September 15: A sunny, but chilly, early fall evening. Huge, puffy white clouds dominated the sky downtown where I stood at the corner of Franklin and Mohawk, peering through the window blinds at a renovated space where the longtime gay bar, Buddies, went to die. There was a very different clientele in the house that night, but who knows for sure, because they wouldn’t let me in. Welcome to the Erie County Republican Party.
I had traded emails earlier that day with Bryan Fiume, a legislative aide to the Channel 2 News anchor-turned legislator Lynne Dixon, asking if it would be possible to cover the fundraiser for Ms. Dixon’s re-election campaign. Mr. Fiume responded kindly, told me my pieces were “fair,” but then said it “will remain a private event for supporters of Legislator Dixon.” I was extended an interview opportunity, told that “Legislator Dixon would be happy to speak with you about her record, and the issues facing her district.”
I immediately accepted Mr. Fiume’s offer for an interview and quickly did some internet research to prep on the issues facing the newly formed 9th District, which compromises Hamburg, Lackawanna, and a dash of South Buffalo. The “Issues” section of Dixon’s website, however, lists only jingoistic catchphrases like “corruption of career politicians…She is an Independent voice [sic]…working to reform government…fight for efficiency and transparency.”
The windows at the old Buddies were plenty transparent that evening. Forty-five minutes or so into the event, there were maybe 20 people in the joint, wait-staff included.
I am still awaiting an appointment to meet with Legislator Dixon, but I suppose she’s satisfied with her handful of private supporters.
September 27: A warm and strangely humid day. Perhaps the last humid day until next summer. I am again attempting to cover a Republican campaign event, this time a $1,000-per-plate luncheon in honor of Erie County Executive Chris Collins, with a special guest: Senator John Thune (R, SD). I emailed the event’s listed contact person, Scott Zylka, weeks prior to this event, because I badly wanted to see what a $1,000-per-plate luncheon looks like from the inside. I received no reply.
I thought my chances of gaining access were pretty good, however, for two reasons. The magnitude of the event had to attract local media and their hordes of cameramen wearing jeans and t-shirts. In other words, good cover for me to gain entrance as media. But the other factor was comforting as well: It was being held at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, a public building, funded in large part by taxpayers.
Ten minutes before the luncheon, dignitaries (who else could afford $1,000 for lunch?) started filing in. Men uniformly wearing ties, jackets, and heavy watches and women wearing power suits, handbags, and pumps. I began daydreaming about the spread waiting on the other side of the door and how great it would be to get inside, forget about living in the nation’s third poorest city, and bathe myself the natural light of the atrium, surrounded by smiles and a panorama over Olmsted’s Delaware Park, sampling the aroma of whatever a $1,000 lunch can provide.
I happened to espied the elusive Lynne Dixon being escorted by the generational career politician Ed Rath III. At the same time, a man dressed in a king’s costume with a Chris Collins mask and accompanied by two people in rat costumes appeared out of nowhere and stood in front of the BECHS to make a statement on the oft-alleged self-aggrandizement of Mr. Collins. One rat yelled out to some entering donors, “Don’t eat all the food, the dumpsters in this place are the BEST!”
I summoned my courage and mounted the steps to the front gate of the building. The door was opened for me at the top by a 30-something man with tanned skin and glasses: Stefan Mychajliw, Collins’ chief hype man. The Flavor Flav to Collins’ Chuck D. I might as well have been the one wearing a giant clock around my neck and some flashy sunglasses because Mr. Mychajliw immediately informed me that this was a private party, closed to the media. I told him I had emailed Scott Zylka weeks prior and never received a response. He told me they’d emailed AV that morning. I tracked the email down later:
Thank you for your inquiry however it is a close event. [sic]
If you have any further questions please direct them to Stefan Mychajliw.
“Closed to all media?” I asked, flummoxed.
“Yes. Thank you.”
Locked out again. I made my way back to the rats and pondered how a country club could take over a public building. A Xeroxed sheet of paper was taped over the welcome sign near the entrance: “On Tuesday, 9/27, the Museum will be CLOSED for a private function.” The BECHS website clearly states that the museum can be rented by a private party, so I suppose that’s kosher, but the shroud of secrecy the Erie County GOP operates under makes the whole thing stink like rotten prosciutto. Of course, there’s a rich tradition of private and secretive clubs in this country, but color me naïve, I never expected to encounter the word “private” so often while trying to cover politics.
At 12:14pm, a postal service truck cruised through the parking lot and honked towards the costumed protesters in approval. Almost simultaneously, a long, black Ford passenger van with tinted windows pulled up along the west side of the building. VIP parking. Like Public Enemy, Collins arrived fashionably late to his own show. He and his entourage filed around the south side of the building, away from the front entrance and towards the lake, to commingle with the Republican ghost of Abraham Lincoln on the front steps of the building. The king and his rats were barely able to come within shouting distance of Senator Thune and the local businessman who could. The VIP entrance. Even at a $1,000-per-plate event, there are levels of exclusivity.