By: Robert J. McCarthy
Chris Collins is about to come charging back into the political arena, months after he lost re-election as Erie County executive.
Collins declared his candidacy for the 27th Congressional District in an interview with The Buffalo News, setting up what could prove a titanic contest against Democratic incumbent Kathleen C. Hochul, a longtime rival when both served in county government.
“She’s been to Washington, and now she has a voting record that suggests she’s in the hip pocket of Barack Obama,” Collins said, hinting that Hochul’s association with the president will prove a major theme in the upcoming contest.
“Kathy, frankly, was not honest about her values,” he added. “Her voting record shows her for big government and in lock step with unions.”
But before he can take on Hochul in November, Collins first must win a Republican primary against Iraq War veteran David Bellavia of Batavia on June 26.
Bellavia also has declared for the office. And County Legislature Minority Leader John J. Mills has said he will announce on Monday whether he will join the race.
Collins, 61, brings to his newest effort name recognition, top political advisers, and a personal fortune that he has used liberally in three previous campaigns. He said the new 27th District, fortified with more Republican voters following reapportionment, is perfectly tailored for his message of small government and fiscal discipline.
Some political observers say the new candidate risks getting overwhelmed by “Collins fatigue” so soon after a convincing loss. But virtually all the towns in the new district overwhelmingly supported him in November, he pointed out, while municipalities like Buffalo and Amherst that voted for Democrat Mark C. Poloncarz are now part of the territory to be represented by Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, in a predominantly Democratic district.
Collins acknowledged that hot-button issues like cutting aid to cultural organizations and libraries may have cost him the votes of Democrats in Buffalo and even the election. But he said suburban voters understood he was aiming to rein in government spending and reduce taxes.
“I had to make some tough choices,” he said. “Some could say it cost my re-election. But I will not compromise on my core values.”
After Hochul won a special Congressional election that gained national attention 10 months ago against Collins ally Jane L. Corwin, it is expected the November contest will also rank as one of the nation’s premier congressional elections that will cost millions of dollars.
Corwin ran into a political buzz saw last year when she supported Republican plans to reform Medicare, which she called an unsustainable entitlement. Democrats pummeled the Clarence assemblywoman for her stand, and Hochul easily triumphed in a race where she was also aided by the third party candidacy of industrialist and veteran congressional candidate Jack Davis.
But Collins said Corwin was “ambushed” by a national Democratic machine that misrepresented her stand. While he admits his position does not differ significantly from Corwin’s, he says he will offer bipartisan solutions that would not affect those close to retirement.
“We’ll be out in front on that,” he said.
Collins was also quick to touch on the congresswoman’s controversial appearance before a citizens group in Lancaster on Feb. 24, when she said the federal government was “not looking to the Constitution” when it required religiously affiliated employers to provide their workers with insurance coverage for birth control.
While the congresswoman has since said she should have used better wording in her reference to the Constitution, film of her encounter with angry constituents seems bound to be part of Collins’ campaign.
“That should almost disqualify her from holding office,” he said, insisting he will make an issue of her support for that Obama administration policy.
“There’s this thought that Washington has all the answers, and this member of Congress says it does,” he added. “I disagree.”
Collins and Hochul frequently clashed when he was county executive and she served as Erie County clerk. The News reported that Collins angrily approached her following a November, 2010 event at Erie County Medical Center, where he demanded to know if she planned to run against him for county executive in 2011.
The former clerk had consistently been viewed as a potential tough opponent for Collins, but she made it clear she was not interested in the county post. She eventually won the congressional seat while Collins lost to Poloncarz.
Collins said he has been in frequent touch with State Conservative Chairman Michael R. Long, whose Executive Committee will determine the nomination of the often crucial minor party. He said he expects Long to support his candidacy once designating petitions are submitted April 17, adding that he is concentrating solely for the next several weeks on coordinating volunteers who are collecting petition signatures.
His latest foray into politics marks his second attempt to win a seat in the House of Representatives. After a long business career, he unsuccessfully challenged former Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Kenmore, in 1998.
Since then, he has relied on Lancaster native Michael J. Hook, now a Washington political consultant, to manage his media campaigns. But Hook and others in the Collins inner circle came under heavy fire in 2011 after running and losing Corwin’s campaign and then the county executive’s re-election effort.
Collins now says he will be surrounded by new and different advisers.
“It will be a different team; time moves on and people move on,” he said, though he acknowledged that Hook remains a friend who is informally helping during the early stages of his campaign.
“He is very understanding of why I might choose to do that,” Collins said of a possible replacement. “I’m not ruling him in or out.”
Collins said just before leaving office in December that he would not run again for political office. But now he says he has recovered from the “funk” that accompanied his defeat, that he believes he can more effectively represent the area in Washington, and that he is continually urged by his former constituents to return to elective office.
“That gives you back your mojo,” he said, “and helps you realize that one door is closed for a reason, and that another opens up.”