By Robert J. McCarthy
Inside a humming machine shop in Gainesville a few days ago, Republican congressional candidate Chris Collins was clearly mesmerized as he discussed the automotive parts business with owner Karl Drasgow.
The two are old friends. Collins, a multimillionaire businessman and former Erie County executive, mentored the younger Drasgow during an entrepreneurial development program at Buffalo State College. Now they are engrossed in talk about industrial lathes, manufacturing 60,000 parts per day, and helping a small business grow in Wyoming County.
"A lot of Americans don't think these jobs exist in the U.S. anymore," Collins said, "but Karl proves beyond a doubt that America can compete and win."
This is Collins at his businessman best -- practically panting over entrepreneurial topics and transferring them to politics and government.
But now Collins the executive seeks to become Collins the legislator, taking on David Bellavia in Tuesday's Republican primary for the right to face Democratic incumbent Kathleen C. Hochul in the 27th Congressional District. He was often criticized during four years in the Rath County Office Building as dictatorial or unbending -- as relying too much on his chief executive ways in a political world demanding negotiation and compromise.
Now the campaign trail leads him to much more Republican turf, where he preaches new themes such as strengthening the U.S. manufacturing base and clamping down on Chinese currency manipulation. He is convinced his message is received far more enthusiastically than in Democratic strongholds such as Buffalo and Cheektowaga that rejected him last November.
"Republicans know what I did in Erie County and want it to continue," he says, pointing to the 64 percent of the county executive vote he won in towns included in the new 27th District.
And any thought that style contributed to his defeat more than any policy should be dismissed, Collins said, insisting he can flourish in the collegial atmosphere of the House as successfully as in decades of calling the shots.
Again, he summons his experience as county executive and successful relations with a 12-3 Democratic majority in the County Legislature.
"I just said we are all taxpayers, we all have families and have to be worried about our future," he said. "We built coalitions and got things done."
"I'm primarily a business guy," he added, "and I'm new enough to politics to think we can still get things done."
At 62, Collins is embarking on a congressional quest he first launched in 1998 when he emerged from the business world in an unsuccessful effort to unseat Democratic incumbent John J. LaFalce. But now he is running against President Obama as much as anybody, acknowledging during an appearance outside Batavia City Hall that the "Stop Obama -- Vote Collins" sign adorning his lectern "says it all."
Collins, like many other Republicans, is all over the president's assertion that "the private sector is doing fine." Collins calls an 8.2 percent unemployment rate "unacceptable," berates the president for viewing increased public employment as an antidote, and calls him "oblivious" to the idea of energy independence.
"I'm sorry," he says, "but I just don't care for the way the president is running things. He firmly believes the private sector is doing fine and we need more government jobs.
"I couldn't believe it," he added. "It was an "Oh, my God' moment."
Indeed, Collins spares no effort to link Hochul to Obama, even including in his latest campaign mailing a photo of the congresswoman strolling the White House grounds with the president.
"I do not believe this country can afford four more years of Barack Obama and Kathy Hochul," he said.
After witnessing friend and political ally Jane L. Corwin -- a Republican assemblywoman and fellow Clarence resident -- lose to Hochul in a 2011 special election, Collins recognizes that GOP plans to reform Medicare and Social Security must be more carefully explained. Hochul exploited Corwin's embrace of the "Ryan budget" and plans to overhaul Medicare, he says.
Collins' message doesn't differ much from Corwin's: People close to retirement won't be affected, but an overhaul is needed to preserve the program for younger Americans.
He says Hochul and the Democrats used "Mediscare" tactics to frighten many into believing that Medicare would change for everyone. Now he is turning the tables, trying to blame "Obamacare" for changes he says will end private handling of certain parts of Medicare.
Collins found the perfect audience to trumpet that message when he entered a senior citizens gathering in the Marilla Community Center a few days ago. The former county executive was instantly recognized, and instantly greeted with applause.
He still lobs an awkward joke or two, but has grown more at ease over the years at communicating with voters. And when it comes to Medicare, he seems to connect when he insists they will lose "advantage" programs offered by private insurers under the president's plan.
He also says the program will cost an additional $1.7 trillion in new spending, along with $500 million of Medicare cuts. He seems to score points.
"I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, and I've always believed in you," one woman tells him.
Joyce Gayer, a Republican who has voted for Collins in the past, says she still likes what she hears. "Y'know, it does come down to core values -- not spending what you don't have," she said.
Collins rarely acknowledges Bellavia's existence as he heads toward Tuesday's primary, concentrating instead on Hochul and November. The district is much more Republican after reapportionment, he says, and much less sympathetic to policies espoused by Hochul and Obama.
A recent analysis showed Hochul voting with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., 81 percent of the time, and Collins sees that as unacceptable for the most Republican congressional district in the state.
"Guess what?" he says. "I won't be with Nancy Pelosi at all."
He labels Hochul as ultraliberal because of support by the union-supported Working Families Party and backing from groups such as EMILY's List. Hochul, Collins adds, has the No. 1 rating of "an ultra pro-abortion group."
He promises to vote "100 percent" for pro-life legislation and defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
Collins and Bellavia have sparred over his commitment to gun rights, especially after Bellavia cited his opponent for signing on four years ago to County Executives Against Illegal Guns, an effort sponsored by New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg that opposed allowing approved gun owners to carry weapons in all states.
Bellavia still ridicules Collins' assertion that he quickly distanced himself from the Bloomberg effort and was "snookered" into joining in the first place. But Collins nevertheless vows to strongly support Second Amendment rights.
Collins is advertising on radio in Rochester and Batavia, where is not as well-known, while blanketing the entire district with at least three campaign mailings. He is still emphasizing his role as businessman and county executive, and believes his message could not be more timely or better suited to the new 27th District.
"I still meet so many people who tell me they're sorry I'm not their county executive," he said. "They paid attention to what we were doing and now say: "Keep on doing it.'"