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May 11, 2012 - 3:18pm

While Ranzenhofer claims neutrality in congressional race, petitions for Collins seem to tell a different story

posted by Howard B. Owens in David Bellavia, michael ranzenhofer, NY-27, chris collins.

Petitions filed by the campaign of Chris Collins to help the Erie County millionaire qualify for the Conservative line on the NY-27 Congressional District ballot indicate Sen. Mike Ranzenhofer may not be as neutral in the race as he claims to be.

Though, even after being told of the petitions, the senator maintained he is staunchly neutral in the race.

"I have not endorsed and I will not endorse," Ranzenhofer said. "It's important that the voters in the district decide who will represent them in the general election. I do not even live in the district."

Ranzenhofer's involvement in the race became an issue last week when a former staff member told the Buffalo News she believed she was fired from the senator's office for supporting David Bellavia, the Iraq War veteran running against Collins.

The Batavian has obtained a half-dozen pages of Collins petitions (PDF) that indicate that paid legislative staff who report to Ranzenhofer worked in a coordinated manner to help gather signatures for the Collins campaign.

The fired staffer, Michelle McCulloch, a 45-year-old Attica resident, mother of four children, and Wyoming County GOP Committee member, said the message was sent loud and clear to staff members that Ranzenhofer expected all hands on deck to help Collins.

"This is a primary race," McCulloch said. "There are two candidates. If the senator wants to be neutral, that's a great thing to do, but when you direct your staff to do something else, that's a whole other thing."

After numerous attempts this week to get Ranzenhofer on the phone to discuss this issue, the senator called The Batavian today and denied that he directed staff members to gather signatures for Collins.

Ranzenhofer said that he cannot discuss specific personnel matters, but did say he "disagreed" with the assertion by McCulloch that he directed staff to help the Collins campaign.

"I believe I have staff members who are helping both candidates," Ranzenhofer said. "It's not unusual for staff members to circulate petitions for candidates and it's my belief that staff members have circulated petitions for both candidates."

Bellavia said he's only aware of two Ranzenhofer aides who have done anything for his campaign.

But McCulloch isn't the only member of the Bellavia steering committee who was harassed in his or her place of employment after the steering committee was announced, Bellavia said.

He's offered all steering committee members the chance to remove their names from the publically available list, but none have accepted the offer he said. He did add, however, that three new steering committee members asked that their names not be added to the list for fear of reprisal.

Also on the steering committee is Jay Grasso, a former Genesee County legislator who represents Ranzenhofer in the county.

Grasso has declined repeated requests for comment.

While Grasso and McCulloch have been publicly associated with the Bellavia campaign, all indications from McCulloch and other sources are that what they've done for Bellavia, they've done on their own.

The Collins petition effort, however, has the appearance of being a coordinated effort directed by somebody in authority.

The six staff members involved in the petition drive for Collins are all notaries public, enabling them to collect signatures across party lines (it's not uncommon for aides to be notaries just for this purpose). 

The petitions were for signatures on the Conservative line.

The petitions were passed only in Newstead and Akron (with some spillover into Clarence), which McCulloch said was a conscious decision by the Collins campaign not to bother with collecting signatures in any of the GLOW counties.

The staff members involved were McCulloch, Emily Berry, Dan Aikin, Jon McNulty, Kathy Donner and Carol Wojkowski.

And while Bellavia-supporter McCulloch gathered signatures for Collins, she said she only did so because she felt directed to take part in the effort.

In an interview with The Batavian today, McCulloch detailed why she believed she was fired for her support of Bellavia, who currently lives in Batavia and is a lifelong GLOW-area resident.

On April 17, Bellavia's campaign released the names of people throughout the NY-27 serving on his steering committee.

Within minutes of the news of the steering committee coming out, Ranzenhofer staff member and Collins ally McNulty sent McCulloch a text message that read, "Hook called ranz. Just want to warn you."

"Hook" refers to Michael Hook, a Washington political consultant who has worked on previous Collins campaigns (and may be working with Collins now, though it's not been publicly announced since Hook has been tainted by the campaign losses of Jane Corwin for Congress and the last Collins campaign for Erie County executive).

It was Corwin's loss that led McCulloch to seek a job with Ranzenhofer, whom she respected and thought would be a good elected official to serve. 

