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Grisanti’s complicated political equation

Few Western New Yorkers provide all us “political observers” with more fascinating fodder than Sen. Mark Grisanti of Buffalo.

A former Democrat who unsuccessfully ran in the party’s 2008 primary for Senate, Grisanti rebounded in 2010 to face incumbent Democrat Antoine Thompson once again – this time after switching over to the GOP.

“Is he crazy?” just about everyone asked at the time. “Doesn’t he know Thompson will win in a district that’s 5-to-1 Democrat?”

Grisanti didn’t know that. What he did recognize was that Thompson encountered a slew of problems and controversies in his short Albany career. And when it all culminated in a perfect political storm in November of 2010, Grisanti eked out a victory.

Grisanti brought an “R-Buffalo” label to the Senate, something unseen there in a long time.

In the meantime, the new senator started carving out a record very different from his upstate Republican colleagues. He voted for same-sex marriage in 2012, followed by an equally risky vote in favor of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s NY SAFE Act in 2013.

All of that got him kicked out of the Conservative Party clubhouse – a move some thought would prove fatal. No more “C” with the “R” after his name.

Instead, he snuggled up to new friends in the Independence Party. Now there’s an “I” to go with the “R.”

After surviving a nasty GOP primary in 2012 as well as intense criticism from Republican heavyweights like 2010 gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino, Grisanti cruised to a general election victory once again – even as Senate Democrats in Albany tagged him as their No. 1 target.

All of this matters as the political calendar flips to October, the month in which New York pols are legally required to state their party preference for 2014. So as all kinds of speculation swirls over where Grisanti will land for next year’s election, decision time looms.

The Politics Column reported in February that former County Executive Joel Giambra – a Republican who may rank as the most influential of all Grisanti advisers – was counseling the senator to join a minor party like Independence.

The theory here, said sources, was that Grisanti had carved out his own popular niche while proving he’s a survivor. Democrats and Republicans would field their own candidates in future elections, allowing him to split the defense and run down the middle.

And once in Albany, Grisanti could caucus with any party he wants. That means Democrats, Republicans or – interestingly – the Independent Democratic Caucus that shares power with the Senate GOP.

Others said Grisanti should go home to his native Democrats. After all, he voted like a Democrat on several key issues. And the district remains overwhelmingly in the “D” column.

But that would inevitably spark a stampede of “real” Democrats in a primary shouting “party switcher” from every rooftop.

So, according to several sources close to the senator, Grisanti will most likely stick with his new best friends in the GOP. They note anything can happen in the next few weeks, but the “R” appears ready to stick. “He’s not going anywhere,” said one of those sources.

But this still all involves Mark Grisanti. His 2012 Republican primary opponent – Kevin Stocker of Kenmore – is already knocking on district doors as he prepares for a rematch. Grisanti easily dispatched him last time around, but things like that SAFE Act vote may loom larger in 2014 – especially in a district now more suburban in flavor.

A big-name Democrat could still pose a major problem. This remains Democratic turf.

And Paladino continues lurking in the shadows. As he hints at another run for governor – this time on the Conservative line – he may turn his attention to Grisanti and other senators on his hit list.

To Paladino, there’s nothing worse than a RINO (Republican in Name Only). And if he will spend money running for governor, he might as well spend money against his opponents in the Senate.

Nobody ever said political survival is easy in Erie County. Certainly not Mark Grisanti.