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Collins’ early loyalty to Trump prompts talk of ‘Mr. Secretary’

CLEVELAND – Rep. Chris Collins – now known jokingly as “Mr. Secretary” in the halls of Congress – took his Donald Trump sales pitch to its highest level yet Tuesday, seconding the Manhattan developer’s nomination for president on the floor of the Republican National Convention.

“We in Western New York know Donald Trump is not merely a candidate,” Collins said before the roll call that made Trump the Republican Party’s nominee for president. “Donald Trump is a movement.”

And in an interview earlier, Collins made clear that it’s possible his outspoken advocacy for Trump could pay off with a position in a Trump administration.

“If he asked me to be the secretary of commerce, I would say yes,” Collins said. “And I would say no to anything else.”

It was all part of a whirlwind day for the second-term representative from Clarence. Less than five years after Erie County voters ended his tenure as county executive after one term, Collins found himself winning a standing ovation from New York’s delegates after a rousing breakfast speech, and another standing ovation from a crowd of thousands at Quicken Loans Arena.

“It’s time to take back our country,” he said in his three-minute seconding speech. “President Trump is going to build a wall and secure our borders. President Trump is going to defeat terrorism and make our country safe again. President Donald Trump is going to bring back our stolen jobs.”

Collins has been saying such things since February, when he became the first member of the House to endorse Trump for president.

But in a half-hour interview with The Buffalo News, Collins said several things that he has never said before publicly.

Collins, 66, said he would like to serve 15 more years in Congress and be chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee – that is, unless “President Trump” appoints him commerce secretary.

And he acknowledged that Trump admonished him for saying, in an earlier News interview in which he said that the wall that Trump would build at the Mexican border would be a “virtual wall.”

It’s rare for politicians to express interest in a Cabinet position, and in the interview, Collins repeatedly stressed that he plans on a long career on a House committee that’s among the most powerful.

“I love my job in Congress,” Collins said. “I’m on Energy and Commerce and the top three subcommittees. That’s where I envision myself to be for the next 15 years. I want to chair the oversight subcommittee, then the health subcommittee, and then I want to chair the full Energy and Commerce Committee. I’ve already set my 15-year agenda because seniority and hard work come together.”

Then again, Collins acknowledged, a President Trump could come calling. And while the two have never discussed a Cabinet position, Collins said, “He has said to me many times, ‘Chris, I know you were the first. I will always remember what you’ve done for me.’ ”

That being the case, Collins said his colleagues have taken to jokingly call him “Mr. Secretary” on the floor of the House and at the start of meetings. And that title sounds good to Collins.

“The only thing I would accept is a Cabinet-level position, and I’m not trying to be arrogant in that regard other than to say I love my current job,” he said. “But who could say no?”

Collins would say no to a lower-level administrative position, saying he thinks he could accomplish more in Congress. And he acknowledged that he is temperamentally unsuited to serve as an ambassador. “I would be a terrible ambassador,” he said. “I’m not a social animal. I don’t like to go to parties. I’m an introvert.”

But he made clear that he wouldn’t mind being commerce secretary, who serves as the federal government’s in-house advocate for business. The position would allow Collins to help Trump implement his tough new agenda on trade, including tariffs on products from countries such as China that engage in unfair trade practices.

Collins said he would be well-suited to that role after a 45-year career in the private sector, buying and boosting troubled companies.

“I would think there would be a place in the Trump administration for Chris Collins because of his business background,” said John B. Long, former Republican chairman in the Town of Tonawanda and a longtime friend of Collins.

Paul J. Harder, another longtime Collins friend and fellow businessman, stressed that staying in Congress is Collins’ priority. But given Collins’ interest in creating jobs – especially in Western New York – serving as commerce secretary “is at the top of Chris’ list” if Trump comes calling, Harder said.

And if that call never comes, Collins will remain in a sweet spot with a President Trump, said Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy.

“He could be the go-to person for the administration on Capitol Hill,” Langworthy said. “That’s a lot of clout coming Western New York’s way.”

Only once, Collins said, did his work as a Trump surrogate come to displease the New York billionaire. That was after a May interview with The News in which Collins said he didn’t really think Trump would build a wall at the Mexican border, but it that it instead would be a “virtual wall.”

“He said he’s going to build a wall, and by God, it’s in the Republican platform,” Collins said. “God bless Donald Trump, he’s going to build a wall.”

Trump made that point very clear to Collins after seeing that News report.

“I’ve had my hand slapped one time, and that was the one time my hand was slapped,” Collins said. “And I said: ‘Yes, sir, I do believe you.’ ”

email: jzremski@buffnews.com

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