Ryan Whalen

Ryan Whalen is Capital Tonight's Western New York political reporter. He covers politics in Rochester, Buffalo and the Southern Tier. Ryan was a general assignment reporter for Time Warner Cable News Buffalo for nearly five years and worked in several other markets before joining the Cap Tonight team.

Posts by Ryan Whalen

Medaille President Sounds Off On ‘Free College’ Program

From the Memo:

Medaille College, a small private school in the city of Buffalo, said its enrollment numbers are actually up by roughly 10 percent this year, despite the state’s new “free tuition” program that some other higher education institutions worry will negatively affect their bottom lines.

“We think it has brought our enrollment up because students are looking at their choices and realizing that there’s more than just costs that goes into making the right college decision,” President Kenneth Macur said.

He added his college is educating students about the actual cost of going to a state school versus a private school, noting, for example, roughly 55 percent of students at private schools graduate in four years – considerably higher than at public schools, which contributes to a higher bill.

“You need to go to school six years at the state system to match that graduation rate, so the cost over six years of going to a private school is actually less than a SUNY school,” Macur said.

Macur also pointed out that there’s about $5.1 billion dollars in financial aid available to students who go to private colleges in New York.

“There’s a big misconception about tuition at privates because we publish the sticker price, which is pretty high compared to the sticker price of a state school,” he said. “But when you factor in discounts of 50-55-60 percent, the costs become closer and again the four-year cost of getting a degree becomes less,”

For those reasons, Macur said, students hoping to take advantage of the so-called “free tuition” program are taking an expensive gamble. With the state only having set aside $87 million dollars for the Excelsior Scholarships, he likened the program a lottery without very good odds.

“The Excelsior Scholarship itself is free tuition with a huge asterisks; it’s conditional,” Macur sid. “It’s unguaranteed and it’s really a bait-and-switch to the students of the state of New York.”

Medaille is one of a number of Western New York schools to reject the state’s Enhanced Tuition Awards program, which offers assistance to students at private universities and colleges only if the schools agree to match the state’s contribution.

Macur said that program is not particularly viable either, because it requires private donors to make additional contributions on top of that $5.1 billion.

In his opinion, the state had better options to make higher education more accessible and affordable, but ultimately went with what amounts to a “gimmick.”

“There could have been more consultation but really the consultation we did have was pretty crystal clear,” he said. “If the state wants to support access to higher education, they really should give it out in normal TAP (Tuition Assistance Program) benefits, expand the existing TAP program.”

Ultimately, Macur said, if New York wants to saddle students with less debt, it should be focusing on graduating them sooner and getting them into the workforce as quickly as possible.

Collins Says McConnell Secretive Health Care Tactic Is ‘Smart Politics’

From the Memo:

U.S. Senate Democrats may be protesting the behind-the-scenes effort of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to garner support for a new health care bill – an undertaking with which even some of McConnell’s own GOP members are none too pleased.

But the GOP leader has the support of Rep. Chris Collins. The WNY congressman said while some may want to see a more transparent process with open hearings, that’s not the reality McConnell faces.

“We can only lose two senators and like we did in the House, we almost didn’t get something out of the House,” Collins said. “I think there was a lesson learned there, so I actually would say politically, and to get this done it’s so important, Mitch McConnell’s doing the right thing even though some would disagree with me.”

McConnell is reportedly hoping for a vote on the yet-to-be-made-public legislation before the July 4 recess. He has pointed out Democrats will have an opportunity to propose amendments to the bill once it hits the floor, though they’ve so far been employing other, procedural tactics to slow the process.

Collins called McConnell’s approach “smart politics.”

“The fact is the opposition is just waiting to go, and the fact is the more information you put out and the sooner it goes out, the more likely the opposition is going out, and the less likely you’re going to get 50 votes in the Senate,” he said.

At a meeting yesterday with the Hamburg Chamber of Congress, the congressman said he also envisions a system that allows people to purchase insurance across state lines. That’s a platform President Donald Trump campaigned on, but was not realized in the House bill.

