Former Erie County executive eyes challenging Cuomo for governor in 2018

He could encounter stiff opposition from other New York Republicans

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Joel A. Giambra, the regional government champion engulfed by a controversial budget crisis as Erie County executive, is weighing a Republican candidacy for governor next year.

Two sources with knowledge of the situation said the two-term county executive is discussing with party insiders a possible challenge to Democratic incumbent Andrew M. Cuomo in November. While he will not comment and nothing is yet certain, the sources say Giambra is making the case for a “moderate Republican” in the vein of former governors Nelson A. Rockefeller and George E. Pataki.

They note that the conservative gubernatorial candidates nominated by the GOP in the last three elections were soundly defeated and that a Republican like Giambra — a one-time Democrat — might prove more competitive in a blue state like New York. A Giambra candidacy also might “rebrand” the state Republican Party, even if his bid would be considered a long shot.

“There is no one candidate out there looking at all the problems,” said one of those with whom Giambra has discussed a gubernatorial run and who asked not to be identified. “No one is talking about lowering the cost of government or raising the money we need for infrastructure.”

But the former county executive could encounter stiff opposition from other New York Republicans considering a Cuomo challenge. The state party continues to woo Harry Wilson, the Westchester corporate turnaround guru who ran a close but unsuccessful campaign for state comptroller in 2010 and is exploring a gubernatorial effort for 2018. It is possible Giambra could yield to Wilson, the sources said.

If he runs, Wilson will gain the support of top Republican figures such as Erie County Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy. But Wilson has not yet decided, and his possible commitment of at least $10 million of his own funds looms as an important factor. A few days ago, Langworthy estimated the chances of a Wilson candidacy at “better than 50-50.”

Others exploring a run include State Sen. John DeFrancisco of Syracuse, Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb of Canandaigua, and Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro.

Cuomo has been steadily filling his own campaign treasury in anticipation of running for a third term, but he has not officially announced and could face a primary from the left wing of his own party.

At 60, Giambra “has one more race in him,” the sources said, and he want to may pursue the statewide role he always seemed to covet, though he has been out of the public spotlight for a decade. Giambra would be more moderate on issues such as abortion (he is pro-choice) and would encourage more spending on the state’s infrastructure, including the much-maligned New York City subway system for which Cuomo is often assigned blame.

Giambra’s supporters say he is no fan of President Trump, who earns low scores in all New York State polls. And they say he will present himself as a “nonpartisan” candidate in the same manner that resulted in the victory of independent candidate Ben Walsh last month for mayor of Syracuse.

But Giambra also would encounter a steep challenge in raising money. His latest campaign finance report from his days as county executive listed him as having about $246,000, enough to get him started but dwarfed by the $26 million and counting maintained by Cuomo.

He might also encounter stiff opposition in a Republican primary for governor, since more conservative statewide candidates tend to win such intraparty contests. In the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary, Buffalo developer Carl P. Paladino easily dispatched former Rep. Rick A. Lazio, 62 to 38 percent. Paladino won his home county of Erie 94 to 6 percent.

Giambra started his political career as Niagara Council member before he was elected Buffalo comptroller in 1990. From that post he began touting his vision for consolidation of municipal services and even combining city and county governments, and he switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican. He rode that wave through the 1999 election for county executive and defeated three-term Democrat Dennis T. Gorski.

As county executive, he continued an independent path, aligning with the county’s GOP hierarchy and Pataki but maintaining close relationships with many Democrats. The Buffalo News dubbed him a “Giambracrat” to denote his own personal political organization.

He remained popular through much of his tenure in the Rath County Office Building as he consistently lowered taxes and advanced his regionalism agenda, easily winning re-election over Democrat Daniel J. Ward in 2003. But he ran into trouble after proposing two different budgets for 2004-05: a “green” document that would preserve county services but raise taxes, and a “red” budget that would drastically reduce or eliminate many services.

The state even appointed a financial control board in 2005 to monitor county finances. Now his supporters think such an old controversy is “explainable” and will not weigh him down, though potential opponents are still bound to seize upon it.

Combined with other controversies, Giambra opted not to seek a third term in 2007. He has since worked for the Park Strategies lobbying firm headed by former Sen. Alfonse M. D’Amato, another close political ally.

Giambra maintains close ties with much of the old Pataki and D’Amato organization that noted a string of statewide Republican victories, ending with Pataki’s last win in 2002. As a lobbyist he has remained in the headlines as he pushed for marijuana legalization and other causes

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