Five candidates compete this week in the two primaries for 60th State Senate District, but the ballot might as well feature two of the best-known names in Erie County politics: Joel A. Giambra and G. Steven Pigeon.
Giambra, the former Republican county executive, and Pigeon, the former county Democratic chairman, are working behind the scenes in the two fiercely contested primary races for that Senate seat, which is costing unprecedented amounts of money and commanding statewide attention.
For Giambra, it's all about Republican Mark J. Grisanti.
Giambra recruited, advised and helped Grisanti upset Democratic incumbent Antoine M. Thompson in the 2010 general election. Now he's reprising that role in 2012.
Pigeon, meanwhile, has emerged as a major force behind Charles M. Swanick, who is seeking the Democratic line for the same Senate seat.
Pigeon has already successfully lobbied local Conservative Party officials to back Swanick and has mined many of his traditional allies for financial support for the Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Democrat Swanick.
It all amounts to a powerful behind-the-scenes clash of two political titans in a November election that could determine whether Democrats or Republicans control the Senate come Jan. 1.
"It's a shame some people don't know Giambra and Pigeon are behind the scenes," said Alfred Coppola, a Democrat running as a long-shot candidate in the Democratic primary against Swanick and lawyer Mike Amodeo. "It's the same old story: There must be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow when Giambra and Pigeon are involved."
Leonard Lenihan, the chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party who has no love for either Giambra or Pigeon, called them "two old dying political leaders" who are part of the county's past.
"Giambra is obviously a friend of Grisanti," Lenihan said. "Giambra played a key role in Chuck Swanick's conversion to the Republicans in the early 2000s and helped make him chairman of the County Legislature. And Steve was very much a part of all that. So it's one big group operating together for a long time."
'Not going to comment'
And what of Pigeon's role in the Swanick campaign?
"Steve is always hungry for more power," responded Lenihan, whose local party leaders are backing Amodeo against Swanick in the primary. "That is what he does."
Lenihan noted some well-known examples of Pigeon's power brokering, including his role in the short-lived Republican coup in the State Senate when the former Erie County Democratic boss worked for since-disgraced former Senate Majority Leader Pedro Espada of the Bronx.
"That's why our executive committee did not take Chuck so seriously when he came before us, because Steve is very much part of Swanick's campaign, and I think most Democrats wanted to run as far away from that as possible," Lenihan said.
Reached at the national Democratic Party's convention in North Carolina last week, the normally chatty Pigeon declined to comment or answer any questions.
"I spent most of the summer in Romania. ... I'm not going to comment," he said.
The irony of the behind-the-scenes situation stems from the close relationship Pigeon and Giambra once shared.
Pigeon in the past created obscure political committees to help Giambra funnel money from his brimming campaign treasury to County Legislature candidates they both supported.
And in 2009, former Assistant District Attorney Mark A. Sacha pointed out that Pigeon had engineered donations from Giambra's campaign fund to Paul T. Clark during the 2007 Democratic primary for county executive.
But now the two are at odds. At least $14,000 in contributions to Swanick came from Pigeon or his allies. This includes $6,500 from his Landen Associates consulting firm, $1,000 from longtime ally Gary D. Parenti (a candidate for Niagara County Democratic chairman this year); $500 from the Nanco Inc. firm of another longtime political ally and friend, former Buffalo Comptroller Anthony R. Nanula; and $3,000 from Democratic Action, a political action committee controlled by another longtime associate, Jack O'Donnell, an Albany lobbyist and Erie County Water Authority commissioner.
And two weeks ago, three Buffalo companies controlled by Pigeon ally Hormoz Mansouri gave $3,000 to Swanick's campaign, according to the most recent disclosure reports with the state elections board.
Asked several different ways about Pigeon's role in his campaign, Swanick appeared uninterested in expanding on the question.
"I know everybody. Everybody who wanted to play a role in this has played a role," he said.
Pigeon's work on his behalf "has been no different, no less and no more than anybody else," Swanick said.
"Most of the effort is me," Swanick quickly and repeatedly cautioned. "... The ideas come from me based on what the constituents tell me is their issues. ... I don't consider anyone to have a major role in this campaign. I consider me to be independent, on my own, and doing the best I can with what I have."
How helpful was Pigeon in getting him the Conservative Party backing?
