Over the past few days, the region’s most intriguing political contest took solid steps toward determining who will own the 27th Congressional District seat occupied by Republican Chris Collins since 2013. And just about all the new developments concern Collins himself.
First, the Manhattan U.S. Attorney winnowed its insider trading charges against the Clarence congressman, infusing a dose of clarity to a most confusing case. Prosecutors removed any references to conduct that might be considered privileged under the speech or debate clause of the Constitution.
The move is a major step toward the goal of a Feb. 3 start of the Collins trial in a Manhattan courtroom. That previously seemed unlikely, since arguments over relevance of the clause (that provides certain protections to members of Congress from executive prosecution) posed a giant rabbit hole threatening to swallow up prosecutors and Collins defenders alike. Teams of crack lawyers were preparing to argue for weeks on an ancillary issue that – in the end – may or may not have shaped the case.
“This is not a sign of weakness by the government,” defense attorney Barry Covert (who is not involved in the case) told The Buffalo News. “This is simply a technical move to ensure there is no delay to the trial.”
Now it appears that delays into April or May may be avoided. That could have shaped the election even more. The show goes on.
Second, Collins appears to be stepping up his public appearances. He is meeting with reporters, presenting awards and decrees, and acting like an official congressman (minus those pesky committee assignments from which he is barred). The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, charged with electing more Dems to the House, took notice on Thursday.
“The embattled congressman has been removed from his committee assignments by the leaders of his party and watched as his grassroots support in NY-27 all but evaporates into thin air,” said DCCC spokeswoman Christine Bennett on the first anniversary of his indictment.
But “grassroots support” may pose no problem for Collins, in the third and most intriguing development of the past few days. A new survey by veteran Buffalo pollster Barry Zeplowitz (who has no connection to the race) showed Collins more than viable should he decide to seek a fifth term. A whopping 60% of Republicans (the party that matters in the ultra-red 27th) approves of his job performance – even as he faces possible jail time.
No doubt Collins is getting the same numbers from his pollsters.
“If he’s acquitted next February, he’ll just be re-elected,” Zeplowitz said. “If not, he’s out anyway.”
A confident re-election campaign may now be starting, even though last November Collins barely squeaked by a Democrat in the state’s most Republican district. He continually emphasizes his solid support for President Trump (which the Zeplowitz poll measured at 81% in the 27th), and offers few kind words for State Sen. Chris Jacobs.
“I think the Jacobs team is very worried right now,” he told reporters a few days ago.
And Collins is summoning his inner Trump with more references to the “fake Buffalo News” (is “enemy of the people” next?).
The congressman continues to insist that he will be exonerated when he faces a jury early next year, and that he has no interest in reaching a plea deal with prosecutors. He must encounter that major hurdle before he can take that healthy approval rating to the voters. And he may decide simply to retire when he makes a decision on his future sometime late this year.
But fair winds have blown his way over the past few days. And the new poll numbers show it ain’t over yet.
Quote of the Week comes from Collins spokeswoman Jennifer Brown on the fate of Peter Vito, whose nomination by Collins for U.S. marshal appears to be going nowhere in the Senate. Collins, however, remains in Vito’s corner.
“The congressman believes that Peter is the best candidate for the job,” Brown said.