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Collins expanding presence on bigger stage Efforts aim to raise political profile

County Executive Chris Collins likes to talk about what he's doing in Erie County, and he's talking in lots of places these days.

In September, he stood before the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., to tout new policies he has brought to the Rath County Office Building.

Last week, he transformed his annual State of the County address into a major event, attracting hundreds and purchasing two minutes of live television time to spread the message to everyone.

And Monday , the county executive traveled to Albany to address the statewide meeting of the Conservative Party -- which just happens to rank as a key source of support for any Republican looking to convey a statewide message.

Just about all political observers agree: Collins is slowly but methodically raising his profile beyond Erie County.

He dismisses any suggestion that he is angling for higher office, explaining he simply hopes to rally support for his legislative agenda. But even he will not deny that he purposely is presenting his plans to run government like a business on a far grander scale.

"It's really about Albany and, frankly, reminding [politicians] there are voters out there," he said. "And I think I'm really helping Erie County by challenging the status quo in Albany."

Indeed, Collins' address to Conservatives -- who wield significant influence in determining statewide Republican candidates -- dwelled heavily on his accomplishments. He touted his Six Sigma management program, which, proponents say, empowers workers to strive for efficiency; his reforms in use of cell phones and county cars; the new contract with Erie County Medical Center nurses that curtails lifetime health insurance; and his new plans to attract jobs and business development.

And if his political stock rose from a trip down the Thruway, that's just fine in the eyes of some of his allies.

"I had a number of people come up to me after his presentation to say this is a guy who could run for statewide office," Ralph C. Lorigo, chairman of the Erie County Conservative Party, said Monday from Albany. "He's the new breed of politician everyone is looking for.

"Collins is raising his profile, as he should," he added.

After supporting James P. Keane, Collins' Democratic opponent, for county executive in 2007, Lorigo and his Conservatives have established a much cozier relationship with Collins in recent months.

Through Lorigo, Collins also has come to know Michael R. Long of Brooklyn, chairman of the State Conservative Party and a powerful political kingpin whom the county executive acknowledged Monday in his Albany speech.

"While Mike and I have not known each other all that long, I do know we share a strong commitment to conservative principles like smaller government, lower taxes and personal responsibility," Collins said in his Monday speech.

Michael J. Hook, the Washington political consultant who played a key role in crafting Collins' 2007 message, dismissed any speculation about higher office. But he said the county executive has long realized that local goals like repealing the Taylor Law, the Wicks Law, the Scaffold Law and unfunded mandates must originate in Albany.

So Collins, he said, embraces opportunities to shout that message from a statewide pulpit.

"He wants to talk about his changes and how they could affect other counties," he said. "He's got ideas on how to fix things, and he going to fix them."

Collins pays Hook $5,000 per month from campaign funds for political advice, partly for Hook's vast contacts in the national and statewide GOP. The Lancaster native is widely credited with gaining the prime-time speaking spot for Collins at the national convention and is considered a key player in the new effort to raise the county executive's profile.

James P. Domagalski, chairman of the Erie County Republican Party, says he sees Collins' visibility as a positive, especially in Albany.

"Now more than ever, he needs to be down there, because the state is now run by people from Manhattan," Domagalski said. "There is an understanding that if he is willing to step forward for Erie County, he'll be on a broader political stage. That's good for the county and good for his profile."

Historically, none of this is new for Erie County executives, who preside over the largest upstate municipality. Edward V. Regan, a Republican, parlayed his Rath Building experience into a long stint as state comptroller, while Dennis T. Gorski, a Democrat, unsuccessfully ran for Congress.

And Legislature Chairwoman Lynn M. Marinelli, a Town of Tonawanda Democrat, noted that Joel A. Giambra -- a Republican and Collins' predecessor -- seriously explored running against then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2006.

She also notices Collins' increased visibility but says it may help the greater cause.

"I see him raising his profile," he said. "But if it works to serve the interests of Erie County, then Godspeed."

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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