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Cuomo holds? political cards ?close to vest in? Grisanti race; Offers no endorsement but is lavish with praise

ALBANY – Running in a district with a nearly 3-to-1 Democratic enrollment advantage, Republican State Sen. Mark J. Grisanti of Buffalo has often said he would be thrilled to have the political support of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the state's top Democrat.

Never mind that Cuomo lost all Western New York counties in his own 2010 election. Or that Grisanti needs to woo as many Republicans and Conservatives as he can to his side in a three-way contest against two Democrats in the 60th State Senate District.

What Grisanti and other Senate Republicans see is something more mathematically alluring: Cuomo's continuing high popularity.

"He knows he has an ally in me in Western New York, and if he were to offer his support, I would not only take it, but respect it," Grisanti said of Cuomo.
The governor hasn't decided.

"I haven't made any decisions,'' the governor said last week in an interview with The Buffalo News.

But he was quick to offer gushing praise for Grisanti, who he said showed "integrity and courage'' for being one of only four Republicans to back the governor's effort to pass a law allowing same-sex marriage.

What became of the GOP senators who backed Cuomo's marriage-equality legislation in the 33-29 vote?

Only Grisanti is certain to be on the ballot in November.

One of the senators is retiring, and the other two still don't know whether they survived too-close-to-call primaries two weeks ago.

"I said he showed integrity and courage on the marriage vote, which was a tough vote," Cuomo said of Grisanti. "If somebody wants to say that helps him, so be it, because it's the truth, and if that helps a person, it helps a person."

The governor also said of Grisanti: "We have a good working relationship."

And what about Michael L. Amodeo, the Democrat trying to take out Grisanti and help Democrats regain control of the Senate?

"I know nothing about him,'' Cuomo said.

Vying with Grisanti and Amodeo is Charles M. Swanick, a Kenmore Democrat on the Conservative line.

Cuomo hardly has to big-foot his way into the election with a Grisanti endorsement to help the freshman Republican. Staying out of the race ends up benefiting Grisanti, both sides agree.

And in many ways, Cuomo already has done about as much as a governor can do for a lawmaker from the opposite party, such as approving the new legislative boundaries that gave Grisanti a more favorable district, even though it is still predominantly Democratic.

Add in key policy initiatives that Grisanti pushed with Cuomo's key help – such as a University at Buffalo expansion into downtown and new money for various economic-development efforts – and the political help from the governor has been two years in the making.

Republicans say Grisanti's campaign already is producing advertisements and mailings that feature photographs of the senator with the governor. One ad under consideration contains a photo of Grisanti and Cuomo hugging at a UB event.

"That embrace is worth a million dollars," one Republican said. "You can bet there's a wink and a nod between them."

The governor did not express concerns that Grisanti might use such ad techniques.

"I don't have any comment about who should use what. If it's truthful, it's truthful," Cuomo said.

Grisanti isn't ruling out the use of other such ads with Cuomo's image or words.
"The possibility is definitely there," Grisanti said.

Cuomo said his political endorsements in the recent primary season were "the exception and not the rule."

For the general election, he said, he expects to be even more stingy. "To the extent I can stay out of partisan politics, amen," he said.

In Albany, this fuels the same speculation that used to surround former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, his father: that the governor would rather have the Senate remain under Republican control.

In the father's case, it was a body that often became a handy verbal target to tag for dysfunction.

In the case of the son, it is a legislative body that has cut numerous deals with the governor in two years.

Amodeo said he has no talks about a possible Cuomo endorsement. "But I would certainly enjoy the support a strong Democratic governor would give me through the campaign," the Hamburg lawyer said. "… I don't think it's going to win or lose the campaign for us."

Democrats, who would love to take back the seat after the embarrassing loss in 2010, believe that Cuomo will not endorse Grisanti. Leonard R. Lenihan, the Erie County Democratic chairman, said that "in reality, I think that's a tough thing to do."

One Democratic lawmaker in Albany said Cuomo might try to use the Grisanti race as a lesson after the controversy over gay marriage.

"This may be the race that he supports the guy who beat back the right wing of his own party," the lawmaker said of Grisanti and his decision to back the bill on gay marriage over outcries from GOP leaders at home.

Among the Senate Democrats walking the tightest of ropes is Sen. Michael N. Gianaris, the Queens lawmaker who heads the Senate Democratic campaign committee. Gianaris says he understands that Cuomo had to work with Senate Republicans in the last two years to get things accomplished.

"My point is simply that he can advance so much more of his agenda with a Democratic Senate," Gianaris said of stalled measures on raising the minimum wage, campaign finance reforms and other plans.

One way to gauge Cuomo's support concerns Senate Bill 6134, which would give larger tax breaks for projects to rehabilitate historic areas. It is a Grisanti-authored bill that is viewed as benefiting downtown Buffalo.

The bill has passed both houses but has not been sent by the Senate to Cuomo since passage June 19. It was one of Grisanti's priorities in the last session but is costly at a time when the state's finances are precarious. Backers of the bill say Cuomo's fiscal advisers advocate a veto.

Cuomo's signing the bill in a ceremony with Grisanti in Buffalo in the days or weeks before the election would be an obvious political gift.

But if Cuomo's intentions are to veto it, holding off on that action until after the election would also serve to protect Grisanti.

For local Republicans, who only two years ago were bashing Cuomo in his run against Buffalo's Carl P. Paladino, it is an interesting political time warp. Many interviewed last week said they would more than welcome Cuomo's endorsement of Grisanti.

"I think it's no secret the governor is very popular in the state," said Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy, noting that Cuomo has benefited from the help of a GOP-led Senate in the last two years. He says a Cuomo endorsement "certainly couldn't hurt Grisanti's chances."

One Senate Republican up for re-election, who last week already used a photograph of Cuomo in his own television campaign ad, said the ties between Cuomo and Grisanti have already produced deals such as the UB expansion.

Senate Deputy Majority Leader Thomas W. Libous, R-Binghamton, said, "Mark's relationship with the governor is good for Western New York."