Just a few days after Christmas of 2006, new Erie County Republican Chairman Jim Domagalski convened party elders to plan the 2007 election for county executive.
These were not your usual elders -- no Joel Giambra, no Bruce Fisher, no Bob Davis.
Instead, the meeting involved people like Dennis Vacco, the former attorney general, and Philip Ackerman, head of National Fuel. In the wake of red and green budgets, county and city control boards and the party's "expulsion" of County Executive Giambra from its ranks, these were the new faces of the Erie County Republican Party.
The elders commissioned a poll which, according to sources close to the process, revealed Erie County voters wanted an outsider who conveyed leadership. Someone lacking in government experience was OK, too.
The poll also tested 13 names -- many of them Democrats. More than half of those surveyed never heard of the top Democratic contenders at the time -- West Seneca Supervisor Paul Clark and former Deputy County Executive Jim Keane. The sources also said that Keane registered the highest unfavorables of all of the names floated.
It all offered a flicker of encouragement to a party still wallowing in the whupping administered by Eliot Spitzer's gubernatorial campaign just a few weeks before.
But early in 2007, the GOP still had no candidate. Oh, party people mentioned all kinds of business types. But none cared about leaving his private world for the spotlight of public life.
Now this is where stories about modern politics identify the high-priced consultant whose computer analysis finds a candidate and saves the day. But that's not how it happened.
Instead, Vacco told our colleague Phil Fairbanks a few days ago about a fateful Buffalo Sabres game inside HSBC Arena. While the former attorney general and his wife, Kelly, were stretching their legs between periods, Vacco spotted Chris Collins a few rows below. That's when it hit him.
"I told my wife: 'There's our candidate for county executive,' " Vacco recalled.
Vacco and Domagalski later huddled. Then the chairman called Collins, who had disappeared from politics after unsuccessfully challenging incumbent John LaFalce for Congress in 1998.
"Quite frankly," Collins told Domagalski, "I was waiting for you to call."
Now Collins is preparing to take over Erie County government, capitalizing exactly on all the findings of the earlier Republican poll.
Voters around Erie County don't need this column to tell them that Domagalski, Vacco and company pulled off one of the most stunning victories in local history. It happened despite a Democratic enrollment advantage of 120,000 voters, minor party lines lining up with Democrats and the general "down period" thought to be affecting the GOP.
All of this means that Domagalski will now emerge as a new bright light of the New York GOP. His improbable victory has raised more than a few eyebrows around the state. Top leaders see, at 42, a new party star on the horizon.
The chairman already has hooked onto Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign, leading the former mayor's Western New York effort. Sources say Giuliani closely followed the Erie County race, recognizing that Republicans can win Erie County, that a Republican who wins Erie County can win New York and that a Republican who wins New York will most likely win the presidency.
Domagalski's efforts demonstrate how politicians succeed. They surround themselves with the brightest minds, use the most advanced methods and -- just like the former attorney general spotting Collins at a hockey game -- hope for a little luck, too.