GENEVA – You almost needed a scorecard Friday night to track all the potential 27th Congressional District candidates working the jam-packed Club 86 in this Finger Lakes city.
More than 300 people crowded into the largest turnout ever for Ontario County Republican Chairwoman Trisha Turner’s annual dinner, which she said normally attracts the usual party faithful for “a nice way to get together.”
Not this year. Not when the federal insider trading indictment facing incumbent Rep. Chris Collins of Clarence has turned what should be a placid election in New York’s most Republican congressional district into an intraparty free-for-all.
More than a year before Election Day 2020, a pack of Republican hopefuls aiming to succeed Collins traveled all the way to the district’s eastern end (Geneva is outside the district, but western Ontario County is inside it) to be seen, introduce themselves, and make the contacts that may prove necessary next year.
But of all the candidates or potentials attending the Geneva affair, only David Bellavia seemed to matter on Friday. The Medal of Honor winner who has not ventured anywhere near a 2020 candidacy, won six of the district’s eight counties (including Ontario) in the 2012 primary against Collins. He served as featured speaker at Club 86, and dominated the affair just by being there.
“He is the big draw, plus the intrigue,” Turner said, referring to the bevy of potential competitors also attending.
Michael R. Caputo, the East Aurora political consultant and frequent CNN commentator, noted the significance of so many potential candidates gathered in one place. He said he turned down Chris Cuomo’s invitation to appear on “Prime Time” Friday to attend the dinner instead.
“I told him I had someplace much more important go,” he said.
It seemed like everyone attending sensed that “intrigue” factor, especially the party leaders who may prove influential in the race and sense the importance of Bellavia’s ultimate decision.
“If David wants to revisit running for Congress, he’s the 600-pound gorilla in the room,” said William W. Napier, the Monroe County chairman. “We’ll wait and see what he wants to do.”
But Bellavia’s reticence to commit hasn’t stopped the others, who all recognize that the Iraq War veteran could wait until year’s end to declare. They know that the image of President Trump draping the nation’s highest military award around the Orleans County resident’s neck will prove supremely powerful.
All they can do now is wait and watch.
Beth A. Parlato, the Genesee County attorney and declared candidate hoping to attract voters to her conservative values, was one of those working the Geneva dinner on Friday. But even she briefly interrupted an interview with The Buffalo News to stand in line for a photo with Bellavia.
“I had to come here to honor our hometown hero,” she said. “I don’t know David Bellavia and I am glad for the chance to meet him.”
Erie County Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw Jr. is not even a declared candidate, but he finds himself at some 27th District political function almost every night of the week as he tests the waters.
“I’m waiting for Chris Collins and David Bellavia,” he said. “Anybody in this race now is being disrespectful to them.”
But that didn’t stop State Sens. Christopher L. Jacobs of Buffalo or Robert G. Ortt of North Tonawanda. Jacobs declared before anyone else in May, getting in front of the pack by already raising $748,000 and establishing a significant campaign operation.
“I started a trend,” he cracked upon arriving at the Friday affair. “Right now, I’m trying to get around the district to the other counties, introduce myself and understand the issues.”
And what about Bellavia, the war hero and potential candidate in waiting, the man everyone in the room paid to hear on Friday?
“If David wants to enter the fray, he’s more than welcome,” Jacobs said. “I’m glad to be here and recognize his service and his Medal of Honor.”
Ortt, himself a Bronze Star recipient for service in Afghanistan, recalled meeting Bellavia years ago in the Veterans for Freedom organization. Ortt said he came to honor Bellavia too, but is not worried about his former comrade in arms; he’s concentrating on his own effort.
“As of now, he’s not in the race,” he said. “So I’m staying on message.”
Parlato said she has already raised $250,000 without staging one fundraiser,
“I’m going to surprise a lot of people,” she said.
But of all the declared or undeclared candidates at the Club 86 on Friday, Bellavia may have been the most relaxed. He did not have to approach party leaders and introduce himself; they came to him. He did not pay extra to have his photo taken; others did and stood in line to pose with a genuine war hero.
