Joel A. Giambra began traveling around New York last week in hopes of persuading wary Republican leaders to support his bid for the party’s gubernatorial nomination next year.
But it was a tough sell.
The former Erie County executive had to explain his financial contributions to Democrats like Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, the Buffalo fundraiser he organized for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, another Democrat, and the fact that he led a statewide group called Republicans for Hillary during the 2016 presidential campaign.
He also sought their backing while opposing President Trump, even though virtually all of the state Republican hierarchy pledges loyalty to their fellow New Yorker in the White House.
“I’m not looking to pick a fight with Trump but I am not a Trump supporter,” Giambra said a few days ago, “and I still have very strong reservations about his ability to lead us.”
Giambra’s views may prove heretical to much of the state GOP. But he believes the party must adopt a different approach.
He points out the last three Republican candidates for governor — John J. Faso, Carl P. Paladino and Rob Astorino — were all soundly defeated in heavily Democratic New York. But past Republicans like Nelson A. Rockefeller and George E. Pataki, he argues, won seven elections between them while embracing “moderate” platforms.
Like Giambra, Rockefeller and Pataki supported abortion rights. Giambra now goes further on other progressive issues, promoting public campaign financing and legalization of marijuana.
But to a certain extent, Giambra fits the winning mold fashioned for Pataki in 1994 by then-Sen. Alfonse M. D’Amato and state GOP Chairman William D. Powers: moderate, pro-choice, ethnic and hailing from a population base outside of New York City.
The party must adapt and evolve, Giambra says, or be relegated to historical footnote status.
“I believe the Republican Party in New York State is looking for a candidate who can win,” he said, “and a candidate perceived as a strong conservative probably does not have much of a chance. Plus I have a proven record of getting Democratic votes.”
A former Democrat who won elections for Niagara Council member and comptroller in heavily Democratic Buffalo, Giambra switched to the GOP before launching his first countywide campaign in 1999. But he always reveled in his “party outsider” reputation while commanding his own “Giambracrat” faction of the local GOP.
Now he wants to bring that same brand of Republican politics to a statewide campaign, while still adhering to conservative principles of smaller government. His largely unsuccessful campaign for regional government during his days in the county's Rath Building could be implemented, he says, if tackled on statewide level.
“If you really want to reduce taxes in New York State, I have a plan to consolidate and merge,” he said, promising a campaign of “policy and ideas.”
So far, however, his candidacy is not catching fire. State Republican Chairman Edward F. Cox said Giambra wants to talk, but that he needs to build support around the state. The chairman said he has sensed no enthusiasm for the kind of “moderate” Republican platform Giambra espouses.
“Among our candidates, that really has not been an issue; it’s more about fixing the economy,” Cox said. “That’s a very down to earth thing.”
Cox added that Giambra must tread carefully while criticizing the president since the economy is performing and Trump proposals like infrastructure development will eventually benefit New York.
“You have to be supportive of those policies because that’s what reinvigorates the economy,” he said. “You can reject some of the president’s policies, but to do it wholesale would be a mistake.”
Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy said he has not spoken with Giambra in several years, and that the new candidate will be challenged to receive party backing after supporting so many Democrats from his still hefty county executive campaign fund.
“He had a fundraiser here for the most liberal politician in the history of the City of New York and most liberal politician in the country,” Langworthy said, referring to de Blasio. “That raises a lot of questions about why he would be our best standard bearer, before even discussing his record in office.”
The Conservative Party also represents a major challenge for Giambra, especially since no Republican running for statewide office in New York has won without Conservative support since 1974.
State Conservative Chairman Michael R. Long says he has not heard from Giambra.
“He may not be interested in the Conservative Party endorsement, and that’s fine with me,” he said. “We want to move the State of New York in the right direction.
“With that background and with the people he’s supported, it sounds like he favors everything that Andrew Cuomo is for,” Long added. “That’s not what we’re about.”
Still, Long said anyone seeking his party’s nod should attend his annual Albany conference in January, where he is anticipating appearances by other potential candidates: businessman Harry Wilson, Assembly Minority Leader Brian M. Kolb, state Sen. John DeFrancisco and Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro.
Paladino, the 2010 Republican-Conservative candidate for governor, won that year’s GOP primary against another moderate Republican — former Rep. Rick A. Lazio. He claimed the intraparty contest with close to two-thirds of the vote, and 94-to-6 percent margin in Erie County. Paladino says that since the die-hard conservative Republicans are most apt to vote in a Republican primary, Giambra can expect similar results.
“He’s still a liberal Democrat,” he said. “If he just wants to put on a Republican uniform, it’s not going to work. Is he dreaming?”
Paladino, who floated the idea of a repeat candidacy in 2018 but now says he will pass, said he likes Wilson as a candidate while wondering why “he plays so hard to get.” Kolb and DeFrancisco, he said, “are not my people, that’s for sure.”
None of this makes much difference to Giambra, who has ended a 10-year stint in D’Amato’s lobbying firm to concentrate on his new effort. He says he can defend his efforts for Democrats like Cuomo.
“He was the best Democratic candidate, and I was the first Democrat in New York State to endorse his dad back in 1982,” he said. “I hope to prove I’m the best Republican candidate.”
And de Blasio?
“Bill is a friend,” he said.
He supported Clinton in 2016, he added, because he did not believe Trump represented the “values and principles of the Republican Party.” He also referred to a new Baruch College/NY1 poll showing 64 percent of New Yorkers disapprove of Trump’s job performance.
Giambra says he is willing to run in a primary, though he stops short of promising to challenge Wilson, who has talked of contributing $10 million of his own money should he enter the race.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Giambra says.
He now embarks on an effort he calls “not a campaign but a crusade.”
“I want to mobilize those 18 to 35 across the state and bring new blood to the Republican Party without changing the core message,” he said.
“They told me I couldn’t win county executive either,” he added, “but that didn’t deter me.”