Rep. Chris Collins took a big risk when he became the first member of Congress to endorse Donald Trump for president. Now, he’s made another huge bet.
By bucking many of his New York GOP colleagues and supporting the recent tax cut legislation, Collins has all but tethered his political fate to the White House. He’s gambling that his full-throated support for Trump will continue to fuel his rise, even as other state Republicans have second thoughts about a president who is deeply unpopular in his home state and whose tax plan hits New York homeowners hard.
“There is no one, absolutely no one, in Congress who is more of a champion” for Trump, said former GOP Rep. Tom Reynolds, who, like Collins, represented suburban Buffalo and rural areas stretching east to Rochester. “It’s not just the state: I’ve known of members of Congress from other states who look to him for advice in trying to work through some issues.”
So far, Collins’ reputation as Trump’s man in the New York congressional delegation has paid dividends. Collins cuts a higher profile in Washington, has emerged as a more prominent voice in state Republican circles and has become one of the more potent critics of Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The Trump connection is widely thought to have scuttled any aspirations for statewide office, although Collins claims he no longer harbors them. He explored a run for governor in 2010, has attracted a legion of new critics and has drawn a crowd of challengers in his upstate New York district — after twice winning reelection by landslide margins.
The three-term congressman and former Erie County executive concedes there are more demonstrations against him back home than there used to be. “[T]he Trump haters are now Collins haters, too,” he told POLITICO.
Still, Republicans like Tom Dadey, a county leader who lives near Syracuse — a few hours’ drive outside Collins’ district — say they appreciate seeing the congressman “talking about the administration’s priorities” on cable news.
“It’s certainly raised his profile within the Republican Party in New York — he’s gone from maybe a regional player in western New York to a statewide player where the county chairs certainly know who he is,” Dadey said.
Collins, a former business executive rarely accused of modesty, says he’s getting more requests than ever to co-sponsor legislation. Colleagues from New York and beyond use him as a conduit to deal with the White House. Before Paul Ryan was reelected speaker in 2016, he asked Collins to second his nomination.
“Truly my profile, both locally, nationally and within my conference, is significantly more visible,” Collins said from his office on Capitol Hill. “I’ve enjoyed it. I just spent 15 minutes with the press talking about tax reform and what it means to New York.”
The Empire State’s high local taxes, he explains, are just a “lifestyle expense” for the wealthy — they could fly first class rather than take a private jet. Paying more allows them to live in Manhattan or the Hamptons, and they’ll continue to do it. He also said the tax bill will bolster Republicans not just in his district but around the country, when workers see more money in their paychecks and the economy continues to grow.
“I will stake my reelection on that,” he said.
If you believe Cuomo, the top Republicans in New York’s state and federal legislative delegations, its mayors and leaders of both business and labor, the recently passed tax overhaul hurts the high-tax state and could crimp its economy and real estate markets.
Cuomo went so far as to accuse Collins of being a “Benedict Arnold” for voting for a bill that would “rape and pillage” the state’s economy. The key gripe was its curtailment of the deductibility of state and local taxes — also known as SALT — which will hurt higher-income people, mostly in the city and its suburbs, and could push them to leave the state.
Only four of the nine Republicans in New York’s House delegation supported the bill: Collins and Reps. Tom Reed, Claudia Tenney and John Katko. Downstate members led by the state’s senior Republican, Rep. Peter King, worked furiously to defeat the SALT provisions — but ultimately failed.
Former Rep. Richard Hanna, a Republican from suburban Utica who declined to seek reelection last year, said the bill should have been a moment for state solidarity.
“If there really was a New York delegation that was functioning, this is what would have happened in the last two weeks. There’s nine votes. Nine could have gotten together — and in my opinion, should have — and said, ‘Mr. Trump, if you go ahead with this SALT idea, we can’t support it.’ If they had done that and gotten together with California, they made a difference,” said Hanna, who endorsed Hillary Clinton on his way out of office. “But what did they really do? They went their own separate ways and covered their own asses.”
When Congress tackled taxes during the Reagan administration, New York’s delegation — then 34 strong, instead of the current 27, and with 15 Republicans — banded together to defeat the proposed elimination of SALT.
King insisted he has “no hard feelings” toward Collins but felt the tax vote should have been a moment for unity. “We can fight within the state, Democrats and Republicans, but dealing with the rest of the country we should try to stand united.”
Beyond some “patronage pull upstate,” King said, he doesn’t think Collins’ Trump-hugging has borne fruit: “I haven’t really seen it help New York much.”
Cuomo is determined to make Collins pay for his vote for the tax cut bill and to repeal Obamacare, naming the congressman as one of his targets in this year’s elections.
Collins’ lips curled into a smirk at the mention of the governor’s name.
“He’s never called me. He lied about it — he said he called me … he’s delusional,” Collins said. In a spat just before Christmas, Collins denounced the governor as “thuggish” and a “Grinch” who is “incapable of ever being our nation’s president.”
He refers to the governor’s threats as a “badge of honor” that will only help him in his district.
A Cuomo spokesman declined to comment.
Collins is well-positioned to weather any storms: He is sitting on more than $1 million in a district that Trump won by 24 percentage points. But the increased scrutiny and his penchant for flip comments have bitten him several times, including when he said that Congress had to act on a tax plan because “my donors are basically saying, ‘Get it done or don’t ever call me again.’”
He was also overheard at the Capitol boasting about “how many millionaires I’ve made in Buffalo the past few months,” an apparent reference to Innate Immunotherapeutics, an Australian firm in which Collins is a major investor.
The Office of Congressional Ethics investigated the matter and referred its findings to the House Ethics Committee in October. Collins invested at least $6 million in the firm and has pushed the company’s stock to former Health and Human Services Secretary and one-time House colleague Tom Price, and other lawmakers and officials in Buffalo. Price made more than $225,000 in his Innate stock trades, according to public records. Collins talked up an Innate drug with officials at HHS.
He said recently that the OCE is made up of “mall cops” and that everything he did was disclosed.
“It’s frustrating. … I’ve got every confidence I’ll be cleared,” he said.
Even if Collins is not in immediate jeopardy of losing his House seat, said Gerald Benjamin, a longtime professor of political science at State University of New York at New Paltz, his warm embrace of Trump is ideologically anathema for a candidate with statewide ambitions. According to a November Siena College poll, just 31 percent of likely New York voters had a favorable opinion of the president.
In his office, Collins expresses no worries about his future. He says he considers his true opponent to be The Buffalo News and that he’s excited at the prospect of campaigning with the Republican nominee for governor — whoever it is — against Cuomo.
“I have more fun bashing Andrew Cuomo to his brother Chris Cuomo on [CNN’s] ‘New Day’ than you could ever imagine,” Collins said. “I like a fight.”