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Collins promises to 'actively campaign' and serve in House

A day after refusing to address his future plans, Rep. Chris Collins said Wednesday he will “actively campaign” for his 27th Congressional District seat and serve if re-elected, despite facing charges of insider trading.

“The stakes are too high to allow the radical left to take control of this seat in Congress,” Collins, a Clarence Republican, said in a statement. “Their agenda is clear. They want to reverse the recently enacted tax cuts, impose Canadian style healthcare, inflict new job killing regulations and impeach President Trump.

“We cannot stand by and let that happen,” he added.

Collins' decision now sets the stage for a locally unprecedented congressional race featuring an incumbent facing felony charges of fraud, conspiracy and lying to an FBI agent. The charges, which Collins denies, stem from a series of stock trades that prosecutors say were based on inside information.

His opponents will be Democrat Nathan McMurray, the Grand Island town supervisor who has been waging an aggressive grassroots campaign, and Larry Piegza of West Seneca, a Reform Party candidate who could serve as a wild card in what's increasingly looking like a lively race in a deeply conservative district. The Cook Political Report, one of Washington's leading political prognosticators, this week changed its rating in the race in New York's 27th Congressional District from "likely Republican" to "lean Republican."

Collins promised an active campaign.

"I will fight on two fronts," he said. "I will work to ensure the 27th Congressional District remains in Republican hands, while I fight to clear my good name in the courts."

Doing so could be a challenge, though. The presence of a lawmaker indicted on federal charges on the ballot is likely to increase the national focus on a race that could conceivably decide whether Republicans or Democrats control the House. And the criminal charges against Collins will follow him deep into the campaign: In fact, his next court date is set for Oct. 11 – less than four weeks before Election Day.

The Collins statement represents the latest in a series of rapid developments stemming from the congressman’s Aug. 8 indictment. He “suspended” his campaign on Aug. 11 while promising to work with party leaders to remove his name from the ballot and substitute another Republican candidate.

The congressman said on Monday he will instead remain on the ballot upon the advice of attorneys defending him against the criminal charges. That led to questions about whether he would campaign and then serve in Congress next year – questions he would not address on Tuesday, but did a day later.

Collins’ latest decision also paves the way for him to potentially stand trial while serving in the House of Representatives – and possibly be expelled if convicted.

The congressman has maintained his innocence all along, but it is also possible that he could agree to resign at some point as a part of a plea agreement, or after his conviction.

Collins' son, Cameron Collins, faces similar felony charges, as does Cameron Collins' prospective father-in law, Stephen Zarsky of New Jersey. Prosecutors say the congressman spurred a series of insider stock trades with a phone call to his son, who later tipped off Zarsky.

Republican Chris Collins pictured Tuesday night at the Planing Mill in Buffalo, left, and Democrat Nate McMurray pictured Tuesday night at his campaign headquarters in Hamburg. (Derek Gee and Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Hearing the news that Collins was back in the race in an active way, McMurray tweeted: "Bring it."

In a phone interview, McMurray elaborated on that sentiment.

"I welcome him into the race," the Democratic candidate said of Collins. "It's about time he spent some time in his district. While I'm been going to parades and picnics all over the district, he's been in his Manhattan penthouse."

McMurray said that contrary to Collins' comment that he's part of the "radical left," he's a mainstream Democrat whose first order of business won't be impeaching President Trump and leading the way on major legislation.

Instead, he said his main goal will be to represent the people in the 27th District, a sprawling expanse that stretches from Buffalo's suburbs to Rochester's suburbs. Part of that will be stressing issues of economic fairness, and another part will be doing something Collins has never done in his six years in Congress.

"I will hold town halls once a month," McMurray said. "I will listen to what the people say."

Collins' re-entry into the race prompted the Cook Political Report to boost its odds that McMurray will actually win the race even though the GOP has an 11-point natural advantage in the district.

Collins' move created "yet another unwanted situation for House Republicans in an otherwise safe Republican seat," wrote David Wasserman, House editor for the Cook Political Report.

Noting that McMurray – the Grand Island town supervisor – doesn't live in the 27th District, Wasserman indicated that voters can expect Collins to wage a highly negative campaign against the Democrat.

"The indictment won't prevent Collins from using his personal wealth to attack McMurray as a carpetbagger, and Collins will attempt to neutralize his legal problems by citing McMurray's use of his town email account for political purposes to equate him with Hillary Clinton," Wasserman wrote.

For Republicans, Wasserman said there's a "hopeful precedent" to be found on Staten Island, where GOP Rep. Michael Grimm ran for re-election – and won – while under indictment on federal felony charges in 2014.

But there's one big difference between Grimm and Collins.

Grimm "won handily in part because he promised voters he would resign if convicted," Wasserman said.

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