WASHINGTON — Rep. Chris Collins finally has a Democratic opponent, and if resumes win votes, she could be a serious challenger.
Erin Cole of Lockport, an Army veteran who has worked all over the world as well as in trade development in Washington and Western New York, told The Buffalo News on Tuesday she's planning to challenge Collins, a Republican from Clarence, in the 2018 election.
And while she may not be Collins' only potential opponent, she starts with a depth of experience that's unusual for a congressional candidate.
She experienced the veterans' health care system's problems herself after coming down with Gulf War Syndrome.
She has worked in U.S. embassies in Russia and Central Asia.
And, while every politician talks about creating jobs, she's worked on job development in Washington and Western New York.
Now, Cole said, she wants to be something she says Collins isn't: a representative who truly represents the people of New York's 27th District.
"He says it's useless to meet with his constituents" in town hall meetings, which Collins refuses to do, Cole said. "But if it's useless to meet with them, how can you possibly represent them properly? You have no idea what the issues are and you're not addressing those issues to the point where you're bringing in benefits."
Cole is the first Democrat to publicly announce a bid against Collins, whose fifth year in Congress has been marked by controversy over his investment in an Australian biotech company that critics said could have benefited from his work on a bill aimed at speeding clinical trials of new drugs.
Cole might not be the only Democrat looking to take on Collins. Diana Kastenbaum, a Batavia businesswoman who challenged Collins in 2016, is interested in running again, as is Sean Bunny, an assistant district attorney in Erie County, said Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy Zellner.
The eight Democratic chairs in the 27th District will endorse a candidate after this year's election, Zellner said.
Of Cole, Zellner said: "She has an exciting resume and a passion for serving the community."
Cole, 46, recently resigned her job as senior vice president of Global NY, an Empire State Development Corp. effort to expand exports and bring foreign investment into the state, in order to run for Congress.
Given where she worked, Collins' political adviser, Christopher M. Grant, dismissed her as a tool of New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. "After aligning with Washington elites like Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton while running an administration seeped in corruption, Andrew Cuomo is now hand-picking candidates in our community to advance his high tax and anti-jobs agenda," Grant said. "We look forward to putting Chris Collins' pro-jobs, anti-tax, pro-American worker agenda against Governor Cuomo's radical, special interest politics anytime."
Told of Grant's comments, Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi said: "Chris Collins is embroiled in an insider trading scandal and his plot to rob his own constituents of healthcare just blew up in his face — again — so it’s no surprise he has an opponent. This is the first we're hearing of this, but it's clear Western New Yorkers deserve better than Chris Collins."
Cole talked tough about Collins.
"President Trump himself vowed that he was going to drain the swamp in Washington, and ironically, his number one supporter — Chris Collins — is the epitome of an unethical self-promoter who has literally accomplished nothing for the people of the 27th District, the very people he's supposed to represent," Cole said.
About Collins' Innate Immunotherapeutics investment — which has led to an Office of Congressional Ethics investigation — Cole said: "He's focused on himself and self-promotion, building his own wealth, bragging to people that he's making millionaires in Buffalo when people in his own district never see him."
Cole vowed to be a much different member of Congress. She said she would focus on serving the district's veterans, as well as promoting small businesses and trade.
Cole, who as a teen was entranced by the Army's "Be All You Can Be" advertisements, enlisted in the Army when she was 17 after graduating from West Seneca East Senior High School. She served on active duty for eight years, learning Russian and working in military intelligence before a deployment to Iraq during the Gulf War. She was embedded with an armored unit, and once the war ended, she spent weeks gathering intelligence and searching for abandoned weapons systems.
After, she started suffering symptoms related to Gulf War Syndrome, which left some vets with fatigue, headaches and other symptoms. Frustrated with care she received at the Buffalo VA Medical Center, she co-founded Veterans for Common Sense, an advocacy group.
Cole earned a bachelor's degree from the University at Buffalo and a master's in public administration from Syracuse University. She worked for the State Department in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the U.S. Agency for International Development in Moscow and several Central Asian countries. Cole later joined the Department of Commerce to work on trade promotion — the same sort of role she played in state government in recent years.
Trade is likely to be one of several issues where Cole and Collins are opposed. She favors free trade and said that as a member of Congress, she would continue to help local companies and farmers try to boost their foreign markets. Collins, in contrast, has been a sharp critic of international trade deals which, he has said, have stripped the district of manufacturing jobs.
The two candidates would also likely clash on health care. Cole criticized the failed Republican attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare, while Collins has been one of Obamacare's chief critics.
It's less clear that the candidates would clash on gun control.
Cole, like Collins, said she is a strong supporter of the Second Amendment and understands why many in the district want to own guns — although she said she would be open to tighter background checks aimed at keeping potential terrorists from owning weapons.
Asked why she wanted to run, Cole said: "I think, honestly, living in the district here, there is so much more that I can do to improve the situation here in the district than Chris Collins is doing."