WASHINGTON — Approaching Tuesday’s Republican primary for the right to challenge Democratic Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul of Amherst this fall, Chris Collins’ past is coming back to haunt him.
Allies of his opponent, Iraq War veteran David Bellavia, are making sure of that. And the proof would have come Friday if you Googled “Collins for Congress.”
You wouldn’t have found collinsforcongress.com, the official campaign website of the former Erie County executive. Instead, as the fourth item on the search results, you would have found collinsforcongress.org, a site run by a Florida tea party leader with a blunt message.
“Chris Collins is unfit for public office,” the headline says.
And below that, the page features links to news stories detailing the controversies Collins has found himself embroiled in over the years — such as comparing Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to Adolf Hitler and the anti-Christ.
To the Collins camp — which hadn’t approached Google to fix its Web-search problems — the attacks are the last gasps of the dying Bellavia campaign.
“It’s pretty sad,” said Chris Grant, an unpaid adviser to Collins. “It shows that this is a pretty desperate operation that’s going to take the kitchen sink approach” rather than focus on the economy and jobs as Collins has done.
But to the Bellavia campaign and tea party leader Everett Wilkinson, it’s all fair game.
“We hear grave concern from voters who know a great deal about Chris Collins, that his gaffes and subsequent trouble with the truth will hang him in the general election or end his career abruptly if he is elected to Congress,” said Paul Cole, Bellavia’s campaign manager.
For his part, Wilkinson isn’t shy about airing Collins’ dirty laundry.
His website also includes links to stories about Collins briefly belonging to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s anti-gun group, about an aide to Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer who claims she was fired for supporting Bellavia, about Collins allegedly parking in a space reserved for the handicapped.
What’s more, reporters and tea party types are receiving daily email blasts with highlights from the site.
“I started doing some research on this race and I thought: this guy [Collins] just really seems dirty,” said Wilkinson, whose liberty.com website is one of the tea party movement’s most popular, according to Alexa.com, which ranks websites in terms of hits.
Wilkinson acknowledged that he knows Michael R. Caputo, an unpaid Bellavia adviser who’s been responsible in the past for campaign Web work that resembles collinsforcongress.org.
Both men said Caputo tried to talk Wilkinson out of producing the website, fearing it would be counterproductive — but Wilkinson felt determined to go ahead.
Chortling over a January 2010 WGRZ story in which a Republican assemblyman claimed Collins made comments about lap dances to a woman in the State Capitol, and a 2011 blog item from The Buffalo Record blog on the handicapped parking space, Wilkinson said of Collins: “He seems, like, out of control.”
Collins has previously apologized for his comments about Silver, and said he left Bloomberg’s anti-gun group as soon as he knew what it was about.
And when asked by WGRZ to comment on his purported lap-dance comments, Collins said: “The mischaracterization and fictionalization of my conversation with a friend that was purportedly overheard is something that is even beneath the low standards of slash and burn politics.”
Some of the stories listed have received widespread coverage in the Buffalo media while others have not been as fully vetted. But when asked if he wanted to add to any of the defenses or explanations he offered in any of those stories, Collins declined.
“I suppose when your campaign is desperate — and the Bellavia campaign is — that’s when you see them pull out all the stops and revisit old news that frankly was not of any consequence,” Collins said. “And so to me it’s a very positive sign that we’re doing so well that they’ve had to create a website and revisit a lot of nonsense.”
Voters don’t care about the issues Wilkinson raised, Collins said, pointing to the fact that voters in the Erie County towns now in the 27th congressional district gave him a 64 percent share of the vote in his losing bid for re-election as county executive last fall.
“They focused on the job that I did, and they’re focused now on jobs and spending,” Collins said. “And boy, do my resume and credibility and solutions speak to those two key issues.”
Voters searching for “Collins for Congress” on the Web might have a hard time figuring that out, though.
Many different possible iterations of a Chris Collins for Congress website — such as collinsforcongress.net, chriscollinsforcongress.org and chriscollinsforcongress.com — steer visitors back to Wilkinson’s attack website.
And while an Internet industry expert said the official Collins for Congress website is likely to start showing up on Google searches soon because The Buffalo News asked Google to the problem, neither Collins nor Grant offered a precise explanation for why the problem happened in the first place.
That explanation can be found in a statement from a Google spokesperson, and in a look back at collinsforcongress.com from last July, before Collins owned the website.
“Sites sometimes violate Google’s webmaster guidelines in an attempt to game our algorithms and trick their way to the top of our results,” the Google spokesperson said.
An Internet industry expert said that in such cases, search engines tend to block sites that have been hijacked or otherwise no longer reflect what search results are intended to reflect.
That’s clearly the case for collinsforcongress.com. Before Chris Collins bought the domain name from another onetime congressional candidate named Collins, it apparently got hijacked.
“The Wayback Machine,” a Web archive of past websites, shows that anyone clicking on www.collinsforcongress.com last July 8 would not have learned anything about the then-Erie County executive.
Instead, they would have learned about the “Best Diet For Acne: Foods That Keep Your Skin Heal.”
No, that is not a typo.
In other words, the Collins campaign bought a hijacked website and did not take action to make sure the campaign showed up on Google searches.
Asked what that showed about the Collins campaign, Grant said: “I don’t think it says anything. You have a campaign here that’s focused on talking to voters and focused on the issues. We’re not focused on where our site shows up on the Google rankings.”