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Grisanti keeping his distance

Whenever Gov. Andrew Cuomo comes to our town, he likes to invite a few hundred of his closest friends to venues like the University at Buffalo or SUNY Buffalo State to unveil his latest proposal and expound on life in New York State.

The method works well for the governor, who usually brings along Buffalo Billion good news or announcements about jobs and economic development. It’s exactly how Cuomo organized his Tuesday trip to Buffalo State to tout a new law fighting heroin abuse.

The auditorium of the Burchfield-Penney Art Center brimmed with invited guests who dutifully applauded on cue. And a phalanx of legislators crowded around the governor for photos documenting his ceremonial signing of the heroin law.

As their careers progress, senators and assembly members become experts in the ancient art of “position jockeying” for those gubernatorial photos. Who wouldn’t want a picture with the governor signing a new anti-heroin law?

Maybe that’s a good question for Sen. Mark Grisanti.

The Buffalo Republican, a long-time Cuomo ally, was among the few Western New York legislators absent from Tuesday’s ceremony. He later explained his wife had a doctor’s appointment prior to a knee operation while his dog was undergoing surgery on Tuesday – a double whammy on the medical front.

But Grisanti’s opponents believe he sought to avoid inevitable questions about the intersection of his roles as senator and criminal defense attorney.

The Buffalo News, you may recall, reported in March that neighbors of a West Delevan Avenue “stash house” were outraged that the senator chose to represent Steven Martinez, arrested back on Feb. 27 after police recovered $50,000 worth of heroin and another $70,000 in cash from the home. Their own state senator, they said, was now seeking to return to the streets someone they had long sought to remove from the streets.

At the time, Niagara Council Member David A. Rivera pronounced it “just terrible” that Grisanti’s priorities now lie with his criminal clients.

“Anyone has the right to legal counsel, but this puts him against the same people he represents,” said Rivera, a Democrat. “Defending these people in federal court creates a conflict.”

Grisanti continues to maintain that everyone accused of a crime is entitled to legal representation. And he is right.

West Side residents, however, were asking why it had to be their senator. So does Kevin Stocker, the Kenmore attorney again challenging Grisanti in the GOP primary. He says the heroin client will be an issue in the campaign.

“It’s a complete betrayal of trust from an elected office point of view,” Stocker said.

All of this follows a series of hearings on the new law conducted by the former Senate majority coalition’s Joint Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction in 10 cities across New York earlier this year – none in the state’s second-largest city. A knowledgeable source said sidestepping Buffalo was no accident in an effort to avoid the Grisanti representation issue.

Meanwhile, the senator insists that he backs the new law, that he voted for it and that he does not approve of anyone using or selling drugs. He also realizes his criminal defense work will loom as an issue in 2014, just as it has in previous campaigns.

“It’s not that I condone this, or whether someone was drinking and driving, or whatever,” he said. “It’s to make sure the process of the justice system is being followed.”

Candidates from the Democratic, Republican and Independence parties are all scrambling to challenge Grisanti on a variety of issues, including Cuomo. Stocker even claims Grisanti ducked Buff State on Tuesday to avoid photos with Cuomo, despite their close relationship.

All of that is debatable. What appears certain, however, is that Grisanti’s conflicts in his public and private professions will very much loom as an issue in the contest for Senate this year.

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com