Almost 20 years ago, Joel Giambra sat with a reporter at an out-of-the-way Fort Erie restaurant to talk politics.
Buffalo’s comptroller at the time, Giambra was hatching a plan that included switching from Democrat to Republican and embracing regional government. It would all work as he knocked off a once invincible Dennis Gorski in 1999 and eventually won two terms as Erie County executive.
Now Giambra’s political journey takes him down another unconventional path. One of three announced Republican candidates for governor, he attempts to persuade a skeptical GOP that he represents the only hope for a party shut out of statewide victories since 2002. He hopes to “rebrand” the state party.
“My message is that our party is stale,” Giambra said a few days ago. “The Republican Party in New York State is not able to attract a new constituency. I want to bring in that 18 to 35 group as well as the 35 to 60 demographic that is looking for a moderate Republican.”
The former county executive faces long odds. The Politics Column has scoured the state’s GOP ranks since Giambra first hinted at challenging Gov. Andrew Cuomo back in December and found nary a Republican (and we mean nary) who sees a path for Giambra to the GOP nomination.
Indeed, much of the state’s Republican hierarchy began lining up last week behind the party’s other two announced candidates – Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb of Canandaigua and State Sen. John DeFrancisco of Syracuse. Kolb gained support from Monroe County and Finger Lakes chairmen, while Onondaga’s influential organization lined up behind native son DeFrancisco.
Nick Langworthy, a major voice in the state party and Erie County’s chairman, has so far signalled no enthusiasm for the local boy – certainly not to the extent of his successful efforts for Buffalo’s Carl Paladino in 2010.
Another major hurdle faces Giambra, a lobbyist for former Sen. Alfonse D’Amato’s Park Strategies since he left the Rath County Office Building in 1996. State Conservative Chairman Mike Long considers him a non-starter who compared to Cuomo, represents “not a dime’s worth of difference.” No Republican has won statewide office without Conservative support since 1974.
All of this is just fine with Giambra, because it underscores his effort to smash all the old rules. He asks how many statewide elections the Republican-Conservative coalition has won lately.
“The combination of Republicans and Conservatives has been a failure politically,” he says. “And what are Kolb and DeFran going to say? I’m going to fix the problems I created?”
So much for the GOP route. Now Giambra says he is speaking with Curtis Sliwa (of Guardian Angel fame), chairman of something called the Reform Party. While he still hopes to qualify for a potential primary at the GOP convention, he seems to be talking minor party candidacy more than anything else.
Tom Golisano spent millions in three minor party runs for governor, but Giambra thinks his 11 election victories and county executive experience will attract more voters (though his red and green budget fiasco would certainly enter those discussions).
And what about financing a serious challenge from an obscure party against a Republican? Not to mention Cuomo and his $31 million campaign kitty?
“Small donations through social media” is his answer.
All of this will start to play out next Saturday when Langworthy convenes all three Republican candidates for a debate at Daemen College. It marks the first tangle for the gubernatorial hopefuls, and Giambra will use his Republican bully pulpit for as long as he can to make his case.
Watch for him to shake up the Grand Old Party as much as he dares on Saturday.
Giambra has a point. His adopted party is going nowhere fast these days, with more than one veteran Republican labeling it a “mess.”
Now Giambra wants to shout his message across the state. His problem will be finding the megaphone.