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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Major politicos run aground in primaries

Senator Malcolm Smith, left, walks out of federal

Senator Malcolm Smith, left, walks out of federal court in White Plains with attorney Gerald Shargel after a federal judge declared a mistrial in the third week of his corruption trial on Tuesday, June 17, 2014. Credit: Chris Ware

Many a major politician has run aground in a party primary. This is one reason the losers of Tuesday's state contests proved more interesting than the winners.

The plunge from the highest pinnacle belonged to Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans). Five years ago, he became the first Democrat since the 1960s to ascend to state Senate majority leader. This week, ex-New York City Councilman Leroy Comrie crushed him in a primary.

"I had a good run," Smith said in a concession speech. "This is life."

And life can be complicated. Smith still faces trial on federal corruption charges in what prosecutors claim was an ill-fated scheme to bribe his way to last year's Republican nomination for New York City mayor.

The Working Families Party, which has made it a practice to punish Democratic incumbents under indictment, backed Comrie. But the minor party also supported a loser, Dell Smitherman, in its bid to oust another federal defendant, Sen. John Sampson (D-Brooklyn).

That's life, too.

In western New York, another senator's defeat followed a sharply different script. Sen. Mark Grisanti (R-Buffalo) lost a GOP primary to challenger Kevin Stocker, which some observers called a shocker.

Grisanti's ouster may have repercussions beyond Buffalo as Republicans sweat every detail in their bid to recoup majority control of the Senate this fall. Grisanti's urban district leans Democratic; in fact, he switched to Republican only a few years ago.

The Grisanti story has another theme: His departure from the ballot means that all four GOP senators who dared cross the aisle in 2011 to legalize same-sex marriage will be gone when a new legislature takes over in January. Ex-Sen. Steve Saland lost a three-way election, Sen. James Alesi retired -- and both were succeeded by Democrats, while a third -- Roy McDonald, was succeeded by Sen. Kathleen Marchione, who beat him in a Republican primary.

In 1994, Democrat Oliver Koppell was the state attorney general, appointed by lawmakers to fill a vacancy. But Koppell lost the primary for an elected term. More recently he served as a New York City councilman from the Bronx. On Tuesday, he lost his bid for a new elected office, a challenge to incumbent Sen. Jeffrey Klein.

Only last year, John Liu was the New York City comptroller, a post with wide-ranging powers over city agencies and pensions. This week, Sen. Anthony Avella (D-Bayside) declared victory over Liu, who has refused to concede what looked like his second primary loss in two years. An official vote canvass is pending.

Coming out of nowhere presents as tough a road as coming back.

Little-known insurgent Zephyr Teachout managed to capture more than one in three statewide Democratic primary votes against Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. The significance was spun and debated -- as was a thin turnout of perhaps 10 percent. Cuomo himself said Wednesday: "Who comes out to vote, who doesn't vote, the turnout can be very determinative, and sometimes it's not representative."

Stated realistically, the 6-plus percent of party registrants who voted for Cuomo bested Teachout's 3-plus percent of New York's 5 million-plus Democrats.

Looking ahead, any analysis of Tuesday's winners and losers would best omit the word "mandate."

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