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Casino Brawl Business as Usual for New York State Legislature

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Those state legislators. You have to keep your eye on them every minute.

This week, the Lawmaker in the Headlines That Do Not Involve Policy-Making is Sen. Mark Grisanti, a Republican who represents the Buffalo area. Last weekend Grisanti got involved in a late-night bar fight.

No matter how you slice it, this was not the ideal way to end a night that began with a fund-raiser for diabetes at a tribal casino in Niagra Falls, where the upcoming headliners include
Buddy "The Kitchen Boss" Valastro and Regis Philbin (accompanied by an 18-piece orchestra).

For an unremarkable freshman state senator, Grisanti has a lot of statewide, even nation-wide, significance. He was one of the four Republicans who voted in favor of the gay marriage law, winning the enduring gratitude of the gay rights community, which definitely doesn't want swing lawmakers in other states to get the impression that any of the New York Four suffered politically for his vote.

Gay marriage supporters have already sent a flood of campaign donations Grisanti's way. Of the four Republicans they want to help, he may be the toughest case. His district is Democratic and he won by only 519 votes. Grisanti himself was a Democrat until he switched to run for the seat.

And of course, nobody counted on the casino crisis.

But then, few foresaw the fall of former state Sen. Carl Kruger, who pleaded guilty to accepting $500,000 in bribes. Authorities discovered that the conservative Democrat from Queens, who supposedly lived a quiet life with his sister, had actually been enjoying a life of luxury in a waterside mansion with two gynecologist brothers and their mother.

And nobody predicted that Hiram Monserrate, the two-fisted former solon fighting out of Queens, would be expelled by the Senate for beating up his girlfriend.

It's true that many expected the disgrace of former Sen. Pedro Espada, who ran an empire of publicly funded health care services from which, authorities say, he was stealing money to fund his lifestyle in a comfortable suburban home far removed from the poor Bronx district he supposedly represented.

But who could have imagined that Espada would claim his suburban home had been burglarized by a thief or thieves who stole only files and papers?

The Grisanti dust up proves that the state legislature retains its amazing capacity to surprise, delight, amuse and nauseate. (And we're not even venturing beyond the state Senate.)

The only things everyone seems to agree about in affaire Grisanti is that two men were arguing in a bar at the Senaca Niagara Casino. Grisanti intervened. Not a good move.

Ten minutes later the state senator was being held on the floor by security guards. His wife suffered a concussion -- she said her head was slammed to the floor by two female assailants. This part of the story seems impossible to resolve, and everything else is murky in the extreme. But for Grisanti, it was definitely a bad way to begin a tough re-election campaign.

You have to begin by asking why the senator chose to put himself in the middle of an argument between two men in a place as chock full of security personnel as a gambling casino. On the matter of judgment, Grisanti gets a bad mark.

When witnesses who were not friendly to Grisanti's side of the story claimed he yelled a racial epithet at a security guard, Grisanti told a local paper: "I don't recall saying any racist word. That's not in my nature." If your elected representative is accused of making a racial slur, you want him to say something like: "What? Me? I would never, ever, ever say such a thing. Never in my life. Ask anybody. Never. Ever." Saying you don't remember doing that just doesn't cut it. (The guard in question has reportedly told police that he didn't hear any racial remarks from Grisanti.)

Another allegation is that Grisanti kept asking: "Do you know who I am?" This is also unproven. I would not even be bringing it up, but for the fact that when our state legislators get in trouble, they have a disturbing tendency to ask "Do you know who I am?"

Why do they do this when many New Yorkers will simply hold it against them?

Capt. William Thomson, the chief of detectives assigned to the case, told the Buffalo News that he'd viewed the video from the casino security camera and doubted that there was any evidence that could lead to criminal charges.

"I think if everyone had acted like an adult, we wouldn't be talking about this," Thomson added. This, too, seems bad for Grisanti. What voters would want to hear, in this kind of situation, would be something like: "If everyone had acted with the calmness and maturity of the state senator, we wouldn't be talking about this."

It's a tough situation for Grisanti, but there are a few saving graces. He's one of the critical votes that give the Republicans their slender Senate majority, and they're prepared to do almost anything to save him, including redrawing his district to give him more potential support. Between the Republicans and the gay rights supporters, there should be plenty of money coming his way. And no charges were filed.

And this is New York, where "no charges were filed" is almost as good as a medal of
honor.