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Observers await political fallout from casino fight; Conservatives' dumping of Grisanti makes retaining Senate control harder for GOP

Under normal circumstances, the file on Sen. Mark J. Grisanti's Feb. 10 tussle at the Seneca Niagara Casino would be stamped "case closed" after law enforcement decided last week against pressing charges.

But control of the New York State Senate hardly qualifies as a normal circumstance. The statewide spotlight on the Buffalo Republican following the casino brawl and now the Erie County Conservative Party's Thursday decision to dump him from their line only intensifies in the light of what is at stake.

"It all comes down to one thing -- control of the Senate," said Syracuse political consultant Jack Cookfair, who served as Grisanti's media consultant in 2010. "And when you look around the state and see there are not many Republican opportunities, it's even more important."

That's why media in New York City and across the state have focused not only on Grisanti's brawl with Seneca patrons at the casino but on its political aftermath as well. And even before Feb. 10, Senate mapmakers drew one of the most convoluted districts in the state to accommodate their freshman incumbent.

But with many Republicans convinced a Grisanti victory in November represents their best hope to retain their last bastion of Albany power, the party is hardly encouraged by the decision of Erie County Conservative Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo and his Executive Committee to nominate Democrat Charles M. Swanick for their often-crucial line.

Now the Conservative Party's statewide chairman -- Michael R. Long of Brooklyn -- says Republican leaders who allowed their members to vote for same-sex marriage and higher taxes in 2011 have nobody to blame but themselves.

"The Republican majority created its own problem, because I couldn't have been more clear and the state Executive Committee could not have been more clear," Long said Saturday. "We helped them win back the majority, then they vote for gay marriage and to raise taxes.

"Sen. Grisanti should have thought about that before he voted," he added.

Lorigo echoed those thoughts on Saturday, indicating he, too, seeks a GOP Senate to counterbalance the Democratic Assembly. But he also insisted the Republican Senate ignored earlier warnings -- like denial of Conservative backing for former Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno several years ago.

The ultimate aim, he said, is a more conservative GOP.

"I understand they want to blame Conservatives for what Republicans have created," Lorigo said. "But I have to do what's best for Conservatives.

"They didn't listen to the message," he added.

Now Republicans are scrambling for advantage in Erie County and in Albany, too. The confusion leads to some Republicans suggesting they too should dump Grisanti and replace him with someone -- who after a convoluted process -- could eventually reclaim the Conservative line that provided Grisanti's margin of victory in 2010.

They say the pressure is especially intense on Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy, upon whom statewide Republicans will rely to help preserve their Senate majority and who "needs a win" after losing two recent high-profile local contests.

Others say Grisanti still offers their best hope in a district expected to remain heavily Democratic no matter how reapportionment lines are eventually drawn.

"Mark's appeal is his more moderate record," Cookfair said, questioning the value of the Conservative line. "The hard right is not going to vote for him anyway."

Long reiterated on Saturday his stand against same-sex marriage and his edict that anyone who voted for the bill -- as Grisanti did -- would be ineligible for Conservative support in any contest over which he had jurisdiction. He also said he does not want to see the Senate "handed over to the Democratic Party."

But he added he has no problem backing a conservative Democrat -- as Swanick describes himself. He said while Grisanti and three other Republican senators who voted for same-sex marriage are now collecting "tons of money from gay lobbying groups," their votes also subject them to the consequences the Conservative Party has threatened all along.

Long said he now hopes Lorigo and Erie County Conservatives also will jettison Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy of Buffalo, a Democrat previously backed by Conservatives who also voted for same-sex marriage.

"One should be consistent," he said.

Grisanti is still expected to gain the Independence Party nod, according to sources familiar with its plans, possibly as early as this week. A local Working Families Party leader said Saturday he believes Grisanti has a "good fighting chance" of securing the labor-backed line as well.

The senator did not answer calls seeking his comment again on Saturday.

And while some Republican insiders continue to mention former Republican Assemblyman Jack F. Quinn III as a potential emergency candidate should the party decide to dump Grisanti, a source close to the senator noted that Quinn has signed on as a sponsor of a $125 per ticket Grisanti fundraiser on March 7.

Meanwhile, Erie County Democratic Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan warned Saturday that the race is driven only by "speculation" until the boundary lines are finally established, which could still take weeks if Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo vetoes what the Legislature sends him or the issue winds up in court.

Still, Lenihan acknowledged that Democrats are as intent on defeating Grisanti (a former Democrat who ran in the 2008 primary for the seat) as Republicans are in preserving him.

"It does involve control of the Senate, no question about it," Lenihan said, adding he still sees Grisanti's 2010 victory over Democratic incumbent Antoine M. Thompson as an "anomaly."

Lenihan has not indicated if he will support Swanick, who enraged many Democrats when he jumped to the GOP in 2003 to become Legislature chairman. Many others have linked Swanick's latest comeback to former Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon, a longtime Lenihan adversary.

Other Democrats, including government downsizing advocate Kevin P. Gaughan and Kenmore Mayor Patrick Mang, remain in the picture. But now they are forced to at least consider Swanick, along with his Conservative nomination and his ability to challenge any other Democrat in a primary.

Lenihan said Saturday the party will make no decision until the final district lines are finalized.

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com