WASHINGTON – Chris Collins is trying to be nice.
Presiding over the House during slow times, as first-year lawmakers often do, the Republican from Clarence dutifully studies a picture book filled with the faces and names of his 434 colleagues. When one of them has a birthday, Collins sends a friendly note – along with a packet of “Big League Chew,” which is made in his district.
When Collins serves as chairman of a hearing, he breaks with congressional tradition and asks his questions last, not first, giving lower-ranking lawmakers the chance to go before him.
And after a year in Congress, there are signs that Collins’ charm offensive is paying off among his colleagues in the Republican-led House.
GOP leaders put him on three committees – one more than usual – and he is already leading his own subcommittee, a rare accomplishment for a freshman lawmaker. In addition, Collins’ first major legislative proposal, which aims to help fledgling high-tech companies, seems on track to becoming law.
But sometimes, Collins – a businessman-turned-politician who, by nature, is all business – just can’t help himself.
He breached congressional etiquette by disagreeing with Sen. Charles E. Schumer at a news conference where they shared the same podium. During an interview, he said he has no relationship with Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand because she was never in Buffalo – an incorrect statement he later tried to retract.
And just as he did as Erie County executive, he has taken to lecturing people – such as the agriculture secretary – about the virtues of “Lean Six Sigma” management techniques.
In other words, on occasion Collins still leaves the charm out of his charm offensive.
And that fact has made his first year in Congress look a lot like his four years as Erie County executive. It’s a rich meal with a main course of accomplishment – served with a heaping side dish of acrimony.
Only two years ago, acrimony cost Collins his job. As county executive, Collins pulled Erie County out of a deep financial hole and built a $27 million surplus, only to be rejected by voters at the end of his first term.
Even some close to Collins said a key reason he lost to Democrat Mark Poloncarz is that, through all his budget-cutting, the county executive came across as arrogant – and never did anything to counter that image.
A year later, though, Collins narrowly defeated then-Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, a Democrat, in a new and heavily conservative district that links suburban Buffalo with suburban Rochester.
Arriving in Washington at age 62, 14 years after he first ran for Congress, Collins took a different approach than he took in County Hall.
“Here’s the difference,” Collins said in a recent hourlong interview in his Washington office. “Think of a football team. In Erie County, I was the coach and I was the quarterback. I called the plays. I set the strategy.”
But in Congress, he plays just one position.
“I am not and was not elected to be quarterback,” he said. “I’m on the team.”
And so, he strives to be a team player. He vowed to memorize the face and the name of every member of the House. And from there, he concocted the idea of sending birthday greetings accompanied by Big League Chew, which is made by Ford Gum & Machine Co. in Akron.
That idea appears to be a big hit. After her birthday, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers of Washington State – the fourth-ranking Republican in the House leadership – rushed up to Collins and said: “My kids didn’t think I could blow a bubble!”
But it wasn’t Collins’ gestures of friendliness that propelled him beyond the back bench where House freshmen usually reside. It was also his background and work ethic.
Rep. Sam Graves, the Missouri Republican who heads the Small Business Committee, interviewed Collins soon after Collins was elected to Congress. Graves was so impressed that he named Collins chairman of the Small Business Subcommittee on Health and Technology.
“When I pick my subcommittee chairmen, I look for people that understand what it’s like to run successful businesses, who know what it’s like to sign the front of the check instead of the back of the check, somebody that gets it,” Graves said. “I talked to Chris, and he was a slam dunk.”
As head of the subcommittee, Collins immediately set out to do what Republican leaders wanted him to do. Of the subcommittee’s five hearings, three have focused on attacking President Obama’s signature health reform law – something Collins has been doing ever since he began running for Congress in 2012 – while others focused on technology issues such as cybercrime.
His work didn’t go unnoticed.
Seeing Collins’ focus on high-tech issues, Republican Lamar Smith of Texas asked Collins to join the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, which Smith leads.
Collins already served on the Agriculture Committee and the Small Business panel, and he had to get a waiver from leadership to join a third committee. But Graves said no one doubted that Collins could handle the extra workload.
“He’s completely flourished in that environment,” Graves said. “The harder he works, obviously, the more he gets done and the better he is.”
And the proof may well lay in what’s happening to the Transfer Act, which Collins introduced earlier this year.
Designed to give grants to entrepreneurs who will turn federally funded research into groundbreaking products, the bill is moving through two House committees with bipartisan support.
Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., said he was proud to be working with Collins on the legislation.
“I hear from universities all the time that proof-of-concept funds are direly needed to help innovative research ideas with the challenging transition to commercialization,” Lipinski said. “This bill helps to accomplish those goals.”
Collins said that bill is helping him accomplish one of his goals: disproving a Buffalo News editorial from fall 2012 that said that because of his temperament, he “flat-out has no business in Congress.”
“I’d like to think through my actions I’ve proved that wrong,” Collins said.
Well, not entirely, not if you believe what some others on Capitol Hill say privately about Collins.
While Collins wins raves from Republicans in the House – a like-minded group – congressional aides from both parties cited several instances during the year that seem to prove that the new Chris Collins is the old Chris Collins.
