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Joel Giambra's latest health challenge derails planned political comeback

Twenty years ago this week, Joel A. Giambra recited the oath of office as Erie County’s sixth executive, 18 days after surgery in New York City removed the aggressive cancer invading his throat.

Gaunt and thick-tongued that day in a downtown courtroom, Giambra went on to serve two terms as county executive before joining the private sector.

Now politics and disease intersect for Giambra once again. On the day he was to announce his comeback with a Republican bid for the Assembly, the former county executive instead revealed this week a battle with kidney failure that puts him on the long list for a transplant.

His political resurrection — for the moment — is ended.

He will not compete for the seat of Democrat Sean M. Ryan, who now runs for the State Senate. And the anticipated debate over Republican Giambra’s traditional ability to win in Democratic turf will dominate no political discussions this year.

The current lobbyist and real estate developer must now concentrate on kidney readings rather than polls, and staving off dialysis instead of Democrats.

“I was getting ready to jump back into the political arena,” Giambra said Monday, rattling off a list of old and new topics he hoped to tackle in Albany.

“I was going to revisit that whole agenda,” he added, before alluding to his new medical reality. “It’s time for a pause and a different direction.”

Giambra, who turns 63 on Wednesday, had even scheduled a meeting with a Buffalo News reporter to announce his comeback.

But last week in a regular visit with his doctor, blood tests revealed that the polycystic kidney disease that had previously appeared in minor form and afflicted his family for generations was getting serious.

The latest data shows his kidney function at less than 20%. If it sinks to the 10% range, doctors told him, dialysis or a transplant will quickly enter the discussion.

“It’s in my family,” he said. “My mom has it. I have two cousins with it. I’ve seen the toll it takes on my mom.”

Indeed, Giambra’s mother, Shirley Panaro, undergoes dialysis three times weekly at age 86.

“It’s not just us – kidney disease is a major problem across the country,” he added.

Giambra, who also served as Niagara Common Council member and Buffalo comptroller, now envisions a role as advocate for organ transplants. Like former Rep. Jack F. Quinn Jr., who promotes boxing as treatment for the Parkinson’s disease he has, Giambra says he now has a cause.

“I am going to focus on the related public policy issues and making more people aware of the need for organ donation,” he said. “It will be invigorating for me.”

Giambra said his lobbying days in Albany prepared him well. In the past, he advocated for marijuana legalization and the vaping industry, so he knows his way through the Capitol corridors. Now he will push for “Opt Out” legislation that would make every American eligible for organ donation unless they refuse, as opposed to the current “opt in” method.

In the past few weeks Giambra has learned lots of statistics. He rattles them off with conviction: 3 million Americans are affected by kidney disease; the diabetes epidemic looms as a major factor; it costs $89,000 per patient per year for dialysis, Medicaid shells out $35 billion; and 113,000 people around the country await an organ transplant.

He retains enough of a platform and political contacts, he thinks, to be effective.

“The best way to avoid dialysis is to make more donors available,” he said. “And it’s an important story, because there are not many people who don’t know someone who has had kidney disease through high blood pressure or diabetes.

“If more people were aware of the problem, more people would check the box on their license,” he added, referring to the current system that enrolls potential organ donors.

He has yet to begin seeking a kidney via transplant, but he recognizes the long odds without a live donor.

Giambra has been part of local politics ever since he was elected to the Common Council in his 20s. Though out of office since 2008, he sought the Republican nomination for governor as recently as 2018 with no success. Since then he has even dabbled with obscure minor parties such as Reform and Serve America Movement.

Recently he returned to the headlines spearheading a petition drive to restore the 50 mph speed limit on the Scajaquada Expressway, and he began talks with state Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy and former Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb about a comeback.

Though the 149th Assembly District features about 26,000 more Democrats than Republicans and has always been considered solid Democratic turf, Giambra felt he had a chance. He noted the district includes the West Side that served as his political base since his Council days, and also noted his ability to attract Democratic votes even as a Republican.

Indeed, Giambra won his city elections as a Democrat before switching to the GOP just prior to his successful county executive campaign in 1999, often prompting his “Giambracrat” label as a hybrid politician. He even could have started an Assembly campaign with almost $93,000 in his campaign account with funds left over from his county executive candidacies.

But success was not guaranteed, since he is still dogged by the “red and green budget” controversy that led to significant fiscal problems for Erie County during his tenure and eventual imposition of a financial control board.

Now his health looms as his greatest challenge, even if the cancer that threatened his life two decades ago has never returned.

This week he feels “fabulous,” continuing to play golf when at his Florida home. But he also knows the kidney disease is lurking, with the likelihood it will someday catch up.

“There are no real symptoms yet, but it could happen at any time or just stay at this level,” he said.

“It stinks, but you deal with it,” he added. “We’ll get through it, and then might just jump into the political arena again.”

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