“That’s what we call this third bucket,” Collins said. “We repeal and replace where we can in accordance with the parliamentarian procedures on a budget reconciliation, which has to have a financial direct impact on the U.S. budget, which selling insurance across the state lines does not meet that. We’ve got the regulatory issue that Secretary Price of HHS can deal with and then there was going to be those other things.”

Collins believes there is enough bipartisan support for an open national market to get at least the 60 votes needed to pass the legislation outside of the budget reconciliation process.



Twain Impersonator/Congressional Candidate Launches Website

From the Memo:

Actor John Garman “J.G.” Hertzler has launched a campaign website in his bid to unseat Republican Rep. Tom Reed in NY-23.

Hertzler, best known as a Klingon in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine TV series, is recently launched his unlikely 2018 campaign.

It’s not the first time the actor has entered the political fray. In 2013, he ran on the Democratic ticket for Ulysses Town Board in Tompkins County and won.

On the new congressional website, Hertzler vows to fight for union and non-union workers, veterans, elderly, infirm, and poor.

“I will fight for you, the common man and woman of the 23rd…people of the 23rd who get up at 4AM to farm the land, the people who get up at 5AM to get their kids to school, I will fight for the kids to have a future that’s not filled with climate destruction and hate,” he wrote.

Hertzler’s campaign promises to be interesting, as he plans to run sometimes as himself and sometimes as Mark Twain. He said Twain was a hundred years ahead of his time in support of issues like women’s and civil rights.

“He was a futurist and a humanitarian. Its time for Mark Twain!” he wrote.

He also gave us an example of what the Twain campaign will look like on his website. He posted a video of what appears to be his campaign announcement as Twain on June 8 at the Savage Club in London, England.

In it he compared Reed to a snake. After the performance, and still in character he said he thought he could do a better job than “that fella who’s in there now.”

“Besides, politicians are like diapers. They need to be changed frequently and for the same reason,” Hertzler/Twain continued.

Reed has at least one other challenger in teachers union leader Rick Gallant – who so far is only running as himself.


Livingston County Conservatives Urge No-Vote On Alesi

The Livingston County Conservative Party is calling on members of the state Senate to reject their former colleague James Alesi’s nomination to the Public Service Commission. New York Daily News reporter Ken Lovett wrote Monday that the governor had pegged the Republican for the position, which pays 6-figures.

Alesi retired from the state Senate in 2013. County chairman Jason McGuire said he lacks the character and the qualifications needed for the job.

“Alesi does not have an education or professional background in any field at all related to what the PSC oversees,” Mcguire said. “What he does have is the governor’s most important qualification: loyalty to him.

Alesi was one of four Senate Republicans who voted for New York’s Marriage Equality Act in 2011. McGuire, a staunch opponent of gay marriage, said they betrayed their base.

In his release, McGuire did not mention the vote directly. He instead referenced a lawsuit the state Senator brought against a contractor after allegedly trespassing on a construction site and breaking his leg.

Alesi eventually dropped the suit.

“Alesi’s political career ended unceremoniously shortly after he sued the owners of a home in which he was illegally trespassing. His lack of character was a major reason that Republicans and Conservatives did not support him for re-election the following year,” McGuire said.

The Conservative leader said the governor knows he can control Alesi and Republicans would be doing themselves no favors by confirming the nomination.

Collins: Refusal To Do Town Halls Was Never About Safety

In the aftermath of last week’s shooting in Alexandria, Rep. Scott Perry, R-PA, canceled a town hall he had scheduled for Saturday. Other members of Congress have beefed up security at events.

Rep. Chris Collins, R-NY, doesn’t expect the open format to be very popular moving forward.

“They’re canceling town halls. That’s a crowd you probably can’t control. You’ll probably see very few town halls moving forward,” he said.

It’s not an issue the congressman from Western New York has to consider. Despite being widely criticized by his opponents for it, Collins has refused to host a town hall.

He has had sheriff’s deputies present at events over the last few days, including a veteran’s benefits fair Saturday and a luncheon with a local chamber of commerce on Monday.

