New York Rep. Chris Collins surged into the national consciousness on Wednesday, when he was indicted on charges of insider trading in relation to a company named Innate Immunotherapeutics Limited, a company in which he is the largest shareholder and, until relatively recently, served on its board. Collins denies the charges but, in the immediate aftermath of the indictment, he was removed from the House Energy and Commerce Committee by Speaker Paul Ryan.
The question is: What’s next? Collins has insisted he will run again. Republicans are in a wait and see mode. And Democrats sense opportunity.
I reached out to Nick Reisman, a reporter with Capital Tonight in Albany to talk about Collins, the district and, of course, Trump. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Cillizza: How expected (or unexpected) was this indictment?
Reisman: This was not out of the blue at all. Questions surrounding Chris Collins’ business dealings with the Australian pharmaceutical firm Innate Immunotherapeutics have been the subject of a House Ethics investigation that ultimately concluded there was “substantial” reason to believe he violated rules, standards of conduct and potentially federal law.
That was way back in October of last year and the investigation itself had been launched in July. But even before that, Collins’ ethics troubles have been fodder for his opponents, both locally in western New York and by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. During this time, Collins has derided media reports surrounding his potential violation of the STOCK Act as “fake news” and even appealed to donors based on the negative press attention, seeking campaign contributions. He is not a fan of The Buffalo News, which has done good work charting some of his business interests, including his ties to ZeptoMetrix Corp. The News reported in January that Collins was being sued by the firm’s former CEO who alleged, among other things, Collins was paying more than $500,000 to phantom employees and urged auditors to issue favorable reports. Collins has dismissed the allegations in the lawsuit and said that former executive is merely disgruntled.
A recurring theme running through Collins’ political career has been his business dealings. But his stated business acumen has been a source of pride. He’s repeatedly cited in interviews that he’s undergone training through the Six Sigma method.
Despite all of these ethics questions, Collins remained in good graces with the Trump administration. In October 2017, Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Buffalo for a fundraiser to help boost Collins.
Cillizza: Collins is known in DC for being a Trump guy. What’s his reputation in the district?
Reisman: He’s known for being a Trump guy. This district is Trump country in New York. The President won the district with nearly 60% of the vote, with Hillary Clinton receiving 35%, the largest margin of victory for Trump among any of the New York House districts. But even before the 2016 election, this part of upstate New York was extremely gung ho for having Trump run for something. In 2014, a group of Republicans that included Collins, Erie County Republican Chairman Nick Langworthy and political consultant Michael Caputo met with Trump at Trump Tower to discuss running for governor of New York that year against incumbent Andrew Cuomo. Caputo is now best known by the rest of country for the big part he’s playing in the Russia investigation. But Caputo is also a savvy spokesman and consultant in the world of Republican politics in western New York. In 2010, Caputo was in charge of Buffalo-area businessman Carl Paladino’s upstart campaign for governor. Paladino lost in the general election, but he stunned establishment Republicans by winning the primary over former Rep. Rick Lazio that year – a vote was due in large part to Paladino’s strength in western New York.
What would have been the ultimate dream race of Cuomo versus Trump did not pan out for New York political reporters. But Collins kept in contact with Trump world. During the primary, Collins was nudged by New York Trump backers to endorse him. Ultimately, Collins did and became a very vocal one at that. After Trump was elected president, Collins became a key figure in the transition. At the time of Trump’s election, Republicans like Langworthy touted Collins having the ear of the President. To take a step back, this is a region of the state that has felt ignored for decades by power brokers in Albany and New York City and its economy has taken bad knocks for a generation as industry has left upstate New York. Having the most powerful man in the world be your congressman’s buddy isn’t necessarily considered a bad thing.
Cillizza: This was once a very competitive district – and held by a Democrat (Kathy Hochul). How competitive is it now?
Reisman: This is a deeply conservative district and after a round of redistricting in 2012, it became even more so, making it a safe seat for Republicans.
Geographically, the district surrounds the city of Buffalo and reaches the exurbs of Rochester, straddling two media markets and two great lakes, Ontario and Erie. In 2011, Rep. Chris Lee resigned after it was revealed the married lawmaker had sent shirtless photos of himself to a woman he met on Craigslist. In the ensuing special election, then-Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul defeated Republican Assemblywoman Jane Corwin to win the seat. The race in large part hinged on Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal and his plans for Medicare. Hochul won a nationalized race and Corwin continued what had been up to that point a losing streak for Republicans in the state Assembly when it came to running for Congress. Hochul lost her re-election in 2012 to Collins, who at the time was out of public office after losing his job as Erie County executive, a post he held for a single term. The district had been redrawn by a judge, however, making it far less competitive.
Cillizza: What do we know about Collins’ Democratic opponent? And are there other Republicans who might step in if he resigns?
Reisman: Well, let’s start with Hochul first, because a lot of Democrats at the national level wanted her to get into the race against Collins. After losing in 2012, Hochul joined Cuomo’s ticket in his 2014 re-election bid. He needed someone to balance out both gender and geography. Four years later, Cuomo faces a different set of political circumstances: He’s got a primary against actress Cynthia Nixon next month. Hochul, too, has drawn a primary challenge from Brooklyn City Councilman Jumaane Williams. In New York, candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run separately in the party primaries and then the winners form a ticket in the general election.
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Perhaps recognizing the challenge Hochul faces against Williams, Democrats reportedly begged Hochul to run for her old seat against Collins. Cuomo even went as far as to publicly suggest his own lieutenant governor would be a good candidate against Collins. But Hochul – who has changed positions on gun control and immigration since becoming Cuomo’s LG – decided to run for re-election instead.
All of this hemming and hawing over finding a more competitive candidate was to the frustration of Nate McMurray, the Democrat in the race against Collins. McMurray is the town supervisor of Grand Island in Erie County. McMurray did not have a primary, but survived a public winnowing process of Democratic candidates. So far, D-Trip has been focusing on what have been considered more competitive districts in upstate New York: Reps. John Katko, John Faso, Claudia Tenney and Elise Stefanik remain the perennials for Democrats.
Collins for now has told supporters he’s staying in the race and will seek re-election. It’s not entirely clear based on New York’s wonderfully murky election laws if there’s time to replace Collins, anyway. Some Republicans on Wednesday suggested a potential replacement could be David Bellavia, an Iraq war veteran who ran in a 2012 primary against Collins.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “In January 2019, the name of the congressman (or woman) from New York’s 217th district will be _________.” Now, explain.
Reisman: I’ve given up making predictions in politics! Look, this could go either way. Voters in “safe” districts, be they Republican or Democratic, have a habit of re-electing incumbents even if they face ethics or criminal charges. But sometimes they don’t. A good guide may be way on the other end of the state, Staten Island. Rep. Michael Grimm had faced ethics questions and was reportedly under investigation during his time in Congress and yet voters returned him to Washington. In 2014, he was re-elected. A month later, he was pleading guilty to tax evasion. Grimm attempted a comeback this year, leaning very heavily into his support for President Trump. This in theory should play well on Staten Island, which is famously far more conservative than the rest of New York City. His successor, Rep. Dan Donovan, also embraced the President. And the President embraced him right back. Grimm ultimately lost the June congressional primary.
I’ll be interested to see what Trump does in Collins’ race. It would be unusual if a sitting President sought to bolster the re-election chances of a lawmaker who his Justice Department was pursuing criminal charges against. But as we know, this is not a conventional presidency.
The President is traveling to New York on Monday to appear in the congressional districts of Tenney and Stefanik. If Collins is truly in trouble with his re-election, will Trump come to the rescue?