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When state Independence Chairman Frank MacKay surfaced at the Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park a few weeks ago to endorse Republican Sen. Mark Grisanti for re-election, the gaggle of reporters summoned to the waterfront was probably suppressing a snicker or two.

Not that cynicism ever marks ink-stained wretches and other news hounds, mind you.

But the Grisanti team obviously contrived the event right after the Conservative Party snubbed the senator. Now they were touting a party whose strength -- frankly -- stems from members believing they are "independents" and not part of an organized "Independence" party.

That constitutes the major strength of Independence these days, a far cry from the third-party option inspired by Ross Perot in 1992 and refined in New York by three-time gubernatorial candidate Tom Golisano.

Indeed, Independence now dwells on the ballot's fifth line, overcome by other minors like Conservative and Working Families. Some question its relevance.

But the March 20 special election victory of Mickey Kearns -- a Democrat running on the Republican line for the 145th Assembly District -- demonstrates the clout minor parties often wield in New York. And there is no question Grisanti campaign headquarters took notice as it scratches and claws for every vote this November in a still overwhelmingly Democratic district.

Here's why:

After losing the "big prize" -- Conservative backing on the ballot's third line -- Kearns' Independence support paid dividends in his faceoff with Democrat Chris Fahey. Kearns won 1,619 votes on the Independence line -- a healthy 13 percent of the vote.

Make that 16.3 percent in the uber-Democratic City of Buffalo.

According to many political observers, the Independence line offered an alternative to Democrats who wouldn't even hold their nose and vote for Kearns on the GOP line.

They skipped over Conservative, where Fahey scored a paltry 2.3 percent. Fahey even fared better on Working Families at 3 percent. In fact, Kearns won better than 2-to-1 on one minor line over Fahey's two combined.

"There are definite similarities," said Doug Curella, Grisanti's chief of staff. "And we believe Mark's independence and crossover appeal is something voters want in Western New York."

The stars, moons and planets do not always align for Independence. Conservatives often carry the day.

But the scenario also recalls a 1999 landmark election in which Republican Joel Giambra beat Democratic incumbent Dennis Gorski for county executive. In that contest, Giambra tallied 12.2 percent of his vote on Independence (which he won in an earlier primary against Gorski), while the incumbent took only 6.5 percent on Conservative in heavily Democratic Erie County.

Reapportionment has made life a little easier for Grisanti -- the district's Democratic advantage shrinks from 5-to-1 to 2 1/2 -to-1. That's like Gen. Custer's disadvantage shrinking from 5-to-1 to 2 1/2 -to-1.

But for outgunned Grisanti, the Kearns victory on the Independence line marks the only good news he's received in a while.

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Quote of the Week comes from Livingston County GOP Chairman Lowell Conrad on the upcoming congressional contest pitting either Chris Collins or David Bellavia against Democratic incumbent Kathy Hochul. If it's Collins, the respected Conrad is still steaming over how the former county executive's political team managed Republican Jane Corwin's losing effort in essentially the same district last year.

"I trust this campaign will be run differently than the Corwin campaign," Conrad said.

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com