Republican Chris Collins never intended to be an entrepreneur or to get into politics. But the self-made multimillionaire is on his way to Washington after defeating Democratic Rep. Kathy Hochul in a closely contested battle for New York’s 27th District. Democrats attacked Collins as a cold-hearted tycoon, but his promises to bring business sensibilities to Washington ultimately won voters over.
As a child, Collins’s family moved around the country with his father’s job transfers at General Electric. He graduated from high school in Hendersonville, N.C., then went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from North Carolina State and a master’s in business administration from the University of Alabama (Birmingham). He got a job with Westinghouse in Buffalo, N.Y., and he says he planned to spend his career climbing the corporate ladder there, as his father did at GE. But when Westinghouse approached Collins about taking over its plant where he was the general manager of the industrial-gear division, he agreed. He ran the Nuttall Gear Corp., which eventually reverted to private ownership, from 1983 to 1997, when he sold it.
Former Rep. Bill Paxon of New York, a Republican House leader in the 1990s, persuaded Collins to get into politics. Collins challenged longtime Democratic Rep. John LaFalce for New York’s 29th District in 1998, hoping to benefit from dissatisfaction with the local economy, but he lost, 57 percent to 41 percent. He turned back to business, spending the next 10 years taking over almost two dozen financially distressed and bankrupt companies in the Buffalo area.
In 2007, New York Republicans again tapped Collins, this time to run as Erie County executive. “Erie County was effectively bankrupt, and I was now known as a fix-it guy,” Collins said in an interview. He ran as an independent on a platform of business know-how, an argument that won him 64 percent of the vote. He managed to turn around some of the county’s big problems, calling the shots on everything from Medicaid spending to roads and bridges. But he unexpectedly lost the position in 2011, when Democrats ran a challenger against him in the heavily Democratic county.
Collins said his experience at the county level inspired him to head to Washington, where he hopes he can apply some of his budget experience. “If there’s ever anything that’s broken, it is Congress,” Collins said. “While I’ll be one of 435, I can certainly advocate for the efficiencies I brought into Erie County.”
Republicans were eager to unseat Hochul, who won a special election in 2011 in the district after GOP Rep. Chris Lee abruptly resigned following an embarrassing personal episode. Hochul’s victory was attributed to her relentless focus on GOP Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposed federal budget and its controversial changes to Medicare. This year, Collins benefited from the newly redrawn district, which added the socially conservative, working-class suburbs south of Buffalo while slicing out the Erie County suburbs where Hochul did best in the 2010 special election.
Democrats accused Collins of neglecting the county’s infrastructure and being willing to ship jobs to China, but his focus on his business background—along with heavy campaign spending from outside GOP groups—proved too much for Hochul. “Unlike my opponent and President Obama, who think we can tax our way to prosperity, I’m saying we need to grow our way to prosperity, by having a balanced budget and having some certainty for business on the financial side,” Collins said.
Meghan McCarthy contributed to this article.