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In race against Collins, support for McMurray – and anger at Cuomo

Nate McMurray wowed Democrats and disaffected Republicans from Hamburg to Honeoye Falls to land the Democratic line on the ballot to run for Congress.

But then in mid-April, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's allies tried to push McMurray, a fellow Democrat, out of the race against Rep. Chris Collins, a Republican from Clarence. And nothing has been quite the same since.

"I went into a two-week funk where I didn't want to do anything but watch 'The Flintstones' and play with my kids," McMurray said in an interview last week.

The people wowed by McMurray, who is Grand Island supervisor and a passionate progressive, still love him. But Cuomo? Not so much.

McMurray supporters think the governor's people tried to push Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Western New Yorker, off the state ticket and into the congressional race for Cuomo's benefit, not to help the 27th Congressional District.

"From our perspective, it was the governor selling out our candidate to beef up the progressive credentials of his own ticket," said Renee Sutton, a progressive activist from Canandaigua, in the far eastern end of the sprawling 27th District.

Cuomo's allies deny that was their intent.

"Kathy's been a great lieutenant governor," Bill Mulrow, chairman of Cuomo's re-election campaign, said Saturday. "She's been a great partner with the governor in doing so many things for New York, not just in Buffalo but around the state. And we continue to look forward to having that partnership over the next four years."

Even before the lobbying started for a Hochul congressional candidacy, McMurray faced a tough race. Republicans enjoy a huge enrollment advantage in the district, and Collins had nearly 35 times as much campaign cash on hand as McMurray as of March 31.

But many McMurray supporters said he was doing just fine – until Cuomo's people got involved.

'The fire to win'

McMurray got the idea last fall of challenging Collins, a third-termer with close ties to President Trump and a House ethics investigation hanging over his head.

"I believe I have the fire and background to win," McMurray said in emails, written from his town of Grand Island email account, to several politicos with a stake in the race.

Grand Island Supervisor used town email account for political purposes

Jeremy Zellner, the Erie County Democratic chairman who would become McMurray's most powerful evangelist, at first told him it was too tough a race for any young Democrat to expect to win. The 27th District, which combines largely red parts of Erie and Niagara counties with the farmland and Rochester suburbs to the east, is the state's most Republican district. In 2016, Republican Donald Trump won it by 24 points in the presidential election, and Collins, the first House member to endorse him, swept it by 35.

Nevertheless, last fall, McMurray began showing up at Democratic events in the district. Several anti-Collins activists said that, compared with McMurray, the strongest Democrats in the race at the time – East Aurora attorney Sean Bunny and Monroe County businessman Nick Stankevich – suddenly didn't look so strong.

"We're going to need people to knock on doors. We're going to need people to come to events," Grand Island Supervisor Nate McMurray told a small group of UB students, seeking to enlist their help in his run for Congress against Republican Chris Collins. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

McMurray would enter rooms and win them over with eloquent calls for Democratic causes like unions and national health care, as well as acerbic attacks on Collins.

"Nate is very funny, very personable, really a straight shooter," said Cecily Molak, a retired Republican lawyer from Honeoye Falls who is so disenchanted with Collins that she filed an ethics complaint against him. "Nate is just a very believable guy, a good listener. I was impressed."

McMurray's resume impressed Democrats, too. He went from working-class roots in North Tonawanda to get two law degrees – one in the United States and one in China. He worked for American companies in South Korea before returning home several years ago, settling with his family on Grand Island and going to work as a lawyer for Delaware North Cos.

Elected as supervisor in 2015, McMurray highlighted the accomplishments he has chalked up in a Republican town: helping to bring cashless tolls to the Grand Island bridges, initiating an ambitious solar power plan, expanding public access to the island's waterfront.

"He amassed an amazing progressive record in Grand Island in a very short time," said Michelle Schoeneman of East Aurora, co-founder of the Citizens Against Collins Facebook group.

With grassroots activists gravitating toward McMurray, the district's county chairs – led by Zellner – did, too. They endorsed McMurray in mid-February even though he doesn't even live in the 27th District, as the other candidates did.

"The biggest thing for the party leaders is that Nate could throw a punch, that he could go on the offensive against Chris Collins," Zellner said.

Rep. Chris Collins looks on during a tour of Performance Advantage Company in Lancaster in October. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Calls to defer to Hochul

McMurray was driving home from a gathering of rural Democrats in Albany on April 14 when the calls started coming.

"They were offering me political opportunities and telling me to negotiate," McMurray said.

[Cuomo strongly supports Hochul – for Congress]

McMurray said he fielded calls from six political figures close to the governor that weekend, all with the same message: Quit your race for Congress so that Hochul can run.

