Comparing the congressional race between Rep. Chris Collins and James O’Donnell to David versus Goliath would be an insult to David.
The 29-year-old O’Donnell, who as a Buffalo police officer is barred by the law from personally seeking political contributions, has raised only $1,470 for a race against a well-known politician who has raised 610 times that amount.
That being the case, this year’s race in New York’s 27th Congressional District hasn’t featured the onslaught of television ads that marked previous contests featuring Collins and Democrat Kathy Hochul, or Hochul and Republican Jane Corwin.
But behind the scenes, it’s clear that once again, voters in the 27th District face a stark choice, this time between an establishment Republican who has developed an independent streak and a Democrat with unusual libertarian leanings.
Collins, a 64-year-old Republican from Clarence, entered Congress with a reputation for brash pronouncements and fiscal conservatism.
And while the former Erie County executive is still prone to saying what he thinks rather than what is careful, Collins also has shown himself to be much less of a hard-right conservative than what might have been expected.
For proof, just look at Heritage Action’s scorecard of his votes. In what is essentially a measure of tea party fealty, Collins scored a mere 45 percent, bucking hard-line conservatives again and again on issues ranging from federal funding for Hurricane Sandy relief to reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank to the Violence Against Women Act.
Asked about his voting record in a recent interview, Collins said he has never been quite so conservative as some voters might think – and besides, he’s been in government long enough now to know that “compromise is the name of the game.”
Collins: Not so conservative
That doesn’t mean Collins has gone soft. He still talks with passion about excessive government spending and the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, which he sees as a costly bureaucratic nightmare. However, he’s no longer keen on trying to repeal it at every turn.
“It won’t be repealed for at least two years,” he said, until the end of President Obama’s term in office.
“There’s nothing we can do about that except to say that elections have consequences.”
Then again, Republicans like Collins didn’t seem to notice those consequences a year ago, when their fight to kill Obamacare led to a government shutdown. Collins later questioned that strategy, but in a recent interview he noted that Republicans offered a pathway to keep the government open – so long as Obama and Senate Democrats caved on their signature issue.
Through much of his first term, though, Collins the congressman focused on narrower issues that he saw as important to his district and to the small businesses he feels he represents in Congress. He has pushed, for example, for a new farm bill and the Export-Import Bank reauthorization.
Looking forward to a second term, he said he is hoping to land a spot on a premier committee, such as Energy and Commerce, where he could have more influence on the economic issues that matter most to him.
“I want a good meat-and-potatoes committee that can really be my home for my tenure in Congress,” said Collins, who currently serves on the lower-profile Agriculture and Science, Space and Technology committees, while chairing the Small Business Committee’s subcommittee on health and technology.
As for O’Donnell, when asked what committees he would like to serve on, he said: “I haven’t put much thought into it.”
Instead of diving deep into committees – where Congress does its bread-and-butter work – O’Donnell said he would focus on being an advocate for the region, as well as pushing issues that are important to him, such as tax reform and passing national legislation legalizing gay marriage.
If those sound like disparate items plucked from the legislative smorgasbord, that seems to be characteristic of O’Donnell, an Orchard Park resident who doesn’t come close to fitting into any kind of ideological box.
A Libertarian Democrat
He has spoken at Libertarian Party conventions and feels great sympathy for its small-government, personal freedom philosophy, which isn’t normally associated with the Democratic Party and its history of creating big-government programs ranging from Social Security to Obamacare.
O’Donnell said it makes sense for him to be a Democrat, though, because libertarians are in sync with Democrats on social issues such as abortion rights, gay marriage and marijuana decriminalization.
“And there tend to be a lot more social issues than economic issues,” he added.
On the economic issues, too, though, O’Donnell chooses widely from the ideological grab bag. For example, he’s for an increased minimum wage but favors a reworking of the Affordable Care Act to do away with the tax penalties that people face if they don’t buy health insurance. Instead, he said, government policy should encourage individuals to contribute to health savings accounts – a hardy perennial included in many Republican health-care plans.
Yet he’s not in favor of repealing Obamacare.
“It’s not going to be repealed. I would fix it rather than harp on the need to repeal it,” he said.
And on foreign policy, O’Donnell leads toward isolationism. He told The Buffalo News Editorial Board that while he’s comfortable with limited air strikes to combat the Islamic State militant group, he doesn’t think they will work – and that doing nothing was also a legitimate policy option for dealing with the Islamist terror group.
“I used to be a Republican,” O’Donnell said. “But I did not fit in well when it came to fighting wars. I’m more of a non-interventionist.”
A graduate of St. Francis High School, the University at Buffalo and UB Law School, O’Donnell has worked as a bartender, waiter and construction worker before joining the Buffalo Police Department, a job he said he would not leave to run for any office other than Congress.
O’Donnell acknowledged he is a bit of a long shot, but also argued that he’s not running against a universally loved opponent.
“I talk to Republicans and Democrats across the district, and he is not very popular, even among tea party members,” O’Donnell said of Collins. “It’s certainly a heavily Republican district, and he should have won by 20 points last time around.”
O’Donnell also argued that Collins remains too conservative and that he’s ripe for a challenge.
“I don’t think anyone should run unopposed,” he said. “It’s bad for everyone when that happens.”
But that doesn’t mean Collins has a conventional challenger, with millions of dollars to spend on television ads. Instead, O’Donnell said his campaign largely consists of him knocking on doors four nights a week.
For Collins, though, that sort of low-key challenge comes as something of a relief after two hard-fought races for county executive and equally hard-fought races for the GOP congressional nomination and his 27th District seat.
“I can enjoy what’s really a different kind of race,” Collins said.
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