BATAVIA — Republican leaders in the 27th Congressional District Tuesday met with nine people who want to be elected to Congress, only to end their marathon interview session by slowing down their selection process for a candidate to replace the indicted Rep. Chris Collins.
"We're no longer in a rush like we thought we were," Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas Langworthy said after the county chairs ended their deliberations shortly before 9 p.m., six hours after the interviews began.
Only last week, Langworthy said the eight party chairs in the district hoped to settle on a candidate by the end of this week. But after meeting with the candidates, Langworthy said all of them remained in the running.
"We know we have a lot to consider ... We will continue to deliberate," he said.
Similarly, the Republican chairman in Monroe County, Bill Reilich, put a positive spin on a seeming lack of agreement among the eight county chairs.
"There's not a candidate we wouldn't be happy with," Reilich said, adding that the county chairs would not be meeting again any time soon, as they originally had hoped to do.
"We're going to give it a little break for a few days," he said.
The debate is over which candidate will run for the seat about to be vacated by Collins, who was indicted on felony insider trading charges Aug. 8 and announced a few days later that he would not campaign for re-election.
Earlier, the prospective candidates left the meeting at Batavia Downs saying they had no better idea who would be the candidate than they did when they walked in.
"Everything I've seen, read and heard indicates there's no front-runner," said state Sen. Mike Ranzenhofer of Amherst, 64, one of the candidates.
The party chairs interviewed nine candidates, not the expected 11. Assemblyman David DiPietro of East Aurora, who gave mixed signals about his interest in the race, never requested an interview. Iraq War veteran David Bellavia dropped out of the race earlier Tuesday.
Tuesday's meeting served as an opportunity for the candidates to make themselves stand out both to the county chairs they met with and the journalists who questioned them before and after their closed-door interviews.
Buffalo developer Carl Paladino stood out in several ways in his comments to reporters.
First, he reiterated his promise to donate "whatever it takes" from his own funds for the race. Other candidates would need to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, while also campaigning through the district, which stretches from Buffalo's suburbs to communities southeast of Rochester.
Paladino also was the only candidate to criticize the other potential candidates.
"I don't feel that any of them have the experience, the integrity, the willingness to fight that I have," he said.
Paladino — an early and strong supporter of Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign — said he had been in touch with the White House about his candidacy.
Asked how he prepared for his interview before the county chairs, Paladino said: "I got dressed."
Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw took a more deliberative approach to the interview, leaving his wife and two children at home in Hamburg so he could prepare in silence in a Batavia Downs hotel room. As a result, he said he felt prepared for the series of tough, thoughtful questions that the county chairs ended up posting.
"A large part of the conversation was 'What kind of congressman are you going to be?' " Mychajliw said.
That's just one of the dilemmas the GOP county chairs face. The five state legislators — three state senators and two assemblymen — all face re-election this year. By choosing one of them, the county chairs would face what Mychajliw called "a domino effect" of shifting candidacies not just for Congress, but also for the state Legislature.
That domino effect could even put the Republican Party's one-vote state Senate majority in jeopardy.
Ranzenhofer and state Sen. Robert Ortt both said they were confident that their Republican-leaning Senate seats would remain in GOP hands.
But state Sen. Chris Jacobs of Buffalo had to make the case that his district — which includes more Democrats than Republicans — would not be lost to the GOP if he were to run for Congress.
"It's an important issue I want to talk to them about," Jacobs said before meeting with the GOP county chairs. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't think we could keep the majority and we could keep the seat."
While choosing a candidate, the GOP chairs also must figure out exactly how to get that person on the ballot. Under New York State election law, Collins can be removed from the ballot in one of three ways: if he were to die; if he were to move out of state; or if he were to run for another office.
Local GOP leaders said that last option — finding another, lesser office for Collins to run for — was the most likely way to clear a path for a new Republican congressional candidate.
Democrats have vowed to sue to stop that from happening. In doing so, they plan on making the same argument that a half-dozen protesters — backers of Grand Island Town Supervisor Nathan McMurray, the Democratic candidate in the 27th District — made outside the racetrack.
One of them carried a sign saying: "They knew Collins was under investigation and still endorsed him! No do over."
Inside a racetrack conference room, though, the do-over proceeded, with candidate after candidate making his or her case.
Ortt, of North Tonawanda, told reporters his Army combat experience separated him from the other candidates.
He said he viewed Tuesday's interview as "a getting-to-know-me session," noting he has not previously met some of the county chairman in attendance.
Assemblyman Stephen Hawley of Genesee County, stressed his 12 years of service in the Assembly, plus his experience in business and the military, as assets. His Assembly colleague, Ray Walter of East Amherst, highlighted his tough stance against corruption in the Cuomo administration and his wins in a swing district with plenty of Democrats.
Erie County Legislator Lynne Dixon, an Independent from Hamburg, portrayed herself as a constituent-first lawmaker who would take the same approach to Congress. Meanwhile, county Legislator Edward Rath of Buffalo made himself the most vocal Trump supporter of the congressional hopefuls, saying of the president: "What he has done in the last 18 months has been nothing short of a miracle."
There seemed to be no miracle, though, for the county chairs.
Emerging from their meeting, Langworthy could not resist a papal reference and said: "There's no puff of white smoke."