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The long and winding district: A trip through New York's 27th

Every morning in New York's 27th Congressional District, brothers John and Steven Ohol wake up before sunrise and tend their Cambria dairy farm. They load hay and grow corn for cattle feed. They milk their 200 cows.

The Ohols' grandparents started this farm eight decades ago. They know how to do this, and they've gotten better at it. "There should be no reason why we can't make money," said John Ohol, 39, who grew up on this farm.

Yet they're not making money. Every month, the Ohols hope that maybe they'll manage to break even.

Eight miles away, several dozen workers show up at a 35,000-square-foot food factory. They wrap cheese, sauce, pepperoni and dough into a product called Original Pizza Logs, then package and ship it off to be sold in stadiums and grocery stores across the country.

If their company does well, the workers do too. Finger Food Products Inc. has a profit-sharing plan, and though owner Jason Cordova doesn't reveal revenues, business seems good. After opening his $3.9 million plant in late 2016, Cordova invested a six-figure sum last year in new equipment and has unveiled a new product, Original Apple Pie Logs.

"I absolutely see the economy and manufacturing humming," said Cordova, a 44-year-old former Army captain who took over the business from his father. "Our sales are up. Our productivity is up."

Both of these scenes play out every day in Niagara County, which is one of eight counties included in the vast, rural and right-tilting New York 27th District. The district is represented by Rep. Chris Collins, the Clarence businessman-turned-GOP politician and staunch ally of President Trump.

Until this month, Collins was considered an entrenched member of Congress. But then he was indicted on charges related to insider trading, ended his re-election campaign, and put the New York 27th in the national spotlight.

Much of New York's 27th congressional district includes rural farmland, such as this farm in Lewiston. (John Hickey/News file photo)

On a map, the 27th District is shaped like a large, slightly lopsided cruise ship, with a broad base that extends south of Buffalo and Rochester, from Gowanda to Dansville. It juts northward in the Buffalo Niagara region to Lake Ontario and veers to Canandaigua, on the far side of Rochester. It encompasses more than 100 towns.

With more than 200,000 registered Republicans and Conservatives and not quite 150,000 Democrats, the 27th is considered New York's reddest district. It's become the object of desire for a dozen or so Republicans who have expressed interest in replacing Collins on the November ballot against Democrat Nate McMurray, the supervisor of Grand Island.

The Buffalo News spent much of the last week traveling through the district, unearthing stories of people and places in an effort to push beyond the politics.

But those politics seem palpably unpleasant for swaths of people in the district. Multiple business and community leaders contacted for this story refused to talk — "We're not interested" and "We'll pass" were common refrains — or simply didn't return messages and emails.

Even Cordova, the owner of Finger Food Products, was clear: He'll talk business, but is neutral on politics. "I don't look for anything from the congressmen, senators or anything," he said. "I just want them to not raise our taxes. That's all I want them to do. Just don't raise our taxes."

While politics might be poison talk along the winding roads of the 27th, a trip through the district reveals a more nuanced picture. It's one that can be instructive for the pundits and political types who are viewing the 27th as a big, red, ribbon-wrapped political prize to be claimed when the smoke of Collins clears.

In a district like this one, achievements that would be microscopic in a big city are points of pride in small communities. Big thinking in these tiny towns can yield higher-impact results. And problems that are traditionally associated with larger urban areas exist here, too. But they are often even harder to solve.

‘A transportation desert'

Last week in her Lockport office, Kathleen Granchelli set a piece of paper on her desk.

"Look here," said Granchelli, who is CEO of the YWCA of the Niagara Frontier. She pointed to several statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau that detailed the high poverty rate for women in Lockport, a small city in Niagara County. For single mothers with children under 5, the city's poverty rate is 70 percent.

Granchelli then pointed out something statistics don't tell: Violence against women is a harrowing problem in the areas served by her YWCA. The organization responds to all rape calls in Niagara County, including in Niagara Falls and Lockport, and works with women who are living in homes with domestic abuse. This is where the poverty rate and domestic-violence issues intersect: Employment is the ticket to a better life.

"There's no way to get out of domestic violence or any other kind of trauma situation unless you have a job," Granchelli said. "I mean, you can't leave. Can't leave, can't take your kids, can't support yourself."