Previously, McCulloch had worked for Rep. Tom Reynolds until she took a position on Chris Lee's congressional campaign in 2008 and then she worked for Lee until Lee resigned in disgrace.

After the "Craigslist Congressman" resigned, McCulloch retained her job in the congressional office, which was ordered to conduct all of its business, on and off the clock, in a nonpartisan manner, so McCulloch was not in any way involved in Corwin's campaign.

A couple of hours after McNulty's message, Erie County GOP Chairman Nick Langworthy sent text messages to McCulloch questioning her support of Bellavia.

Up until this incident, McCulloch said she considered Langworthy a good friend -- he had been over for family dinners and taken her sons to sporting events.

While Langworthy hasn't publicly endorsed Collins, in political circles he's considered a Collins ally and in his text to McCulloch he made it clear he supported Collins.

In a response to Langworthy, McCulloch suggested Langworthy had called Hook.

Langworthy responded, "I haven't talked to your boss or Michael Hook. I am fully with Chris Collins. Hook is one of your boss' best friends."

Ranzenhofer said he's been good friends with Hook for more than 30 years, going back to a time before either were in politics and both were in Jaycees.

When McCulloch returned home that day, she received a call from Ranzenhofer.

"He discussed his displeasure with me being on the steering committee, that it didn't matter that it was in Wyoming County or not, whether I was a committee member or not, and that further political actions by me needed to be reported to him immediately," McCulloch.

She said it was noteworthy that Ranzenhofer didn't demand that she resign from the steering committee.

On April 26, Bellavia called McCulloch, she said, and asked if she would be willing to introduce Bellavia to Republicans at a fundraiser later that night in Attica. Since she was a steering committee member, a county committee member and a lifelong Wyoming County resident, so McCulloch agreed to introduce Bellavia around.

Wyoming County is entirely outside of Ranzenhofer's senatorial district.

She said she introduced Bellavia to five or six people that night.

The next morning, McCulloch said she sent an email to Ranzenhofer and to his Chief of Staff Kathy Donner informing them of her political activity, which she understood to be the direction given to her by the senator.

The following Friday, Donner called McCulloch into her office and told her her services would no longer be needed.

There was no explanation given for her termination, McCulloch said.

Up to that point, according to McCulloch, she had never been reprimanded, suspended or otherwise given any indication she has not performed her job in an outstanding matter. She said, in fact, she had always been praised for her work.

It was the first time in her life she had been fired.

McCulloch initially didn't want to talk about the situation, she said, but then personnel from state agencies and other elected officials started calling her to find out what was going on.

She didn't want the story to be, even if just in rumor, that she was fired with no explanation, and since she believed she was fired for helping Bellavia, she wanted to tell that story.

"To say I was fired for the first time in my life for a reason that’s not there, I couldn’t just sit there and let that happen," McCulloch said. "I didn’t want to put myself in a position for people to think I was fired for any other reason because it’s just not true."

She's also speaking out for the sake of her four children, she said, whom she said she has always encouraged to get involved in politics and support candidates they believe in. She said she thought they shouldn't see her just backing down when she doesn't believe she was treated fairly.

Her firing, McCulloch said, may also make her a rather public casualty of a growing rift between the Erie County GOP -- at least the Langworthy/Hook/Collins wing of it -- and GLOW Republicans.

Many key GLOW GOP activists are supporting Bellavia, and McCulloch said she doesn't believe Collins gets the rural counties. He's hardly even stepped foot into any parts of the district outside of Erie County since the campaign began.

She said the Erie County GOP is trying to bully its way into a primary win.

"It’s not about the issues and who the candidates are (with the Erie County GOP)," she said. "It's about their strength and force and what they can do to our rural counties and it’s not fair to our rural counties."

Alan Bedenko
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Electoral Fusion. Making New York a terrible, awful place since time immemorial.

Chris Charvella
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Fusion is sleazy, Ranz and Langworthy are sleazier.

Eventually, the Erie County GOP is going to throw Nick Langworthy in the shark tank, but they're probably too slow on the uptake to make it happen before he loses them a couple more elections.

This story has a few angles and the one that interests me most is the ECGOP's disdain for for EVERY OTHER COUNTY IN THE DISTRICT.

The Monroe County GOP Chair even went on TV a few weeks back and told anybody who would listen that apparently Chris Collins doesn't give a damn if he takes a single vote out of Monroe.