"Everybody wants to give everybody credit," Swanick responded. "If we're successful, everyone will want to take credit. If we're not, everyone will give 100 reasons why we weren't."
Some observers also see evidence of Pigeon's mischief in the Republican primary race, where Kenmore attorney Kevin Stocker is challenging Grisanti. Though Pigeon denies involvement, a pollster who has worked on Pigeon-supported campaigns in the past, Don Turchiarelli, is polling for Stocker this year.
And Grisanti accused Pigeon of being behind a Stocker mailing sent to homes last week that featured Carl Paladino. The senator said Paladino called him Friday to say he did not authorize the mailing.
Giambra, the lobbyist
When asked if Pigeon had any direct or indirect role in his campaign, Stocker responded: "Not that I'm aware of. I've only met him twice in my life."
Giambra, meanwhile, has re-emerged as a top, albeit informal, Grisanti adviser again this year.
He, along with former Niagara County Republican Chairman Henry F. Wojtaszek and State Sen. George D. Maziarz, advised Grisanti throughout the campaign that upset Thompson two years ago.
"He was the guy who made the whole thing happen," said one Grisanti insider who asked not to be identified. "He had a lot to do with Mark's success, and they are friends."
"He's taken a back seat to some extent this year, but he's still involved," the insider said of Giambra.
If he's taken a back seat, Giambra's access to Grisanti has hardly slowed down. Giambra said he often talks to the senator every day or at least every other day.
Giambra is a partner in former U.S. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato's lobbying firm, Park Strategies. State records show Giambra lobbying for Park on behalf of 17 companies and groups having direct dealings with the State Senate. At least two of the firms have environmental-related business interests; Grisanti is chairman of the Senate environmental conservation committee.
But Giambra said he has never discussed his clients' needs with Grisanti.
"I have not yet had a need to lobby Mark Grisanti on behalf of any of my clients," Giambra said.
And Grisanti said he has had no dealings with Park Strategies, or Giambra, about any of the group's clients.
Grisanti said Giambra, unlike two years ago, does not have a formal role in his campaign. He does, though, consult Giambra on everything from mailings to geographical information about the new Senate district, which now includes parts of the Southtowns.
"I've got the final say on all this stuff," Grisanti said of advisers that run the gamut from Giambra to one of his cousins.
Giambra, the adviser
When Giambra is in Albany, the hallways of the GOP-controlled Senate are among his public stopping places. During the heated days of the 2011 debate over legalizing gay marriage, Giambra was frequently seen huddling with Grisanti.
"We had discussions about it, absolutely," Giambra said.
Giambra said he has known Grisanti's brother for 20 years and the senator for a good 10 years.
And what of his role in the Grisanti re-election campaign?
"My role is just a friend. ... At times I consult with him," he said. "At times, he asks for my advice."
What does he bring to Grisanti's corner?
"I think my attributes are I've been in politics my entire life," Giambra responded. "I understand how to run campaigns, and I've also been known to be a policy wonk, and if the senator asks me my advice on an issue I'll give him that advice."
Giambra's role has appeared to be part political adviser and, if needed, part pit bull. Giambra said he met with Erie County Conservative Party Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo to express his displeasure after the small but influential party endorsed Swanick over Grisanti as a result of the senator's crucial vote in favor of same-sex marriage last year. That occurred after promising Conservatives he was a traditional marriage proponent and the Conservative Party line then providing Grisanti with the extra votes needed to win his tight 2010 Senate race.
Lorigo described the May meeting as being more than just Giambra's expressing displeasure. The meeting, which also included Maziarz, ended badly when Lorigo said his party could not endorse Grisanti.
"Certainly, [Giambra] indicated there would be consequences," Lorigo said.
After that meeting, Lorigo said, three unsigned letters were sent to different Conservative groups in the area attacking him. Computer-generated telephone calls were also made to Conservative voters, with the recorded announcer giving out Lorigo's personal cellphone number and asking people to call him to complain.
And Charles Castiglia, a member of the Erie County Conservative Party executive committee, said he was "reached out to by an intermediary" in May to consider challenging Lorigo for the party chairmanship. Other sources identified the intermediary as someone for whom Giambra once procured a county job when he commanded the Rath County Office Building.
"I was asked point blank - he was wondering - if I was interested in being chairman," Castiglia said. "I said no."
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly indicated the State Senate district number.