Chris Collins is now a former congressman. Before that he was a former county executive. At least when he became a former county executive all he needed to worry about was setting up his new home in Florida. His next home won’t be quite as nice.
Collins was Erie County Executive from 2008 through 2011. He sold himself as the businessman who would run the county right, and after the Giambra administration years in County Hall, the voters bought that argument.
I was a member of the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority for three of Collins’ four years in office. We got along fine for about the first week of his administration, but then he made it clear that he wasn’t much interested in the control board’s role in overseeing and assisting with the county’s finances. The food fight that we got into about county financial management at a control board meeting in the first few weeks of his term still brings back a chuckle.
Collins’ arrogance and supreme confidence in his own ability became the reason for his undoing. His handling of community organizations held to be important by many in the county hurt his standing. Raising taxes didn’t help either; the county tax levy increased $25.8 million, or 12.2 percent, in those four years.
Collins rebounded after his defeat to narrowly defeat incumbent Congresswoman Kathy Hochul in 2012. In the meantime NY27 in a new geographic drawing became even more Republican than it previously was. He settled into relative obscurity for the next four years.
He endorsed Jeb Bush for president in 2016, but seeing that campaign as a dead-in-the-water effort, he quickly pivoted to Donald Trump. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
As the first Republican member of Congress to endorse Trump, Collins became a hot commodity in the national media. He did dozens of network TV interviews. He spoke at the Republican convention. His arrogance once more was on display. But then it unraveled again at his own doing.
While he was certainly interested in getting much richer if the multiple sclerosis drug he invested in was successful, Collins deserves credit for assisting in that research, which unfortunately did not work out. But where he went wrong was in letting the money overwhelm his focus.
He was riding high, even after the House Ethics Committee got involved. His arrogance dominated his thinking and speaking. In the process he severely damaged the life of his son and others who, at the end of the day, he oversold on an investment that had to be considered iffy at best.
So now Chris Collins will head off to federal prison in 2020, and likely so will his son Cameron and Cameron’s future father-in-law. What an amazing fall.
So what comes next in NY27?
With Collins now officially out of the picture, let the games begin. The show will be interesting.
The talk, of course, is dominated by the will-he-or-won’t-he David Bellavia question. The Medal of Honor winner is rightfully basking in the attention that his service to his country has brought him.
The question for Bellavia, it seems, is whether serving as one of 435 members of the House of Representatives, as a member of the minority party, gives him more of a forum to speak out on things that are important to him than attention the Medal he received already brings him. That honor comes with immediate standing and importance, without the messiness of partisan politics in the 21st century. If his book does turn into a movie, that expands his voice beyond anything a single member of Congress can achieve.
So assume for the moment that Bellavia passes on a run for the House. What is the lay of the land then?
The announced candidates are State Senators Chris Jacobs and Robert Ortt, attorney Beth Parlato and Frank Smierciak. Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw has been campaigning for the seat since about an hour after Collins was arrested last year, but Mychajliw has yet to file as a candidate with the Federal Election Commission.
Democrat Nate McMurray, who lost to Collins by just 1,087 votes last November, is planning to run again. Libertarian candidate James Whitmer has filed to run.
The problem for McMurray or any other Democrat is that in 2020 he won’t be running against someone who has a federal indictment hanging over his head. The district is the most Republican by affiliation in the state, and it continues to support Donald Trump. Any Democrat will be a long shot.
The process could turn out to be a bit confusing for Republicans in 2020, but nonetheless simpler than the kabuki dance party leaders went through last fall when they were trying to figure out where to park Chris Collins after his indictment.
Governor Andrew Cuomo will call a special election “sooner rather than later.” What that means is not exactly clear. Since the voting arrangements will be set up throughout the state for the presidential primary on April 28th, that date seems the most logical option. A special election on April 28th, with Democrats still fighting it out for the presidential nomination, will give a Democrat somewhat of a boost in the special.
There are no primaries in special elections in New York. Candidates will be selected by party leadership. This election will only be for the remaining months of the term that Collins was elected to last November.
The complication is that while candidates are being selected and as they campaign in that special election, the process for electing someone in NY27 for a full two year term will be going on simultaneously. There is nothing to prevent a person who is passed over by party leadership for the special election nomination to begin circulating petitions in February for a June primary.
Word on the street, somewhat surprisingly, is that Chris Jacobs is currently the front runner for the Republicans’ special election nomination. Mychajliw and others have called Jacobs a “never-Trumper,” but that charge doesn’t seem to be sticking. Jacobs, of course, is in the best position to fund a campaign, and even to run two elections (special and primary) simultaneously if that is necessary.
Chris Jacobs is giving up his State Senate seat to run for Congress. Robert Ortt, however, has not yet signaled his intentions. So here is another heard-on-the-street story that is circulating. If Ortt is passed up in the special election but chooses to run in the June primary, he will give up re-election to his Senate seat. And as the story goes, there is a familiar name waiting in the wings for that Senate seat: former Senator George Maziarz.
Maziarz is already collecting his state pension ($80,815 annually), but if he can get back to the Senate again he could double dip with a Senate salary that in 2021 will be $130,000 – more the $50,000 higher than the base pay for senators when Maziarz last served.
And finally, there is this question for all the candidates to ponder. It is highly likely that New York will lose another House seat after the 2020 census is completed. Western New York has generally lost more people than other parts of the state, so those who will be drawing the new 2022 congressional lines, meaning Cuomo plus the Democrats running the Senate and Assembly, will probably make NY 27 go away. So if people are at all looking ahead, what does the future hold?
A footnote: campaign financials
Both Republican Lynne Dixon and incumbent Democratic County Executive Mark Poloncarz had their financial reports posted with the State Board of Elections on October 4th. Here are the facts:
- With just four weeks to go until Election Day (and just three weeks until early voting starts), Poloncarz’s treasury had a balance of $574,450. Dixon reported $56,473.
- Since mid-July Dixon raised $117,468; Poloncarz raised $163,670.
- Since mid-July Dixon spent $277,489; Poloncarz spent $226,829.
- Some highlights of Poloncarz spending: $128,641 on TV ads; $32,000 on polling.
- Some highlights of Dixon spending: $190,975 on TV ads; $10,500 on Big Dog Strategies, Chris Grant’s consulting firm ($29,295 in total this year); $4,020 on polling.