Cuomo's allies dispute that six people affiliated with the governor called McMurray, but to hear the congressional candidate tell it: "Everybody was lobbying me but Kathy, and I would have been pleased to talk to Kathy."

McMurray declined to identify exactly who called him.

Fresh off logging 15,000 campaign miles on his Ford Fusion and gathering more than 2,000 signatures to get on the ballot, McMurray refused to budge. And it wasn't just because of the less-than-tempting morsels the governor's people dangled before him – such as a run for a state Senate seat, a clear comedown from a race for Congress.

"I don't have the right to negotiate, and it's wrong for people to imply that I do," McMurray said, noting that doing so would have been a betrayal to his supporters. "And how can you trust people who make such offers?"

Cuomo made his thoughts perfectly clear in a talk with reporters in Buffalo on April 19.

“There is a very strong feeling that Kathy Hochul would be a great congressional candidate for that race and that she would be the strongest Democrat,” Cuomo said.

“If you want to win, what you try to do is get the strongest candidate," said Cuomo, who added that the question of her congressional candidacy is "moot because Kathy Hochul doesn't want to run and it's her decision."

McMurray noted that the effort to push him out of the congressional race came soon after the Working Families Party endorsed actress Cynthia Nixon for governor, giving Cuomo more reason to worry about his own primary.

Cuomo allies deny that there was any effort to push Hochul off the statewide ballot, but McMurray backers think that's just what happened – that Cuomo wanted a more progressive running mate who could help him in his primary against Nixon.

"I was offended by it, and I think it was the very cheap shot at the end that was the worst part of it," McMurray said, referring to the governor's comment that Hochul – who lost the congressional seat to Collins in 2012 – would have been the best candidate.

[Amid political chatter, Democrats push Hochul's re-election bid]

McMurray's allies were equally offended.

"I thought it had more to do with Kathy Hochul than it did with Nate McMurray," said Heather Hartel, a progressive activist from Orchard Park.

Ann Converso, the Democratic chairwoman in the Town of Collins, wasn't thrilled with the Cuomo camp's actions, either.

"I thought it was very disrespectful to Kathy Hochul," she said. "It felt like he did not want her to be his running mate."

Hochul – who vows to run for re-election and faces a challenge from the left from New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams – refused to comment. But every Democrat in the 27th District who was interviewed for this story rose to her defense as lieutenant governor, saying Hochul has been a strong advocate for the region in Albany.

"We love Kathy Hochul," said Judith Hunter, the Livingston County Democratic chairwoman. "We want Kathy in Albany and Nate in D.C."

That's why, like McMurray, the Democratic chairs in the 27th District refused to bend to the pressure from Cuomo's forces.

"We stood up and said no," said Cynthia Appleton, who chairs the Wyoming County Democratic Committee. "We told them: 'This is not how this is going to go down.' "

Back from his funk

Cuomo's move devastated McMurray, at least for a while.

"When your own side pulls the chair out from under you like that, you go into a bit of a funk," he said.

Making matters worse was the fact that the very same weekend when Cuomo's team tried to push him out of the race, McMurray reported that he had raised a disappointing amount – $41,786 – in the first quarter to go up against Collins' $1.27 million war chest.

McMurray said he hadn't focused on fundraising in his rush to line up support and signatures. He's doing so now, though.

"I have to make calls and ask people for money," McMurray said. "It's something that does not come naturally to me, or to anybody who's normal."

Several of McMurray's supporters said they were disappointed with his fundraising, too. But they said his other skills as a candidate should help him.

"Nate just has a dynamic personality," said Michael Plitt, the Democratic chairman in Genesee County.

McMurray put his personality on display Friday afternoon before a group of college Democrats at the University at Buffalo. He railed against Collins, saying: "He treats his seat in Congress as some sort of knighthood."

Then McMurray spelled out how he thinks he can win. He acknowledged he starts with a 20,000 enrollment disadvantage. But if he can persuade a few thousand of them to vote for him, and if a few thousand more sit home, and if an unusually large number of Democrats turn out to vote, Collins will be history, McMurray said.

"But we're going to need help," he told the dozen or so students who seemed rapt at his presentation. "We're going to need people to knock on doors. We're going to need people to come to events."

Afterwards, several students vowed to help McMurray.

And on Saturday, so did Cuomo's campaign manager.

"We do support Nate McMurray, and there will be every effort to try to help him win that seat," Mulrow said.

Amber Hainey, a progressive activist from Mount Morris, said that without intending to, Cuomo might already have helped McMurray.

"I think what Cuomo did was actually a bonus for Nate, because he needs to distance himself from the governor," she said. "Doing this stuff isn't helping the governor around here. He's not liked on either end of the political spectrum."

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