Chris Collins waded into the friendliest political turf he could find Thursday night as he makes his case for re-election to the House of Representatives.
At a “sportsman’s banquet” at Lucarelli’s on Abbott Road in Lackawanna, the Republican congressman from Clarence was shaking hands and slapping backs – and getting smiles and encouragement in return. Amid attendees wearing “Make America Great Again” hats and raffles of hunting and fishing equipment, Collins on Thursday found solid support – despite being under federal indictment on a host of insider trading charges.
Just before greeting cooks over steaming pots in Lucarelli’s kitchen, Collins explained that he is urging all those who agree with his “support-President-Trump-no-matter-what” politics that he will continue representing them in Washington.
“It’s that motherhood and apple pie of supporting Trump and helping him move his agenda,” Collins said, adding he is urging everyone he meets to “keep the seat Republican.”
But this campaign is far different from those waged by just about every other Republican making the same argument before Tuesday’s election. Collins is out on bail, and though he proclaims his innocence, he could go to jail before the next term expires. That has meant a limited campaign schedule, no debates with his opponent and only a handful of media interviews.
That didn’t seem to make much, if any, difference to the hundreds at the sportsman’s banquet.
“From what I’ve heard, it’s not anything very serious,” said Steve Williams, a culinary arts student at Erie Community College and an assistant chef. “And I’m willing to support someone who I’ve been told is there for us.”
Herb Klein, a retired Republican deputy elections commissioner for Erie County and a North Boston resident who was attending with his sister Marge Edington, said he will vote for Collins no matter what.
“He’s a Trump guy from Day One,” he said.
And that matter of a federal indictment?
“He did noting else for his son that you wouldn’t do for your son,” he said, referring to the charge that Collins tipped off his son – Cameron – about the failure of a new product developed by an Australian company in which they owned stock.
Dr. Pat Baranello of East Aurora noted Collins has proclaimed his innocence and deserves his day in court.
“He is innocent until he is convicted,” he said. “If he’s actually convicted, that may change things.”
Collins’ politicking may seem standard – a regulation stop among supporters. But in this most unconventional of campaigns, in which the incumbent seeks re-election while under indictment, friendly stops represent a necessity.
Under the circumstances, the congressman cannot expect progress in winning over Democrats and the undecided. As a result, he is challenged to motivate the district’s huge Republican base amid GOP fears that normal Collins supporters may avoid choosing between a candidate facing charges and a Democrat.
Michael R. Caputo, the East Aurora political consultant who is managing Assemblyman David DiPietro’s re-election campaign, noted that he has no connection with the Collins re-election effort. But he said there is “no question” the congressman worked the sportsman’s banquet Thursday because it represented an ideal target audience.
“If you look at his movements around the district, he’s going to other people’s events to round up people to vote for him,” Caputo said, noting that most voters coming out in DiPietro’s Assembly district represent the kind of staunch Republican Collins needs to succeed.
“Every voter that Dave DiPietro urges toward the polls is a potential voter for Chris Collins,” Caputo said. “That’s not our job, but it’s not lost on us that there is strong potential for Chris Collins.”
Indeed, the congressman was slated to head north to Lewiston immediately after his Lucarelli’s appearance Thursday to work the crowd at the village GOP gathering. Other campaign stops have included gatherings such as the Amherst Republican Women and similar friendly groups.
Reporters, meanwhile, have been unsuccessful in obtaining Collins’ daily campaign schedule and have not accompanied him to most events. But Collins has proven a bit more open in recent days, granting an extensive interview to The Buffalo News last week and inviting coverage of his late campaign events.
The McMurray campaign noted its candidate’s frequent public appearances and his willingness to debate, drawing a sharp contrast with Collins.
“Chris Collins is a coward who hides from tough questions and won’t give the people of this district the respect they deserve,” said McMurray spokeswoman Daniele de Groot. “He’s scared to debate in front of high-schoolers, but he’ll slink in front of a group of sportsmen even though he was forced to surrender his guns after his 11 felony indictments.
“No public schedule, plus no debates, plus no speaking in front of anyone not pre-approved?” she added. “That equals no character and no business being in Congress.”
Collins also has declined to participate in debates, ignoring an invitation this week from St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute for its annual candidate face-off that has proven a standard stop on the Western New York campaign trail for decades.
Christopher Bruno, a former Justice Department prosecutor and senior counsel at the Securities and Exchange Commission, said that if he were representing a member of Congress under indictment, he would recommend that the lawmaker not debate unless he got to see all the questions in advance.
That’s a condition that few debate organizers would likely accept. But Bruno said he would push for it for the same reason that he would suggest an indicted candidate campaign as little as possible.
“The possibility for self-incrimination still exists” either in a debate or even in the most friendly of campaign venues, Bruno said.
Besides, an especially active campaign might alienate prosecutors who might eventually be negotiating a plea deal with an indicted lawmaker’s lawyers.“It could be seen as a sharp stick in the eye of the government,” Bruno said.
Story topics: Election 2018