“This is how I communicate, with chambers of commerce and schools and I did a business tour earlier today,” Collins said.

The Republican did express safety concerns after the shooting and has vowed to carry a firearm with him to events in his district. He said his decision to hold town halls though, was never about safety.

Rather, he said he doesn’t believe it’s an effective form of discourse.

“I don’t feel vindicated at all. Other members now, obviously, are concerned about the security,” he said. “That would be a forum you would certainly be concerned.”

Cuomo On Collins Carrying: ‘It Should Concern Everyone’

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-NY, insinuated political rival Rep. Chris Collins is full of you-know-what in calling for both sides to tone down the political rhetoric. Collins, earlier this week, told the governor’s brother, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, after some reflection, he was trying to change the direction of the national conversation, including the things he says.

Andrew Cuomo isn’t buying it.

“This from a person who uses all sorts of terrible names at me personally,” the governor told reporters in the Finger Lakes region on Friday.

Cuomo said Collins, one of the president’s top supporters, not only has contributed to the current political environment, he continues to. The governor criticized the decision and announcement by Collins that he would carry a firearm to public events moving forward.

“It should concern everyone,” Cuomo said. “No, the answer isn’t carry a gun. The answer is tone down your rhetoric and act like a leader, and bring people together, and stop fanning the flames of hate. That’s the answer. The answer is create an atmosphere where you don’t need a gun.”

Collins and Cuomo have most recently argued publicly about the congressman’s amendment which would move Medicaid costs from the county to the state.

“It’s sad that while most leaders are trying to leave behind incendiary rhetoric in a time of unity, Andrew Cuomo just can’t help himself. One can see everyday how much his caustic language and inflammatory attacks polarize the people of our state. We can disagree and still leave behind the derogatory name calling that the Governor continues to embrace,” Collins spokesperson Sarah Minkel said.


Reach Of WNY Elections Complaint Could Still Be Broadening

From the Morning Memo:

The elections complaints filed by Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant and two others in 2013 have already proven to have long legs. The complaints, alleging illegal coordination against the political committee WNY Progressive Caucus, started at the Erie County Board of Elections but eventually found their way to the New York State Attorney General’s office.

AG Eric Schneiderman has confirmed in the past, it was elections complaints that led to raids at the homes of political operatives Steve Pigeon, Steve Casey and Chris Grant in May 2015. Investigators have indicated the evidence collected from the search warrant spawned a number of different investigations.

So far, we can trace charges against at least five individuals and in four separate cases to the complaint, including:

Grant believes Thursday’s federal raids of three properties connected to operative Maurice Garner may also have a connection to her initial complaint.

“I’m not surprised that he’s been targeted because I fully expected when Steve Pigeon and Chris Grant got raided, I fully expected that Grassroots would be part of that,” she said.

Garner is the founder of Grassroots Inc., a well-known political organization in Buffalo, that’s helped promote and further the career of some of the city’s most prominent black leaders, including Mayor Byron Brown and Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes. Grant said she was a member of the organization in the mid-to-late nineties but distanced herself from the group because she didn’t feel she was getting the support she deserved.

“It was more of a dictatorship than a Democratic organization,” she said.

In 2013, Grant said it was a Grassroots member, Joyce Wilson-Nixon, who challenged her in a Democratic primary. She alleged coordination between Wilson-Nixon’s campaign and the WNY Progressive Caucus.

Grant has openly questioned why members of the political committee are the only ones charged thus far, while there’s been no news of investigations into the campaigns or the committee’s donors.

As for how closely Pigeon and Garner may be connected, it depends on who you ask. Several sources indicated they’ve at least fallen on the same side of things when it comes to candidates and elections.

Pigeon’s attorney Paul Cambria said Thursday’s raids weren’t the result of his client giving information in exchange for leniency. In fact, he said they are not talking with government officials about any kind of deal and are preparing to fight charges in court.


FBI Raids Connected To Prominent Buffalo Operative

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has confirmed it executed search warrants Thursday at three locations in the City of Buffalo. Multiple sources said prominent Buffalo political operative Maurice Garner has ties to all three spots.

