On the Stump With the Guy Who Isn’t Rudy Giuliani or Rick Lazio

WEST JAVA, N.Y.–Chris Collins insisted on driving.

It was Friday evening on the same day that Collins had released the 2009-10 budget proposal for Erie County, where he has been the county executive since last year. Two aides fielded budget questions from reporters as Collins, who is 59, explained that he knew the way to the Beaver Hollow Conference Center–a business retreat center set on a gravel road near a lake in Java Center that was the site of the Wyoming County Republican Committee Annual Dinner–because it was near Camp Schoellkopf, where he had been many times with his son Cameron and their Boy Scout troop.

This trip, he traded his poncho for a broad yellow tie and his boots for black tasseled loafers; a dark suit jacket folded in half behind the back passenger’s seat of the Buick SUV. It was a 45-minute drive, past several high school football games that plodded on despite a light rain and through the village of East Aurora. Collins’ hands stayed together, at noon on the wheel, as he turned occasionally to explain how he managed to hold his budget’s spending increase to two-tenths of a percent.

He's almost ready to admit he’s campaigning for governor.

“No, right now I’ve been very consistent: I support Rudy Giuliani to be the next executive of New York State, so he can do for New York State what he did for New York City. But I’m spreading the message that government should be run like a business,” Collins said. “We’ve pretty much said we’re available because we believe that message is the right message for New York State, and I’m willing to deliver. I come with a certain amount of credibility coming out of Erie County because of what we’ve accomplished.”

The event had already been going on for an hour when Collins arrived. He rode in a golf cart from a parking lot to the event hall and dove in to the serious business of making small talk. The low-ceilinged room held about 150 local businessmen, elected officials and Republican committee members. About half a dozen Assembly members worked the crowd, which consisted of more men than women, more of whom wore sport coats than suits. State Senator Dale Volker twirled a glass of merlot before taking a gulp.

There were no dining tables in the room, just a long, narrow table in the center divided by a middle centerpiece of red, white, and blue balloons. On one side lay several kummelweck rolls, a steam tray of roast beef and a large bowl of horseradish next to a platter of cheese cubes. The other side had nachos, mini-burgers and the fixings for both. There was also a fruit plate that seemed relatively pristine.

Collins did not bother to eat. After a few minutes of schmoozing, he assumed a post near the front of the room along with half of the New York’s Republican congressional delegation–Representative Chris Lee–and Jane Corwin, a freshman member of the State Assembly and former business executive who lives near Collins in the Spaulding Lake.

After an unaccompanied rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, Gordon Brown, the large, apple-cheeked attorney who chairs the Wyoming County Republican Party, walked to a podium. Lee and Assemblyman Bob Oaks updated the crowd on the Democrats they were fighting against in Washington and Albany, before Collins spoke.

The suited men gravitated toward the podium during his 13-minute speech, during which he mentioned his improbable election in a Democrat-dominated county, the six-sigma principles he’s employed, the “historic union contracts” he’s negotiated and core-est of his “core values:” running government like a business. The side conversations in the back increased beyond a critical din after about five and a half minutes. After six and a half, Collins hit his statewide talking points, which are of a generically Republican variety.

“I would challenge the leaders in Albany: I’ve given you my vision, and I think it’s the right vision. And I’ve shared with you my core values. What are yours? And I get a blank stare. They don’t know what I’m talking about. And I push ‘em and push ‘em and push ‘em and I finally get something: it’s to maintain the status quo. They’re giving up before we even fight the fight. It’s exactly why we’re the highest-taxed state in the nation and the least business-friendly state. And they’re saying if we can stay there, then we’re doing just fine.”

Their core values, he said, are more government and higher taxes, along with “expanding entitlement programs that are rewarding poor decisions. And they sent $200 to every person on welfare for every kid that they have under the age of 18, and our governor said, ‘I hope they buy school supplies.’ It was the best week that Best Buy ever had! The flat screen TVs ran out the door!”

“We all know they want to consolidate power in Washington and in Albany,” he said. “Those core values are not America’s values. They are not New York’s values.”

Jim Domagalski, the Erie County Republican chairman, began to clap. The crowd followed. Collins wrapped up and spent a dozen minutes chatting with him and other county chairs standing by the mini-burgers.

“I think Chris’s focus is on Erie County,” Domagalski told the Observer. “But the message Chris Collins delivers is about what has worked in Erie County, and what can work in New York State.”

Officially, Collins is in the exploration stage of a run. In August, as Republicans bickered about who they wanted to lead their state party, Domagalski stayed neutral in the jockeying between Ed Cox and Niagara County’s Henry Wojtaszek, confronted with the unpleasant choice of having to oppose the eventual winner or a local favorite son. But Collins publicly backed Cox, even as the “unholy alliance” of Rudy Giuliani, Alfonse D’Amato, Rick Lazio and George Pataki supported Wojtaszek.

When the reins were handed to Cox at a meeting last month in Colonie, Collins sat at a front table within easy leaning distance of Cox. Collins delivered a wonkier variation–GASB 45 and a “need to implement lean Six-Sigma and let it roll across New York as it rolled across Erie County”– of his Wyoming County speech at a time when diners were focused on the podium instead of their salads.

“I’ve heard a great deal of positive things about him from friends in Western New York. He was obviously a non-traditional candidate,” said Tony Casale, a former assemblyman from Herkimer who sat at Collins’ table.

Collins made a point to chat with as many county chairs as possible during the meeting. He had already finished his speech when Rick Lazio, a former Congressman from Long Island best known for his 2000 Senatorial defeat to Hillary Clinton, arrived. He sat for a few minutes next to Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos, who gave a speech about the unprecedented opportunities Republicans have in 2010, and how as the party’s only declared candidate for governor he is in a strong position. He left soon after.

Skelos captured the non-excitement Lazio’s candidacy has engendered, praising him as a “great young man” but offering several sentences in praise of Collins’ “leadership.”

At the very least, the prospect of a Lazio-led ticket presents an opportunity. Collins has more money on hand than Lazio, and is seemingly favored by Cox. The Post proclaimed Collins the “GOPERS PLAN B” after Giuliani.

But Giuliani has the right of first refusal Republicans say publicly, a sentence before they privately say they’re doubtful he would run. Collins seems happy to call this bluff, spreading his “message” while proclaiming support for the dithering former mayor.

Discussing this in the car, he seemed confident, not just about the Republican side of things but the Democratic. He kept referring to candidates with no vision for the state, and supporters say, somewhat improbably, that Collins would have no problem taking on Andrew Cuomo, backed by the entire Democratic-labor power structure of New York.

“We go one step at a time,” Collins said. “We’re going to wait until after the election and defer to Mayor Giuliani. Certainly there will be decisions to be made at some point, and right now I’m clearly behind Mayor Giuliani. If we get the cart before the horse…I don’t like dealing in hypotheticals.”

He asked an attendant where to park, and threw the car out of gear. Paul Snyder III, whose family owns Beaver Hollow, walked up to Collins.

“Looks like a governor!” he said.

Collins smiled and grabbed his shoulder, and they walked off to dinner. On the Stump With the Guy Who Isn’t Rudy Giuliani or Rick Lazio