marriage would nix the Conservative nod as long as he has a say. But some observers say the Republican Senate could still include Niagara County on final redistricting maps, allowing Long to override Lorigo and paving the way for an endorsement for Quinn.

But while some sources say Quinn remains interested, several others insist he is not.