Section: CAPITAL REGION,  Page: B1

Date: Saturday, October 6, 2001

After nearly two hours of political maneuvering Friday, Democrats and Republicans agreed to cross-endorse two candidates for state Supreme Court.

Berne Town Justice Thomas J. Spargo, a Republican, and Albany City Court Judge Leslie Stein, a Democrat, will run on both the GOP and Democratic lines in the seven counties of the Third Judicial District in the Nov. 6 election.

The cross-endorsement makes them a virtual shoo-in to be elected. The Conservative and Independence parties plan to meet this weekend and may go with the same candidates.

Spargo, 58, and Stein, 44, were unanimously elected by the 47 Republican delegates to a judicial convention. Stein had the unanimous support of the 38 Democratic delegates, while Spargo slid in by a 20-18 vote over Kingston City Court Judge James Gilpatric of Ulster County. Gilpatric, a Democrat, raised money and campaigned actively around the district.

Ulster County GOP chairman Peter Savago nominated Spargo, saying ``Tom has always been there for us.''

Democrats who were swayed to support a Stein-Spargo ticket said they did so mainly to make sure Stein would be elected. ``I feel strongly about ensuring that she is a justice on the Supreme Court,'' said Assemblyman Ronald Canestrari, D-Cohoes. ``This route seemed the way to guarantee that result.''

Peter Kermani, Albany County GOP chairman, helped engineer the cross-endorsements.

``We were smart enough to realize that with the terrible circumstances in the world and with the election cycle being reduced (a reference to the late primary), the smartest thing we could do politically was cross-endorse,'' he said after the sessions.

Both candidates appreciated the significance of the cross-endorsement.

Spargo said he was ``happy and honored.'' Stein told GOP delegates she was `'truly humbled and honored.''

The district comprises the counties of Albany, Rensselaer, Columbia, Greene, Ulster, Sullivan and Schoharie. Democrats outnumber the GOP by about 20,000 votes.

Spargo's Democratic support came chiefly from Albany and Rensselaer counties, while those from the mid-Hudson counties backed Gilpatric, including John G. Connor Jr., son of the retiring incumbent judge whose seat is to be filled. The other seat was vacated by Victoria Graffeo, a Republican, who was appointed to the state Court of Appeals.

The vote for Stein and Spargo followed a closed-door meeting of Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings and other influential Democrats. After nominating Spargo, Republicans recessed until they were told that there were enough Democratic votes to endorse Spargo.

The disagreement carved a deep rift among the Democratic delegates. Gilpatric conceded and urged that the convention vote be declared unanimous, but several supporters declined.

During the nominations, Eli Basch of Kingston tried to convince delegates to support both Stein and Gilpatric. ``It borders on a disgrace that a woman doesn't sit as a Supreme Court justice in these counties,'' he said, and Gilpatric was ``born to be a judge.''

As they voted, several Democrats said they were particularly averse to Spargo because of his work in Florida watching the count on behalf of Republican George W. Bush.

``He was one of the heavy hitters in Florida,'' delegate Robert Fullem said. ``He went down there and carried that banner to disrupt a legitimate vote count. It's fair to sometimes do a cross-endorsement, but not when somebody is so political.''

Spargo's career has met with controversy. The former counsel to the state Republican Party and expert on the election law came under scrutiny in the mid-1980s when as attorney for the Pyramid Company, he allegedly funneled more than $750,000 to a Poughkeepsie Town Board race to get candidates elected who would be favorable to a shopping mall. Spargo took the Fifth when testifying before a state commission and was never charged.

Jennings was behind a cross-endorsement. ``Judicial races are funny races, and they're very, very expensive,'' he said, estimating at least $200,000 per candidate. ``I know that the best sitting judge in this area is Leslie Stein, and I was glad I was able to make this possible for Leslie.''