For three decades, Anthony Seminerio held an iron grip on Queens' 38th Assembly District.
The Democrat had Republican friends in high places, leading GOP brass to back several of his reelection bids.
But Seminerio's stunning downfall - capped by his resignation and guilty plea on influence peddling charges this week - has created a wide-open race for the once-unattainable seat.
At least three candidates want to replace the disgraced lawmaker, who faces 14 years in prison for taking secret payments from Jamaica Hospital officials.
Seminerio formally resigned Monday. A successor is to be selected by a partisan contest in the November general election.
That arrangement was made possible when the state Board of Elections certified the vacancy on Wednesday, the same day Seminerio pleaded guilty in Manhattan Federal Court.
But Gov. Paterson could still call for a nonpartisan special election.
"We don't yet have a plan to do so," said Paterson spokeswoman Marissa Shorenstein.
To get on the ballot, candidates have until July 16 to get the required number of signatures.
Queens Republicans favor a general election because they believe Mayor Bloomberg's presence on the GOP ticket will help candidates down the line.
But the party faces an uphill battle even in a special election because Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 3 to 1 in Seminerio's district.
City Councilwoman Liz Crowley (D-Middle Village) has been mentioned as a contender to replace Seminerio, but her spokeswoman said Thursday she is "not considering" a run.
Republican Donna Marie Caltabiano, executive director of the Forest Park Senior Citizens Center, said she has been planning her campaign for months.
Caltabiano, 55, of Woodhaven, touted her experience as vice president of community school board 27 in the days before mayoral control of schools.
The Republicans have yet to select a candidate, but Caltabiano believes she has the inside track.
"I believe that I am their candidate," she said, adding that the Queens GOP has been giving her advice.
On the Democratic side, Community Board 9 member Nick Comaianni faces a likely primary against Ozone Park lawyer Albert Baldeo, 49, who ran for state Senate in 2006, losing to then-incumbent Serphin Maltese.
Comaianni, 41, who is president of Community Education Council 24, said education is his priority.
"I want to bring some transparency to Albany, which is a mess right now," he added.
With Brendan Brosh