Leading the list is what Collins did at a news conference in Washington on Feb. 12, the fourth anniversary of the Flight 3407 crash and his first high-profile appearance as a member of Congress.
After Schumer – a New York Democrat who joined the families in pushing aviation safety legislation through Congress in 2010 – said the Federal Aviation Administration promised it would meet its new deadlines for implementing the law, Collins took to the podium.
“To say – and I’m sorry, Sen. Schumer, to say that they’re going to meet the deadline – they’ve missed the deadline again and again,” said Collins, who was county executive at the time of the crash and who appeared to choke up as he spoke. “That is unacceptable. Words are unacceptable.”
Some members of the Families of Continental Flight 3407, who have carefully avoided any hint of partisanship in their fight for the law’s implementation, appeared to grow uncomfortable as Collins spoke.
And no one was as uncomfortable as Schumer, who was visibly angry a few minutes later as he rushed back into the room to reclaim the podium.
Accidentally saying he had been told what “Sen. Collins” had said, Schumer responded: “We’ve had a long experience of four years with the FAA, and we are going to watch them like hawks.”
The FAA ultimately finalized those aviation safety rules, proving Schumer right.
Capitol Hill aides were aghast at Collins’ performance, calling it a shocking breach of the congressional tradition that calls for lawmakers from the same state to be civil to one another, even if they are from opposite parties, when they are working together on local issues.
Perhaps coincidentally, or perhaps not, the normally media-friendly Schumer turned down an interview request for this story. Instead, his spokeswoman, Meredith Kelly, issued a terse statement.
“Chuck works well with Congressman Collins and all members of the Western New York delegation for the benefit of New York,” the statement said.
Asked about the Flight 3407 incident and his relationship with Schumer, Collins said things are just fine between him and the state’s senior senator. He said he and Schumer have never discussed what happened at that February news conference.
“I didn’t really think I had anything to apologize for,” Collins said. “I think his staff blew it out of proportion. He never brought it up again; I never brought it up again.”
In fact, Collins said he has a better relationship with Schumer than he does with Gillibrand, also a New York Democrat.
“To be honest, I never spent any time with her as county executive,” Collins said. “I was with Schumer every other month. Sen. Gillibrand was just not in Western New York. So as county executive, I never built a relationship at all with Sen. Gillibrand as I did with Sen. Schumer.”
Told of Collins’ comments, Gillibrand’s office produced a spreadsheet that showed her having visited Erie County 24 times for 40 public events while Collins served as county executive.
And in response, Collins said he should have said that Gillibrand had not been in Western New York “with me.”
“I did not mean to imply she wasn’t there,” he said.
Whatever his struggles may be with New York’s senators, Collins has a strong relationship with Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo.
Just as they used to work together on county issues when Collins was county executive, now they team up on issues such as the Flight 3407 crash aftermath. And they often share the walk to the Capitol for votes, where Collins often repeats his joke that he and Higgins are about to cancel out each other’s votes yet again.
“We obviously have disagreements on national issues,” Higgins said, “but I’ve had good success working with Chris on local issues.”
Collins has paid special attention to the local issues in the vast rural stretches of his district. Asked about his top accomplishments, Collins cited his work on a new farm bill, which he expects to pass in January.
Well-known in Erie County, Collins has opted to spend 80 percent of the time that he is back in Western New York in the other seven counties, saying it is important that voters there know their congressman isn’t ignoring them.
“I am impressed,” said State Sen. George Maziarz, a Newfane Republican who endorsed Collins’ primary opponent last year. Noting that he was surprised to see Collins at the grand reopening of the remodeled town hall in Ridgeway, in Orleans County, Maziarz said: “He shows up at everything.”
That’s equally true in Washington, where Collins – unlike many lawmakers – attends committee hearings religiously.
Speaking his mind
And when he does, top federal officials are likely to hear a lot from Collins about Lean Six Sigma, a management philosophy aimed at reducing waste that Collins famously brought to Erie County.
For example, at an Agriculture Committee hearing in March, Collins took on Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose department has, according to its website, been implementing Lean Six Sigma practices since at least 2011.
“Have you heard of Lean Six Sigma?” Collins asked.
Vilsack then went on to detail his department’s Lean Six Sigma practices, only to find himself disagreeing with Collins over whether the techniques could be used to get the most out of the nation’s meat inspectors.
“I kind of took him to task,” Collins acknowledged.
That’s a role that Collins still seems to relish, despite all his concurrent efforts to get to know his colleagues and to put on a happy face.
He admits frustration with the congressional culture of fakery, where it’s common to see a lawmaker address a mortal enemy as “my good friend.”
And when told that he had bruised some egos around Washington, Collins seemed unfazed.
“If their egos are there, so be it,” he said.
And with that, Collins suggested a way of summing up this story.
“What I would put in there is: Collins is no politician,” he said. “He speaks his mind like you do in the private sector. He’s not going to pretend something is so when it’s not so. That’s who I am. Some folks are used to, as you called it, the fakery. That’s not me, and that never will be me.”