At dawn on Wednesday, Rep. Chris Collins occupied the safest Republican congressional seat in all of New York.
But just a few hours later, serious questions began surrounding Collins and his future, even as the congressman vowed to remain in office and on the ballot for November’s 27th Congressional District election after he was indicted in Manhattan federal court on insider trading charges.
Now everything has changed.
By early Wednesday afternoon, Mayor Byron W. Brown – in his capacity as state Democratic chairman – demanded Collins resign.
“Public service is a sacred trust,” Brown said. “If anyone violates that trust, or the oath of office that they have sworn to uphold, they should not continue to serve in elected office. Congressman Collins should resign.”
But it was also clear that Collins, at least for now, has no intention of resigning. In an early morning email he sent to supporters titled “Very Bad News,” that was obtained by The Buffalo News, the congressman said he expected to be indicted by the U.S. attorney in Manhattan but that he would fight to clear his name, along with his son, Cameron, who was also charged Wednesday.
“Rest assured that I will continue to work hard for the people of the 27th District of New York while remaining on the ballot for re-election this November,” he said.
Suddenly, with the indictment, Washington Democrats were paying attention to Nathan McMurray, Collins’ Democratic opponent and the Grand Island supervisor whom they had previously written off.
“With Collins’ arrest for corruption, unprecedented grass roots energy, and the strong candidacy of Nate McMurray, this seat is firmly in play for Democrats,” the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said.
Now Republican Party and congressional leaders must decide whether to stick with Collins or seek his resignation at a time when GOP candidates around the country appear under siege, though they were remaining mum Wednesday afternoon.
But a host of technical problems loom even if Collins resigns, since Republican leaders would have to employ a series of obscure political machinations in order to remove his name from the ballot.
John W. Conklin, a spokesman for the state Board of Elections, said the only way for Collins to leave the ballot at this late date on the political calendar would be for party leaders to arrange for another GOP candidate for another office to decline his or her nomination. Then, he said, party leaders could substitute Collins for some lower office such as town justice or coroner.
It is also possible they could insert him into one of the district’s few Democratic enclaves where he could run as a sacrificial lamb.
“A person can decline the first office in order to accept the second office,” Conklin said. “Just speculating here, if he somehow managed the nomination for a second office after he accepted, that could open the congressional line."
But Conklin noted such a scenario appears “unlikely,” because of the late date and further complications.
Erie County Republican Elections Commissioner Ralph M. Mohr added that for that scenario to work, the first officeholder must be a lawyer who could accept a nomination for State Supreme Court in September.
“Where you find a lawyer to do that, I don’t know,” he said.
The situation also presents a political obstacle for President Trump, who must now react to the Wednesday arraignment before a federal magistrate judge of his first congressional supporter and one of his most visible cheerleaders. National Democrats were quick to remind voters of the connection between Collins and the president.
“Few could have imagined that when Chris Collins promised to ‘drain the swamp’ he was referring to himself,” the DCCC said. “Collins shamelessly and unapologetically abused his position and the chickens have come home to roost.”
McMurray addressed the situation Wednesday afternoon, but Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner said the party remains committed to their candidate and will not consider substituting anybody else for him.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “There is not even a question entering my mind, and Nate would never consider it.”
McMurray, during a news conference Wednesday afternoon, said the Collins indictment spurred new donations.
"We probably raised more money this morning than we have in the whole race," said McMurray, who has significantly lagged Collins in campaign fundraising for months.
The News reported in April that political operatives close to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo were attempting to substitute Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul into McMurray's congressional spot as she faced a tough Democratic primary for the second spot on the state ticket.
Zellner, meanwhile, used the occasion to set the stage for the all-out assault his party plans on Collins and the seat, unexpected even earlier in the day.
“This is only the latest sad chapter in the career of a man who has consistently used public office to enrich himself rather than to improve the lives of those he’s supposed to represent,” Zellner said. “He’s bragged on the floor of the House of Representatives – the people’s House – that he’s made his family and friends rich while refusing to debate Nate McMurray or meet with his constituents, and the reason is simple: The people of the 27th aren’t his constituents.
“We may now only hear from Chris Collins through his testimony,” he added. “These allegations, supported by a bipartisan congressional ethics panel, have been well known for more than a year, and yet congressional and local Republicans continued to support Chris Collins.”
Collins, defeated by Democrat Mark C. Poloncarz for a second term as Erie County executive in 2011, narrowly defeated then-incumbent Democratic representative Hochul in 2012 in one of the area’s most celebrated political comebacks. He had unsuccessfully challenged then-Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda, in 1998.
But backed by his substantial personal fortune, Collins won his subsequent congressional bid and established himself as a force in local and national politics. He appeared on national television more than 100 times during the presidential campaign and later as a constant Trump champion.
The Collins indictment marks the second time in recent years that the 27th District has been marred by scandal. Former Rep. Chris Lee, also a Republican, resigned in 2011 after an internet dating site depicted him in a shirtless pose.