The YWCA has culinary training certificate programs in Lockport and Niagara Falls, and often hires the women and minorities who graduate from it. But that only dents the issue. "The biggest thing women we serve in this area need is living-wage jobs," said Granchelli, adding that before anyone insists there are many such jobs available in Buffalo, they also need to acknowledge the difficulty in getting there.

The 20 to 30 miles that separate Lockport from the Buffalo area are easy to traverse for someone with an automobile. But for a single mom, with kids to get to daycare and unable to afford a car, those jobs are are ungettable. "It's almost impossible in Niagara County," Granchelli said. "It's kind of a transportation desert."

The YWCA's Niagara territory is located mostly in the 27th District, and also includes a small part of Rep. Brian Higgins' area. Granchelli told The News she wants to prioritize working with federal officials and hopes whoever succeeds Collins will take on this economy-meets-infrastructure challenge.

"Living-wage jobs with a way to get to them is a federal issue that could be worked on by someone who's going into that spot," she said. "That would be huge."

In the fight against poverty, that's huge anywhere. But in the more rural reaches of the 27th, the relative enormity of what makes a big difference scales drastically downward. In small towns, the smallest things matter — often much more than the disintegrating career of an accused congressman.

Success in the details

Regina Brown, a retired teacher with no interest in talking politics, sits in Hartland Town Park Wednesday, August 15, 2018. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

On a sun-drenched afternoon last week in Hartland, a town of 4,000 northwest of Lockport, retired teacher Regina Brown sat on a park bench adjacent to a baseball field where her 14-year-old granddaughter plays. It's the same one where her husband, Denny, used to play. Denny died two years ago; a small red maple tree, planted by friends in his honor, swayed in the breeze over Brown's shoulder.

"This is home," said Brown, who expressed no particular interest in talking about Collins or who is going to replace him.

But Brown, who grew up here on a fruit farm and taught in the local school for 36 years, smiled when asked to reminiscence about the Hartland community's greatest achievements. She thought for a moment, then shared a few decades of memories: In the 1970s, Hartland successfully formed its own fire company and built a fire hall. In the 1980s, Hartland built a town hall. The town also has these ballfields, and its own ambulance, meaning people in dire medical situations don't have to wait for an emergency vehicle to cruise in from other municipalities.

"It meant a lot to everybody in the area," Brown said. "It's something that was needed, and we knew that."

Many people who live in these small towns do so out of passion for the place, and appreciation for the small things. In Attica, a 2,500-person town that borders Wyoming and Genesee counties, 62-year-old financial services entrepreneur Raymond Shreder was visiting his lifelong friend, Ed Szemplenski, a 64-year-old photographer. Both men grew up here but moved to larger cities.

"Growing up, to 18, this was the best place to live," said Shreder, sitting in the living room of his sister's village of Attica home, a few minutes from the state prison.

Shreder, who is the process of moving back to Attica from Las Vegas, recalled a childhood of riding bikes around the village and playing in the park. "After 18, it was a little bit tougher," he said. "But now that we're older, I actually like it. (Compared to) the traffic of big cities, it's real slow here."

Shreder and Szemplenski spoke at length about Collins and politics, but in the same way that you might discuss football: Passionate, well-informed and opinionated, but not necessarily in a way that is personal. There was no tangible, immediate connection to their lives. For that, you had to look at things that were closer than a D.C. congressman. Like when the two men were trying to remember how many bars have closed in the village.

"There was, what, 13 bars when we were 18?" Shreder said.

"I counted seven or eight," Szemplenski said, "and there are maybe two now."

Keeping it honest: There would be "maybe two" bars whether or not Chris Collins is Attica's congressman.

In Geneseo, a Livingston County college town and one of the more liberal enclaves in the 27th, retired real estate broker Charles Strickland was sipping black coffee and reading the Wall Street Journal in the back booth of a diner. The 66-year-old is a graduate of SUNY Geneseo who went on to work in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Liberia as a member of the U.S. Foreign Service.

