ALBANY – In his 22 months in office as state senator, Mark J. Grisanti has had a virtual cocoon surrounding him in Albany.
Republican colleagues from Long Island, the Hudson Valley and throughout upstate have had a singular focus: Protect control of the Senate by protecting this Buffalo freshman in a district that is overwhelmingly Democrat in registration.
The protection and promotion of Grisanti have shaped policies, directed state dollars and taken up hours of time in private GOP conference meetings at the Capitol.
There are many examples, but consider one:
Grisanti’s existing legislative district is one of the geographically smallest represented by Republicans outside of New York City. But he has three district offices – in Buffalo, Grand Island and Niagara Falls – to help him with constituent services and outreach in an effort to increase his base of support. Grisanti says two of the offices are free, using municipal or state space.
Republican Sen. Betty Little, by contrast, is politically safe. Her sprawling district across the top of northern New York is larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. She has two district offices.
Grisanti rejects the premise that he is receiving special GOP attention.
“No, I really don’t,” he said. “I feel they listened and they had not realized how bad of a shape Western New York has been in. … I wouldn’t call it special attention. I would call it an awakening.”
But Republicans senators are intent on keeping control of what will be a 63-member chamber and make no bones about looking out for Grisanti’s interests.
“Listen, it was critically important,” said Sen. Thomas W. Libous, a Binghamton Republican who heads the Senate GOP central campaign committee. Last month, the central GOP committee poured $180,000 into Grisanti’s re-election effort.
“It was the 32nd seat. It was the seat that got us in the majority, so we focused on helping him. But at the same time, Mark has great instincts and did a lot of things for Western New York on his own,” Libous said.
In Albany, “freshman lawmaker” and “obscurity” go hand in hand. But not for Grisanti, Republicans made sure.
He won in 2010 in a district with a 5-to-1 Democratic enrollment edge against incumbent Antoine M. Thompson. That, by political definition, made Grisanti a “marginal” member – or an “at-risk” politician.
The GOP knew that 2010 could not be repeated against a stronger Democratic opponent, so it went to work early last year working on a new district for Grisanti. Population and legal line-drawing restrictions being what they are, the district was going to remain Democratic.
The GOP – with the approval of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has also propped up Grisanti after the Republican backed Cuomo’s gay marriage bill last year – drew a district that is now about 2-to-1 Democratic with far fewer minority voters and far more moderate to right-of-center voters.
“It’s all about the lines,” Queens Sen. Michael N. Gianaris, who heads the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, said of the boundaries the Republicans built to connect communities north and south of Buffalo.
As any television viewer can attest, Cuomo and Republicans put the focus on Grisanti during passage last year of a new plan to expand the University at Buffalo’s downtown presence. Though considerably scaled-down from previous plans, the new one gave a shot in the arm to UB – and Grisanti.
When Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, wanted to talk to a Buffalo News reporter in his office about the UB plan, he made certain to have Grisanti, then a senator just over two months, at his side during the interview.
Many voters might not even realize the final bill was not sponsored by Grisanti.The bill needed widespread bipartisan support, and provisions including other state colleges around New York, to get approved.
Republicans were quick to protect Grisanti when he arrived in Albany. His first bill, involving development of the H.H. Richardson Complex and introduced just seven days into his term, was passed by March and signed into law – a gift not many freshman can quickly claim.
Protection also took other forms.
In the early months, Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, often did a U-turn to listen to what the freshman lawmaker was saying during hallway interviews with reporters.
After Grisanti’s brawl last winter at the Seneca Nation’s Niagara Falls casino, which drew New York City tabloid headlines but no criminal charges against any of the combatants, Maziarz worked behind the scenes to ease tensions with the Senecas, whose leadership has been close to Maziarz.
Politically, Grisanti’s re-election ad campaign is being done by Jack Cookfair, a Syracuse consultant who boasts a long line of Senate GOP victories going back to former Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno’s first primary fight in 1976.
And while Grisanti is leading in polls, Republicans are still giving him money – just in case.
In his September GOP primary, dozens of Senate staffers came from Albany, sources said, to help him get out the vote.
Grisanti’s most recent payroll showed 12 people on staff, including one individual who had been paid by his Senate campaign account earlier this year and another whose job title is “new media specialist.”
Grisanti credits improved working relationships between Western New York Republican and Democratic lawmakers in both houses for the major policy and fiscal victories brought home the last two years.
“If it took my election for them to take notice, then I’m glad,” he said of lawmakers from other parts of the state.
Privately, some legislators grumbled last year about the attention the GOP leadership was giving Grisanti during his first year in the Senate, but Grisanti said he has only felt support from colleagues.
“I think my conference understood that I wasn’t going to be a senator coming here in my first term, basically, and just listening and sitting quiet in a corner and not trying to get resources back to my district,” he said.
Grisanti himself has shifted in 22 months. In the beginning, the longtime criminal-defense lawyer had many ideas for legislation pertaining to criminal rights and such ideas as softening marijuana possession laws. While he could not get traction on some of those early plans, he has gotten through 21 laws, many pertaining to environmental matters as chairman of the environmental conservation committee.
Of Cuomo’s 111 vetoes in two years, none have been of Grisanti bills, though one major bill for Buffalo – a Grisanti-sponsored measure expected to prod major downtown Buffalo historic preservation projects – has still not been sent to Cuomo.
Still, with the help of the Senate GOP’s leadership, Grisanti edged rightward in 2012, which prompted the Conservative Party to give him a grade of 85 in its annual ranking of lawmakers – up from a flunking grade of 52 a year earlier.
It is a ranking that his Democratic opponent, Michael L. Amodeo, has sought to highlight, saying Grisanti’s rightward leanings are out of touch with his 60th District and “an embarrassment.”