You have to laugh. The guy who calls himself the anti-politician runs circles around the local political pack. I am no fan of Chris Collins' methods, or of some of his policies. But when it comes to politics, you have to hand it to the CEO-turned-county executive. He is as cunning as they come.
His recent assault on cultural funding underlined the point. He framed the dollar cuts for libraries and arts groups as a taxpayer defense -- never a losing strategy in a region bleeding jobs and people. His haves vs. have-nots tactic with cultural groups muzzled the big arts organizations. His political maneuvering transformed a once-hostile County Legislature into a body that -- as the cultural controversy showed -- he can have his way with.
Not bad for a guy who, until three years ago, never held elective office.
"Collins is doing what he said he would -- run government like a business and control expenses," said marketing executive Bob Davis, the ex-Republican county boss, who has no direct ties to Collins. "It plays with the fiscally conservative Democrats that he needs to support him."
Collins' funding of only his "Top 10" culturals -- such heavyweights as the Buffalo Zoo and the Buffalo Philharmonic -- was a classic divide-and-conquer move. Although sympathetic to their smaller brethren, officials running the Top 10 remained mum through the weeks-long budget battle. They feared that any protest would put them in Collins' cross hairs and jeopardize their future dollars. In a ruthlessly effective move, he scared them into silence.
"The message," one large-cultural board member told me, "is to be quiet and be thankful that you got your money."
In maneuvering his way to a compliant Legislature, Collins ran circles around Democratic county boss Len Lenihan. Collins-backed challengers took down three sitting Democrats in last year's legislative races. It started when Collins encouraged two supporters with heavy name recognition to run -- TV newscaster Lynne Dixon and radio show host Kevin Hardwick. Both won.
"Dixon and Hardwick were as well-known as the sitting [Democratic] legislators," Davis said. "That name recognition evened the odds."
Republicans captured their key sixth seat -- ensuring Collins of a vetoproof Legislature -- after Collins enticed maverick Democratic Legislator Kathy Konst into a county commissioner job just three months before Election Day. It paved the way to victory for Republican challenger Dino Fudoli.
Beyond that, Collins forged an alliance with Buffalo's mayor, altering what for years had been an oil-and-water relationship between the offices. Collins' backing last January helped a Byron Brown ally, Barbara Miller-Williams, to capture the power seat in the County Legislature. She and two other Brown-allied Democrats sometimes jump the political fence for Collins -- giving him a working legislative majority.
Despite a promised blowback from cultural supporters, Collins to my mind is an odds-on favorite for re-election next year -- despite a 140,000 Republican disadvantage in enrolled voters.
"He can claim he stabilized county government and keeps costs down," Davis noted. "So what [issue] are the Democrats going to run against?"
I have little patience with Collins' dictatorial ways -- from a refusal to hand out legally approved funds, to his straight-arming of investigators at the county's troubled jails. His ruthlessness may, at some point, do him more political harm than good. But time and again, he and Chris Grant -- his political Svengali -- outflank adversaries.
The way Collins gets his way, you would think he had been doing this all his life.