He left his government job in 1995 and moved with his wife, Joanna Kirk, to a 20-acre farm in nearby Nunda, with a population of less than 3,000. Kirk is a native of northern England, and the rolling hills here are reminiscent of her childhood. "After having seen the rest of the world," Strickland said, "the Genesee Valley is as beautiful a place as I've ever encountered anywhere."

Strickland is a Republican but, in the era of Trump, has become disenchanted with his party. He let a smirky smile slip across his broad face when he turned a circa-2016 Trumpism on Collins: "Crooked Chris Collins," he said. "Lock him up!"

Big small-town passion

Pilar McKay, a dance instructor, sits at the bar in the Silver Lake Brewing Project in Perry Wednesday, August 15, 2018. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Perceptions nag anywhere, but in a small town, they can rule. Matthew Shea, a 21-year-old who grew up in the southern Erie County village of Gowanda, calls this "small-town syndrome:" "Creating your own world within a world — the only world that matters is this little world here."

Shea was talking small-town politics last week over a beer at the Wicked Glen bar. A recent graduate of SUNY Fredonia, Shea acknowledged that he, too, has become entrapped in bubble thinking and wants to stay in Gowanda, become a community leader, and help find "solutions" to problems.

Shea's passion for his hometown comes from a sort of small-town advantage: Communities the size of Gowanda (population: 2,600) can be like big families. They argue. They gossip. They sometimes break apart. But they can also band together in support and celebration. Shea saw that last year when he published a short-story collection, "Pink Clouds & Pocket Lint," as an iBook.

"People I didn't even know in the community were reaching out to me," he said. "I'll always cherish that, and have respect and love for my community because of that."

Creative entrepreneurs can make a big splash in small towns. In 2016, Sarah Keeler-Badger, a 28-year-old native of San Antonio, opened Genesee Dance Theatre in the 3,500-person village of Perry. Keeler-Badger went to college in Manhattan and worked as a dancer in New York City, then moved upstate with her husband in 2011. A pair of grants totaling $12,500 from the Wyoming County Arts Initiative helped fund her dance studio.

"I think the millennial perspective is often if there's something you want to happen, just make it happen — figure out a way," said Keeler-Badger, who was sitting in the lobby of her studio. "In rural areas, there's so much possibility for that … We have pockets and opportunities and windows that you don't have in a city where things have continued to grow for so long, at such a fast rate."

In a chair adjacent to Keeler-Badger was her friend Pilar McKay, a 35-year-old college professor and arts entrepreneur. McKay, who grew up in Perry and moved to Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., for work, opened the Silver Lake Brewing Project across the street in 2017. The $500,000 brewery is managed by McKay and her two partners, and supported by nearly 40 community investors, who have also become customers and de facto marketers

"How would I even open a brewery in Los Angeles? I don't even know," said McKay, who moved back to Perry in 2016. "It would be so much money."

‘We're maxed'

Dollars may stretch further in rural towns, but like anywhere, profit rules. Manufacturing and agriculture are vital industries in the 27th; helping ensure they remain strong will presumably be a high priority of whoever replaces Collins.

Cordova, the maker of pizza and apple-pie appetizers, wants only one kind of help: tax cuts, which have already happened. "Those are real dollars," he said. "I think it allows business owners to reinvest in their companies. I'm one of the guys who has."

The Ohols may need more. In recent years, they have worked with experts to sharpen their business: Their feed is dense with nutrients. Their cows are milking three times a day. "We're doing such a better job than we were five years ago, 10 years ago, a couple years ago,"

In 2014, their dairy farm was getting paid $25 per hundredweight (that's about 12 gallons) for milk. Today, they are producing more milk than ever, but getting about $16 per hundredweight, and losing $20,000 to $30,000 month. To keep cash flowing, they have tapped into the equity on their property, and John Ohol said, "We're maxed right now."

The family has been involved in potential solar-power projects in Niagara County, which presumably could help with cash flow, but won't address the milk-pricing issue. Nor will it ensure that a way of life begun in the 1930s by John's grandparents — the farm life that defines much of the 27th district — will continue for the Ohols.

As he stood at the side of his truck with his brother and partner, Steven, and their father, Joseph, John's young son Brock played nearby on a dirt path.

"That's the fourth generation," one of them said.

"We hope," said another.

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