October 16, 2016
Voters in New York's 27th congressional district will choose between two businesspeople when they vote for their representative in the House on Nov. 8.
But the similarities between the incumbent Republican, Rep. Chris Collins, and his Democratic challenger, Diana Kastenbaum, end there.
Collins, 66, is the brash, tell-it-like-I-want-it-to-be businessman-turned-politician that he's always been, only more so. He's spending much of his race for a third term defending the Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, insisting despite some evidence to the contrary that Trump will be a uniter, not a divider.
Kastenbaum, 65, is a soft-spoken CEO of a family business in Batavia with a long record as a liberal activist. And while she vows to get tough on foreign trade and work to bring back manufacturing jobs just as Collins does and Trump does, she argues that both Trump and Collins are divisive forces who shouldn't be sent to Washington.
Collins, a former Erie County executive, remains the heavy favorite in this heavily Republican district, which connects Buffalo's suburbs to the suburbs west of Rochester via the farmland and factory towns in between. He's raised seven times as much money as Kastenbaum, and proudly calls the district Trump country, noting that he even sees cardboard of the controversial candidate on front porches in the countryside.
Perhaps that's one of the reasons why Collins continues to defend Trump.
Asked about the allegations that four women raised last week that Trump had groped them, Collins said he trusted the candidate's word that he didn't touch any of them.
"I know Donald Trump," Collins said. "I don't know those women."
What's more, Collins insisted that despite Trump's call for a wall at the Mexican border, despite Trump's call for a ban on Muslim immigration, despite all the other controversies surrounding the candidate, Trump will bring the nation together. Collins said Trump will do that by jump-starting the economy, protecting the borders and getting the country moving again.
On the contrary, voters know they can't trust Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, Collins said.
"She's just not a likable person," Collins said, "and we just want to get out of the malaise we've been in the last eight years."
Kastenbaum couldn't see things any differently. She is running for Congress four years after returning to her family home in Batavia after a quarter century of living and working in California. There, she got to know Clinton and her people while serving as a volunteer driver for the Clinton campaign during her visits to Los Angeles during her first run for the presidency in 2008.
"I got to see all the great work she does," Kastenbaum said. "I was very inspired by her."
On the contrary, Kastenbaum castigates Collins for defending the Republican presidential candidate.
"I find the divisive, vitriolic rhetoric extremely disgusting," she said. "I'm so disgusted with Chris Collins. He and Donald Trump have taken the Republican party to the far extreme."
Collins insisted, though, that he remains a moderate Republican by Washington standards. And despite acknowledging that he would be willing to serve as Trump's secretary of commerce, Collins has also charted out plans for a long congressional career, which he wants to cap by chairing the Energy and Commerce Committee, which he serves on now.
"My support of Trump has elevated my stature with my own members,"said Collins, adding that he has a fine relationship with House Speaker Paul Ryan despite Ryan's refusal to campaign with the GOP presidential nominee. "I've kind of gotten the reputation as someone who sees the world in a different light and is usually right."
At the same time, though, Collins said he's proud of the nitty-gritty work he has done in Congress, such as helping more than 400 constituents address their problems with the federal government over the past four years.
For her part, though, Kastenbaum said Collins doesn't seem particularly active in his district, which she vowed to be while pursuing a much more liberal agenda than Collins ever would.
A higher minimum wage and immigration reform including a path to citizenship are just two of the issues Kastenbaum pushes, along with better balance in American trade agreements. Like Collins, she opposes the controversial Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal with Pacific Rim nations.
She also vowed to be an advocate for manufacturing companies. In fact, she runs one. She and her husband, comedian Hiram Kasten, returned to Batavia so she could serve as CEO of the family tool and die business, Pinnacle Manufacturing Co., and has been hard at work modernizing the company, she said.
But now, though, she knows she faces a bigger challenge: Winning a congressional race in the most Republican congressional district in the state.
"I think we need a choice," she said, explaining why she launched her long-shot bid, "and I went into this thinking I can win."
A friend likened Kastenbaum's race to "shooting arrows at the sun," but that's not how she sees it.
"I feel as if anything can happen in this election," she said.