Saturday could be the day that eight Republican leaders decide their candidate for a special election in the 27th Congressional District.
But even the four announced candidates – and possibly a new fifth entrant – seeking the post say that’s all they know. They await a last minute summons to a Saturday meeting that party leaders are keeping secret, and have no idea when, where or who will be chosen.
One source familiar with the situation said a new candidate – Lewiston native Jeff Freeland – began expressing interest in running late on Friday. He was not available for comment, but works in the White House as a special assistant to the president, and could emerge as a major figure in a race that has revolved around support for President Trump.
Meanwhile, the sudden secrecy imposed by the “electorate of eight” that will name the GOP candidate to succeed former Rep. Chris Collins following his Sept. 30 resignation is not sitting well with the contestants.
“If this process is supposed to be open and transparent, then I have no problem letting in the media for interviews and a final vote,” said Stefan I. Mychajliw Jr., the Erie County comptroller and one of four candidates seeking the leader’s nod. “Let the public see what’s exactly taking place, because reasonable people could be distrustful of a process involving eight people in a back room in secret.”
State Sen. Robert G. Ortt of North Tonawanda, another candidate, noted state election law has thrust upon the eight county leaders the responsibility of naming a special election candidate. But he has harbored “concerns about the process from the beginning.”
“It’s important for the chairmen to think about how their constituents and committee people will view this process,” he said. “My greatest concern is what if I come out of the process winning and I have to defend it.”
Only Livingston County Chairman John Pauer and Niagara County Chairman Rich Andres spoke with by The Buffalo News on Friday. Others closely involved with the process, including Erie County Chairman Karl J. Simmeth Jr. and the office of state Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy, did not return calls seeking information about the meeting.
Nevertheless, Andres said Friday that he expects a Saturday conclave to take place.
“I have been told I have to be somewhere, some time, but I don’t know the location,” he said.
Pauer, meanwhile, said he also has no idea of when or where.
“It’s tomorrow morning someplace,” he said Friday.
Andres told The News earlier this week that the eight county leaders would meet Saturday to at least interview the four candidates, who also include State Sen. Christopher L. Jacobs and former Darien Town Justice Beth A. Parlato. Pauer said he thinks several of the county leaders fear a “circus” featuring reporters or even protesters to disrupt the proceedings.
“They’re trying to tamp it down,” Pauer said, pointing to a 2018 meeting at Batavia Downs to discern a Collins replacement candidate soon after the then-congressman’s indictment on federal insider trading charges.
”It got a little out of control back then in Batavia,” he said.
“It was a little weird,” Andres added, “but not impossible to navigate.”
Ortt said he also believed the party leaders were attempting to avoid reporters.
“If you run for Congress you better get used to it,” he said. “I have no problem if the media is there.”
Also on Friday, Jacobs said the county leaders are “doing the best they can” under the circumstances they have been handed, but noted “this decision should have happened months ago.”
“Nate McMurray is ready to go,” he said Friday of the Democratic candidate. “We need to get going, and I’m ready to do it if chosen. I would like to see a decision tomorrow.”
Jacobs also said Friday he will likely not run in the June 23 Republican primary if county leaders choose someone else for the special election.
“If I’m not the candidate, then I think there is a high likelihood of a loss,” he said of the special election. Ortt said he hopes for a Saturday decision, too.
“I can’t see any argument for continuing much beyond that,” he said.
Parlato does not expect the nomination of party leaders, and is committed to running in the primary. Ortt is viewed as strong competition for Jacobs in the immediate contest, but he and Mychajliw say they will evaluate the situation should they not be selected.
“I would not rule it out,” Ortt said. “I want to see how it goes, and would have to be able to see a path to victory.”
Jacobs also told The News editorial board he is supported by Erie County, which will cast 40% of the weighted vote. Ortt said he enters with backing from Niagara, Orleans and Ontario counties, along with a fourth county he would not disclose. But it appeared on the eve of the scheduled leaders’ meeting that no candidate had gained the 50% plus one vote to ensure a nomination.
As a result, Livingston’s Pauer is now expected to attract significant attention as a decision nears. He controls only a tiny percentage of the weighted vote, but could prove a kingmaker.
“I’ve been told that,” he said. “I want to hear what everyone has to say and go from there. There are no foregone conclusions.”
Mychajliw, meanwhile, is also not expected to gain the leaders’ backing. But he released a list of 11 town chairmen, supervisors and highway superintendents from southern Erie County supporting the candidacy he officially announced earlier in the week.
“Stefan Mychajliw is a true conservative,” said Aurora GOP Chairman Earl Jann. “He supported President Trump when it wasn’t popular. Most important, he’s loyal to the Erie County GOP.”
And a Washington political action committee called Hardworking Americans on Friday night released a new digital ad for Parlato.
“We support her as an outsider who is the best candidate to tame the swamp and take on the Trump agenda,” said spokesman Stu Sandler.