Rep. Chris Collins hit the campaign trail again Saturday night with the fellow Republican who, just two months ago, seemed most eager to replace him in Congress: Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw.
Their joint appearance at a gun raffle in Elma was nothing unusual. To hear Mychajliw tell it, he's appeared with Collins at least 10 times since the Clarence Republican revived his campaign in mid-September, five weeks after suspending his race because of the felony insider trading charges federal prosecutors hit him with Aug. 8.
Both the Collins camp and Mychajliw see the county comptroller's involvement as a sign of his deep friendship for Collins – as well as a sign that Mychajliw is deeply committed to keeping New York's 27th Congressional District in Republican hands.
“Stefan is a true leader who understands what’s at stake nationally in this race," said Natalie Baldassarre, Collins' campaign spokeswoman. "Losing the seat to an avowed progressive Democrat who will vote lockstep with Nancy Pelosi is simply unacceptable. On election night, there will be many Republicans grateful Stefan stood up when it wasn’t easy, did what’s best for President Trump and helped us secure this seat for Republicans."
But Democrats, predictably, see Mychajliw as an ambitious young politician positioning himself to possibly replace an older one who's in deep trouble.
"Mychajliw’s willingness to align himself with a congressman mired in scandal calls into question his judgment, and the people of the 27th Congressional District and Erie County have every right to also question his good faith when he declares his intention to serve their interests," said Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy Zellner. "The interests he serves are his and his alone."
One thing's for certain, though: Mychajliw is deeply committed to helping his old boss and colleague.
"This is personal for me," said Mychajliw, who's known Collins for 20 years and who worked as his campaign press secretary during his failed bid for re-election as Erie County executive in 2011. "He's a friend. It makes no sense to abandon a friend in a time of need."
So there Mychajliw was at the Jamison Road Volunteer Fire Station in Elma on Saturday night, where Collins spoke briefly to a crowd of more than 400 gun enthusiasts before auctioning off the first rifle.
Mychajliw said Collins got the same sort of positive reaction that he got a week earlier when he spoke to Second Amendment supporters at the ironically named Collins Conservation Club.
"That crowd – ZZ Top beards down to the belt buckle, gun lovers – they treated Congressman Collins like a rock star," Mychajliw said. "There were people lined up to have pictures with him, wishing him luck."
Obviously, then, it was a far different scene than the one Collins encountered Aug. 8 in Manhattan, when television cameramen followed him down the steps of a federal courthouse where he had just pleaded not guilty to fraud, conspiracy and lying to an FBI agent.
Collins is not set to go on trial until Feb. 3, 2020, and he has refused to commit to serving in Congress at least until then.
His Democratic opponent, Grand Island Town Supervisor Nathan McMurray, and others have speculated that Collins is running for re-election to maintain his seat as leverage as he negotiates a possible guilty plea, but Mychajliw sees no sign of that.
"I don't see him resigning," Mychajliw said. "Every conversation I've had with him, Chris has indicated that he intends to serve his full term. This is no bait and switch."
Then again, if Collins were to win re-election and leave office early – or if McMurray were to defeat him – Mychajliw made clear that he'd be very interested in running for the congressional seat.
Mychajliw said he moved his family to Hamburg in part because it's in the 27th district, thinking he might want to run for Congress there some day.
He made clear, though, that he's still considering a race for Erie County executive in 2019, when the Democratic incumbent, Mark C. Poloncarz, is expected to run for a third term.
"I'm very blessed and fortunate to have a lot of options in the future," Mychajliw said. "I'll make a quick decision for the sake of the party, sometime in November or shortly thereafter."
Lately, though, it's seemed clear that Mychajliw remains most interested in an eventual race for Congress.
On the day that Collins initially withdrew from the race, Mychajliw was the first to declare his candidacy to replace him. Within two hours of Collins' announcement, Mychajliw sent an email to the media from the firstname.lastname@example.org email address, with the tagline: "I'm all in!"
That being the case, McMurray smiled when told that Collins and Mychajliw were campaigning side by side.
"Chris Collins will do what's in the best interest of Chris Collins, and Stefan Mychajliw will do what's in the best interest of Stefan Mychajliw," McMurray said.