Hook and Langworthy may want to have a gander at the new district map, and Ranz should probably join them since SD61 isn't exactly what it was 2 and 4 years ago either.

Chris Charvella
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You also have to love that the young and savvy Langworthy is ragetexing the mother of four he's about to have fired.

He's done three things of note as ECGOP Chairman

1: Bring us Carl Paladino, the guy who made Western new York the butt of national jokes.

2: Bring us Chris Lee, the guy who made Western New York the butt of national jokes.

3: Send Mike Mallia after Jack Davis. The thing that made Western New York the butt of national jokes.

Thomas Schneider
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If the establishment doesn't want Bellavia, then that is exactly who will get my vote in the primary.

Daniel Fabian
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Erie County GOP has been trying to get rid of Bellavia for years. Literally. But they're cowards, and Bellavia is never going to back down.

Alan Bedenko
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I'm glad to see that the job description for working in Senator Ranzenhofer's do-nothing office is obtaining a Notary Public license and obtaining petitions for terrible people to be added to the execrable Conservative and IP lines.

Mark Brudz
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LOl What does that even mean?

Most congressional, state senate and state assembly aides are notaries because they have to certify all sorts of documents for thier own boss..

This is about manipulation not qualification

Chris Charvella
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Mark, you're out of your depth here. Fusion voting and balloting candidates on minor party lines is a big part of this.

Mark Brudz
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That wasn't what I was commenting on Chris, I know what fusion voting is

Chris Charvella
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Yeah, you know what fusion voting is, but you think that small army of notaries in Ranz's office spend their time stamping important State Senate paperwork. Cute.

Mark Brudz
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Actually Chris, Michelle is my sister in law, I know exactly what this is about, Fusion voting was just the stage, Michelle did not refuse or complain about the petitions, If that is all thios was about it really wouldn't be the story

Howard B. Owens
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When I worked in the California legislature none of us were notaries, but then we didn't have fusion ballots.

Dave Olsen
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Political Parties Suck

John Roach
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While some people don't like fusion voting, both major parties like it.

Chris Charvella
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No, John, not really.

John Roach
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Has the NYS Assembly or Senate passed a bill to stop the practice? They talk about it, but no bill has made to the governors desk.

Chris Charvella
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Of course not, because minor party favor traders hold their balls to the fire.

Minor Party Chairman says: 'Hey, Assemblyman, you can't sponsor a bill that would weaken me politically! If you do that, I won't be able to threaten you like I'm doing right now!'

Assemblyman says: 'Of course, sir, how could I have been so stupid? Now which property was it that you needed to have rezoned?'

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If we could get rid of fusion voting, you would get more true 3rd party candidates. Maybe they would not win, but the races would be more interesting.

Dave Olsen
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Someday I'm going to get this tight on the first try

[video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bmXe4aMfRcI&feature=related]

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Forget the third party candidate stuff, let's just start with making it impossible for major parties to send their Assemblyman downstate to fetch minor party endorsements for their candidates.

Let's pretend there's a minor party called the Schmindependence Party and some local Schmindependence Party members started a local committee so they could independently endorse candidates. Now what would you say if the State Schmindependence Party ignored the existence of the local chapter and handed out endorsements all to one party as a favor to a local Assemblyman. That would be bullshit, huh?

The New York State Scmindependence Party Motto: You can't fix an election without breaking it first.

Chris Charvella
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Anyway, we're way off the rails here. Let's get back to the point of the article: Chris Collins and his staff are horrible, horrible people.

Dave Olsen
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And my personal favorite: Great take on the situation

[video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GHMB83fBIMU]

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You seem to be talking about the issue with the Independence Party locally. Do you happen to know if they have an official local committee now?

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Sorry, Chris, the problem is the same as it always is, the parties control the process, if people, I repeat people, were able to run for office instead of party hacks who are bought and paid for just to get on the ballot, let alone actually get elected; a lot of this back-office BS would bite the perpetrators in the ass by the voters electing an outsider, who is not beholden to anyone but the taxpayers. Unfortunately, right now, if you ain't in with the in-crowd, you ain't gettin' in. Ask David Bellavia. Yeah, yeah go ahead call me a crackpot, naive or pollyanna, but I believe it could work.

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John, I don't know what the hell you're talking about, that was totally hypothetical. I understand that there's also a (totally hypothetical) letter from a local party chair that proves it.

