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Cuomo finds endorsement decision in Grisanti-Panepinto race ‘difficult’

ALBANY – Despite his vow to help Democrats take control of the State Senate, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Friday said he faces a “personally difficult” decision on whether to endorse Republican Sen. Mark Grisanti as the incumbent seeks to keep his seat in the November general election on a minor party line.

Cuomo noted that Grisanti is the last of the four Senate Republicans who voted in favor of gay marriage rights in 2011, legislation Cuomo proposed

“Grisanti is the last of the four. They have eliminated the other three,” Cuomo said Friday, referring to conservative political operatives who he said have sent messages that they are “not going to tolerate disobedient Republicans who fail to toe to the conservative line.”

Grisanti lost last week’s GOP primary to Kenmore attorney Kevin Stocker in the district that includes part of Buffalo and suburbs to the north and south of the city.

Grisanti said this week he will still run on the Independence Party line against Stocker and Democrat Marc Panepinto.

The governor earlier this year, in a pledge to help win the backing for his own campaign by the Working Families Party, said he will help to bring Democratic control back to the Senate after five decades of GOP domination.

But when given the chance Friday to endorse Panepinto, Cuomo did not jump.

“This is a personally difficult situation for me. I am thinking about it. I haven’t reached any conclusions,’’ Cuomo said when asked if he might support Grisanti. He made his comments to reporters following a speech to the Business Council in Bolton Landing, Warren County.

Cuomo said conservatives have worked to “punish” Republicans like Grisanti who went along with measures such as the gay marriage legislation and his SAFE Act gun-control law, which Grisanti also supported.

Cuomo noted the other three GOP senators who voted for the marriage bill are no longer in Albany, two having lost in primaries and one having retired in the face of a tough re-election fight. Cuomo also noted how he had supported two of the Senate Republicans.

“I want to be there. I want to be supportive. … It’s personally difficult,” Cuomo said in discussing Grisanti’s political future.

Democrats are confident they have a winning candidate in Panepinto, a Buffalo lawyer, and say Grisanti’s chances of winning the seat on the minor party Independence line is a challenge at best.

Republicans, though, quickly jumped on Cuomo’s reluctance to make an endorsement in the Senate 60th race, despite his role as leader of the state Democratic Party.

“We don’t believe anyone is going to support convicted criminal Marc Panepinto for this important Senate seat,’’ said Scott Reif, a spokesman for the Senate Republicans.

Panepinto in 2001 was convicted of a misdemeanor for collecting fraudulent voter signatures on designating petitions; he has said it was a lapse in judgment and that he has gone on to have a successful Buffalo law firm.

Before he spoke Friday, Cuomo was greeted by Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino, the Westchester County executive. Astorino, who spoke at Thursday night’s Business Council meeting, came back Friday morning to the hotel to hear Cuomo’s speech and to try to nail down a commitment from Cuomo – before reporters – to debate. Cuomo refused to debate his Democratic primary opponents.

Astorino has called for multiple debates and for them to be one-on-one with just Cuomo and himself.

“We will debate,” Cuomo said. Asked if he would debate just Astorino, Cuomo said, “That’s up to the campaigns.”

Cuomo, known for his hands-on style, said it was also up to the campaigns to determine how many debates there will be, where they will be held, who will host them, and when they will take place. In 2010, Cuomo dismissed Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino’s request for multiple and one-on-one debates, eventually agreeing to just one on Long Island featuring seven candidates.

A new filing submitted Friday evening to the state elections board shows how important defeating Grisanti in the primary was to the New York State United Teachers union.

In a one-week period leading up to the Sept. 9 primary, the union reported a total political spending of $392,000; $296,000 of that was on efforts to defeat Grisanti with the theory being to have Stocker, who the union sees as a weaker GOP candidate, run against Panepinto, who the union endorsed in August.