Sources said the addresses – 64 Meech Street, 1325 Main Street and 339 Genesee Street – are the locations of Garner’s home, the headquarters for the Grassroots political club, and the home of the Urban Chamber of Commerce.

Garner founded Grassroots which helped further the political careers of Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown and Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, among others. He also did some work for contractor LPCiminelli which is currently the subject of major bid-rigging allegations.

FBI spokeswoman Maureen Dempsey said she could not confirm the subject of the investigation nor the nature of the search because the warrants are currently sealed.

Chris Collins On CNN: ‘I Did Lash Out’

Western New York Congressman and Trump surrogate Chris Collins said the tone he took during interviews shortly after an attack on his Republican colleagues. Collins, during an appearance on CNN’s New Day, told Chris Cuomo his emotions got the best of him.

“I think in that emotion, I did lash out and it would certainly appear that this individual, the anger was certainly tied into the rhetoric going on. So I did say what I said, that I was putting the blame on the Democrats doorstep and then after, you know, the emotion of that instance wore off, an hour or two later, I looked in the mirror and I said that’s not the right tone. I’m going to do what I can to help reverse this, the anger and the discourse,” he said.

During early interviews, Collins said he believed the shooting during a practice for a charity baseball game was politically motivated, but admitted Thursday to Cuomo, what triggered the attack is still not clear.

“I’m willing to admit that was wrong for me to say. That would actually be going in the wrong direction and I myself am going to try to tone down some of my rhetoric and I would invite my Democrat friends, and they are friends to do likewise.”

Collins did express the same sentiment in a statement Wednesday, after his initial interviews. He called on the electorate to take his advice, as well.

“I think also, some of us reacted to the threats that continue to come into our office, organized Die-Ins at our office and I hope some of that, especially the Die-Ins, that they just go away,” he said. “That’s just not appropriate.”

The congressman admitted the past six months has been very polarizing but said Republicans and Democrats did discuss moving forward more civilly, during a joint conference yesterday.

Rep. Collins Taking Steps To Ensure Safety

From the Memo:

For Western New York Congressman Chris Collins, R-NY-27, Wednesday’s attack on congressional Republicans, practicing for charity baseball game, was a wake-up call. Collins expressed his support for Majority Whip Steve Scalise who was shot at the hip, but at the same time noted things could’ve been even worse if he weren’t there.

As Whip, Scalise is one of three House Republicans who travels with a security detail. The two Capitol Police with him, who were also injured, stopped the attacker.

“Absent them being there, there would’ve been many deaths. It probably would’ve been the worst mass shooting in congressional history because our members were huddling in a dugout unprotected with their kids,” Collins said.

The congressman said he and his colleagues will no longer take their personal security for granted anymore. If a group of members plan on going off the capitol complex, he said they should request officers with them.

Collins said he will take similar precautions in his district. The Republican said when he has held large gatherings in the past he has already called the sheriff’s office for support but plans to do that for smaller events moving forward.

That’s not all. Collins said he is considering moving one of his satellite offices in Geneseo to the Livingston County Office building because he can’t reasonably secure the small storefront.

Finally, he made headlines Wednesday by saying he plans to carry a handgun with him in public. The congressman clarified that he has had a carry permit for decades but has been lax about having the firearm on his person.

“This certainly heightened my awareness and for my safety and for the safety of those around me,” he said. “I will make sure I am carrying where appropriate. I’m not going to be carrying a pistol in to a school or anything like that, but where appropriate, yea I absolutely will.”

Western New York Democrat Brian Higgins said if his colleagues feel unsafe, that’s their right, but he doesn’t feel the need to carry a weapon with him in public.

“We have great law enforcement resources both here in Washington and in Western New York. I feel very safe among the people I represent because I’m one of them,” he said.

Collins, one of the president’s biggest supporters, believes he could be a target though, because of the current political climate. He said he’s not alone and that several of his colleagues are signing up for pistol training and will be pursuing their concealed carry permit.