Chris Charvella
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Dave, fusion voting is one of the things standing in the way of your electoral Nirvana. All the things you despise are even worse when there's a fight over minor party lines by major party candidates.

Dave Olsen
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I certainly hope these staff personnel of Senator Ranzenhofer's are soliciting signatures on their own time and not ours.

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I get that Chris. If no party affiliation was next to a candidate's name on the ballot, then the minor parties wouldn't have so much juice.

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Dave, you pay for those stupid damned Halloween mailers and all the other (totally not, swear to god) campaign trash that comes out of their state offices. What's the difference?

Dave Olsen
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None, you want to see poor anger management, come over when I get those stupid things in my mailbox and swear and have spit run out my mouth while I tear them into tiny,tiny pieces. I'd love to see a stop to that too. Matter of fact, there's a whole litany of shit I'd like to put an end to, but alas............I'm just a hick with an internet connection.

Mark Brudz
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But your a mighty fine hick with an internet connection dave

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Michelle never did anything wrong. It's not her fault Ranz is forcing his employees to put his friend on the ballot on a minor party line then firing them when they show some modicum of independent thought.

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And that is the issue, Fusion be dammed. The article isn't about fusion, It is about apparant manipulation by the ECGOP to squash a Glow candidate.

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Yuck, the whole thing is just plain distasteful. I hope some great independent people run for both congress and the senate. Bellavia should run as an independent.

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Perhaps Dave, but the sad fact is that outside of local dog catcher a true independant candidate hasn't got a snowball's chance in hell.

Distasteful, you bet, worse than that, some outright falsehoods.

This is beyond the theorhetical, if the staff were spreading petitions for Ranz himself, no story no harm no foul, but they were enmasse spreading for collin.s and he says he didn't initiate that? Kind of pales creditabilty, that becomes an issue of charactor

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Dave, people just don't vote for anyone who isn't on a party line. I really think our country would be better off without the two party system.

Dave Olsen
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Well, be that as it is, Mark. I'm with Jesse Ventura in that I will not vote for Repub's or Dem's any more. Period. If Ron Paul actually gets the nomination, I will have quite a predicament. I might have the same problem with David Bellavia. I have also said I won't vote for anyone for national office (Congress, US Senate or Pres) that didn't bother to serve in the armed forces. That damn 2003 Iraq resolution cemented that one for me, those lily livered public approval whores should never have given W the authorization to do anything. They totally passed the buck. Both sides of the aisle. Which is why we need independent representatives who don't follow the party line, and who have a clue what they're ordering the military to do. You can't rely on Generals and Admirals, those guys will always want to attack, it's what they do.

Mea Culpa, I voted for Ian Murphy in the last congressional election instead of Jack Davis who met both criteria.

I've been on the losing side of lots of things in my life, and that's OK. Political Parties still suck. Upraised finger

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LOL Dave, you do have a sort of Country Joe & The Fish sort of way of saying things

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that's a compliment, Thanks Mark. I gotta go watch "The Finder" now, great TV show.

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Charlie, surprised to hear you say that -- seems like we've had some big arguments in the past where you defended the two party system.

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I'm evolving.

Howard B. Owens
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Which would qualify you for elected office. You should consider running for something some day.

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I would like to see fiscally conservative, socially progressive candidates. The political shifts over the last few years have done a lot of harm to those of us who look for that.

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Look. Let's just create a party locally here and build it up. We could do it. It's the right environment.

Howard B. Owens
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The Batavia First Party. All welcome who believe in community over state and national partisan agendas.

Phil Ricci
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I say we do it. It's time to ignore D's and R's and start doing what's best.

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Howard - Although we clash occasionally, this is an excellent and well rounded article. I think this is the sort of thing that makes you a high quality journalist.

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Alan - We've been around and around about fusion voting, but I don't think taking it away is going to solve the above problem. Had it not been minor party petitions, it would have just been Republican party petitions. The real issue here is Mike Ranzenhofer and his uselessness as a Senator combined with his blatant disregard for not only his own statements, but his staff's performance and responsibilities.

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My concern with abolishing parties is that it would, in today's expensive media world, possibly mean that only independently wealthy people would be able to run for office. Parties aren't all good, but they can, to a certain extent, allow people without vast financial resources to run for office with some sort of fundraising and organizational support. It also make sense, given that people generally either are center-left and center-right (most aren't on the extremes of either side) that there would be two major parties.

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