Wherever Rep. Chris Collins appeared on the campaign trail this election season, so did Stefan Mychajliw.
At a diner in Boston, a sportsmen's gathering in Hamburg, the Ontario County Republican Dinner in Geneva, a meet-and-greet in Lewiston and countless other stops throughout the 27th Congressional District, Mychajliw shadowed the GOP incumbent at every turn.
Collins appears to have won re-election but with questions about his future – if he's convicted, resigns or decides not to run in 2020 – Mychajliw’s efforts for him and other Republicans are gaining attention.
In essence, say Republican observers, the Erie County comptroller has already launched his candidacy for Congress.
“He’s certainly cozied up to the Collins camp,” observes Niagara County Republican Chairman Rich Andres. “He’s definitely eager.”
Mychajliw, 45, emphasizes his ubiquitous presence on the campaign trail was aimed at preserving the district for Republicans, and that he worked for other candidates too. But he acknowledges his interest in Washington.
It took Mychajliw just an hour and six minutes after Collins announced he was suspending his campaign following his indictment Aug. 8 on insider trader charges for the comptroller to announce his candidacy as a replacement.
In the indictment’s aftermath, Mychajliw promised on CNN he would be Donald Trump’s “biggest cheerleader” in a district where the president’s support runs deep. And by Aug. 10, he was telling fellow Republicans he had secured about $125,000 in funding “commitments.”
A former television reporter who has now notched three countywide victories as comptroller, Mychajliw relocated a few years ago to Hamburg, the district’s largest Erie County town. His term as comptroller extends through 2021, and he points to name recognition and his “battle-tested” experience. They will serve as advantages, he says, to either gain the support of GOP leaders should a vacancy occur, or to win a primary.
Mychajliw says one poll showed him 13 points ahead of Democrat Nate McMurray, who apparently lost to Collins on Election Day but is awaiting a final canvass of votes. Mychajliw says he feels ready to re-enter the fray should the need arise.
“The same way we were ready to go in August, I can turn the key and start the operation again,” he said.
Mychajliw is also a longtime Collins friend and associate dating to the congressman’s first campaign against then-Rep. John J. LaFalce in 1998. Mychajliw served as spokesman for the former county executive’s unsuccessful re-election campaign of 2011, and says he has always dwelled in the “orbit” of Collins and his political consultant, Christopher M. Grant.
Mychajliw is careful to note that Collins proclaims his innocence and intends to serve a full term, even as Mychajliw was running at full speed after the congressman “suspended” his campaign on Aug. 11.
But after Collins re-entered the race on Sept. 17, Mychajliw shifted into support mode for him and others. He accompanied Assemblyman David J. DiPietro of East Aurora on his rounds, helped town justice candidates and spent several nights a week working the phones for others – earning political chits that may be someday redeemed.
“It was a real eye-opener, to be able to talk to voters every day,” Mychajliw said. “It will make me a better candidate in the future, no doubt about it.
“We’re ready to do it now if the opportunity presents itself,” he added.
Not all Republicans are so enthusiastic about the comptroller’s budding congressional candidacy. They note that just three weeks before the Collins indictment, Mychajliw had all but declared a challenge to incumbent Democrat Mark C. Poloncarz for county executive in 2019.
After raising more than $100,000 in three months for the county campaign, he was already aiming at Poloncarz as a “vulnerable, out-of-touch, liberal extremist.”
“He’s more interested in banning plastic bags, the Paris climate accords and allowing grown men to use the same bathroom as my daughter than anything else,” Mychajliw said in July. “I think Mark has totally checked out.
“I’m telling friends and supporters to stay tuned,” he added.
But now Mychajliw has a different focus, even if other Republicans will also run for Collins' seat, should the need arise. Sens. Robert G. Ortt, Patrick M. Gallivan, Michael H. Ranzenhofer and Christopher L. Jacobs were also considered Collins replacements on the ballot just after the indictment. Now that their GOP has lost its majority in the Senate, they may be afforded more freedom to pursue Congress.
Ortt views Mychajliw’s role on the campaign trail as part of a concerted effort to keep the seat in GOP hands. He is watching the situation, he says, but is not mounting any active campaign.
“Were there to be an opening, depending on when, it’s something I could very possibly look at,” Ortt said. “But right now, we have a congressman, and it’s Chris Collins. He says he will serve a full term and I take him at his word.”
Carl P. Paladino, another potential congressional candidate who expressed interest in August, believes Collins “made a deal with Stefan Mychajliw to be the candidate.”
Paladino says many Republicans are furious with Mychajliw for presenting himself as the congressional “front runner” following the Collins indictment, right after he all but announced he was running for county executive.
“I don’t think Stefan is going anywhere,” Paladino said.
Mychajliw acknowledges the criticism but makes no excuses for his about-face. He noted that the senators and assemblymen expressing post-indictment interest in the Collins seat were already on this year’s ballot and never fielded a fraction of the barbs now heading his way.
“I don’t think anyone should begrudge me for wanting to advance a political career,” he said, noting that the local political world “blew up” following Collins’ Aug. 8 indictment.
“Everyone’s plans changed that day,” he said.