In western New York, a Republican primary about Michael Bloomberg

David Belavia. (Wikipedia)
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David Bellavia, a pro-life, pro-gun Republican running for Congress in western New York, is hoping to get a boost from Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

"He's not a very popular man, for the issues that he wears on his sleeve, quite frankly," said Bellavia, an Iraq War veteran and first-time candidate, who is currently engaged in an underfunded, uphill battle for his party's nomination against incumbent Democrat Kathy Hochul. 

In recent weeks, Bloomberg has loomed over the Republican primary, as Bellavia has accused his favored opponent, former Erie county executive Chris Collins, of being insufficiently supportive of the Second Amendment, citing Collins' brief membership in a Bloomberg-led effort to curb the spread of illegal guns, and suggesting in campaign materials that Collins is sympathetic to the mayor's agenda.

Collins, who was listed as a founding member of County Executives Against Illegal Guns in 2008, has subsequently said said that he made a mistake in signing on with Bloomberg's effort, and that he got "snookered." (The Bellavia campaign posted a video of one of his explanations to YouTube.)

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"From our perception out here, [Bloomberg] is not a guy who needs to tell you a story," Bellavia said. "He'll look you in the eye and tell you how he feels. So I don't see how you could say you were snookered by him."

The gun issue could factor into the race meaningfully in a congressional district that emerged from redistricting as the most conservative in the state, and where the winner of the Republican primary will have a distinct registration advantage against Hochul, who won a special election in 2011.

The district voted overwhelmingly for Carl Paladino in 2010, when Bellavia announced himself on the political scene by criticizing Andrew Cuomo as "out of line" for his comments about Paladino's military record.

Bellavia befriended Paladino's campaign manager, Michael Caputo, who is now unofficially helping Bellavia's campaign. According to research conducted during the Paladino race, the district is the most pro-gun in the state, and the free coverage devoted to Collins and Bloomberg has been a godsend for Bellavia, who had raised just over $40,000 at the end of March.

After a fund-raising trip to New York City last month, Bellavia lamented that "he was sort of hoping a couple more people would take the jump off the cliff."

Collins, a successful businessman, has almost unlimited personal resources to commit to the race. In financial disclosure forms, he reported a net worth in excess of $100 million; Bellavia, on the other hand, was living mostly off modest royalties from his book House to House: A Soldier's Memoir, about his time in Iraq.  

The hope in the Bellavia camp is that the free airtime, combined with a few targeted mailings stressing his positions as ardently pro-gun and firmly pro-life, along with his knowledge of the region's agriculture industry, will sway the district's largely rural population. A few of the county Republican committees (Livingston, Wyoming and Orleans) have endorsed him, though his campaign took a blow when the state Conservative Party backed Collins.

Bellavia also hopes the race can somehow be shaken up of Collins can be goaded into a gaffe. After winning his election as Erie County Executive in 2007, in a heavily Republican district, Collins was talked about as a potential Republican candidate for governor. But those hopes were derailed as he was forced to apologize for comparing Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, an Orthodox Jew, to both Adolf Hitler and the anti-Christ. At the State of the State address in 2010, Collins was overheard suggesting a woman looking for a seat should offer someone a lap dance. (He denied making the remark.)

So Bellavia has aggressively pressed him on Bloomberg and guns, claiming Collins never publicly disavowed the group.

Collins' campaign did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

"He said he absolutely gave Mayor Bloomberg's office the Riot Act, and 'I was bamboozled by the mayor,'" Bellavia said. "The mayor didn't bamboozle anyone. You join as a founding member of a group that I'm sure Michael Bloomberg didn't send a frantic phone call saying, 'I've got to, between now and 9 a.m., I need to get as many people on here as possible.' Trust me, it's nonsense."

"There's no public statement. There's no press release he put out. When you resign from a board, you usually write a letter. No letter."

Bellavia has done his best to turn it into a character issue as well, questioning whether Collins has the "disposition" to beat Hochul.

"My thing is this, he put his political aspirations and his need to cozy up to the most powerful mayor in the country, ahead of his principles," he said. "And that's really what this is about."

Hochul, for her part, has been content to avoid the controversy. She hasn't so much as mentioned Bloomberg, preferring to let the two Republicans fight it out, in the hope that she'll get a wounded challenger.

But she has been preparing for a fight over guns, dating back to her days as the Erie County clerk, when she streamlined the pistol permit process (a fact that the Buffalo News cited when it endorsed her re-election as clerk). And she's taken full advantage of the Democratic Party's abandonment of gun control as a party issue, voting in favor of a bill that would force all states to honor permits from other states, and a bill requiring federal land be open to hunting and shooting. 

"Congresswoman Hochul has always been a staunch advocate of Second Amendment rights, starting in her days as County Clerk and throughout her time in the House," said her campaign manager, Frank Thomas, in a statement. "Rep Hochul has demonstrated that she will continue to cross party lines to ensure those rights are protected."

Bloomberg, a registered independent who recently endorsed Charlie Rangel for re-election to Congress, isn't backing anyone in the race. His office declined to comment for this article.