Wearing a Medal of Honor lapel pin on his sport coat while speaking to The News, Bellavia again discounted reprising his 2012 candidacy in 2020, citing the public relations assignment he has accepted for the Army. Even though he traveled to a 27th District political event, and he even though he never officially rules himself out, he insists he “does not have time for partisan nonsense.”
“At this point in time, I have completely blocked out my calendar for the U.S. Army,” he said. “Nothing has really changed.
“I would not use the sacrifice of my friends’ blood for [politics],” he added. “My ambitions are not as important as those men. Being a soldier was the experience of a lifetime.”
Bellavia acknowledged his mere presence at the highest profile event of the early campaign continues to spark speculation he may wait until year’s end to declare – because he can. And he acknowledges that party leaders are anxious for him to definitively declare his intentions.
But he’s not going there.
“I just want to help out my party and my country,” he said.
But if Bellavia unwittingly commanded most of the political spotlight Friday, a portion also shined on Collins. A 600-pound gorilla in his own right, he remains a powerful incumbent close to Trump.
And Trump reigns almost as deity in this deep red district.
Collins arrived at the dinner directly from Washington. He too, did not have to introduce himself to anybody.
The congressman said little has changed for him either, while acknowledging he must stand trial in February for the insider trading charges he steadfastly denies.
“’I’m focused on one thing – doing my job, and I’ve been well-received around the district,” he said. “I can’t control what other people are doing. And I will be on my schedule and not anyone else’s.”
Collins maintains that the political calendar is still young, and the only deadline he faces is his self-imposed goal of deciding by the end of the year whether he will run again.
He and Bellavia have become friends since their 2012 primary rivalry, he said, and recognizes the potential of a war hero in the race. But Bellavia has assured him there will be no primary challenge from him, Collins said.
“He unequivocally said to me he will never challenge me in a primary,” the congressman said.
Collins has already loaned his campaign $500,000 to show he’s not done yet. And he cited a recent independent survey by Buffalo pollster Barry Zeplowitz. It showed a 61% approval rating for him among Republicans.
“For the people who come out in a primary, I’m the Trump guy,” he said, referring to his early and steadfast support for the president. “I’ve got an A plus rating from the NRA, the only New Yorker to get that. I’m pro-life. I’m pro-gun. I’m pro-Trump, all in a far right [turnout] primary.
“And I’ve got 100% name ID,” he added, sounding very much like a candidate despite his legal challenges.
Collins also said he feels no obligation to declare now for a primary looming far off in June, long before his February trial.
“I’m the sitting congressman,” he said. “Other people may show up to run, but I’m in no rush at all.”
Not everyone feels that way. Napier, the Monroe County chairman, said he hopes Collins arrives at a decision soon.
“He needs to clear the air sooner rather than later what his intentions are,” he said.
Turner of Ontario County says Collins must weigh his decision against all the factors facing him, but remains strong as an ardent supporter of the president.
“If he runs [in the primary], you’ll have the Collins vote against the anti-Collins vote splitting among a lot of candidates,” she said. “It will be a presidential year in the most pro-Trump district in the State of New York.
“Sorry, but in NY27, there’s a whole bunch of Trump-loving people,” she said. “If [Collins] has a primary against the other candidates, the only person who could mount a huge challenge to him is David Bellavia – and I don’t think David runs if Collins runs.”
But for all the frantic politicking under way Friday in Geneva, it appeared Bellavia may have relaxed most. He knows he can theoretically wait until just before designating petitions begin circulation in late February.
Bellavia seemed to sit back Friday and take it all in.
Caputo, the political commentator, said that will work out just fine. Many opportunities lie ahead for his friend.
“They’ve come here far and wide tonight for one reason – to see David,” Caputo said of the big crowd. “But all of the people in this room have until December to decide. David has 15 to 20 years. He has a great future.”