Casey Bortnick

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USA Today Drops Columnist For Heated Twitter Exchange With WNY Political Operative

USA Today has dropped one of its political columnists after she authored a controversial social media post about a Western New York political operative’s children. The paper announced Friday Cheri Jacobus’ work would no longer be published following a heated Twitter exchange with former Trump campaign volunteer Michal Caputo.

The tweet, which still hasn’t been deleted, asked if Caputo’s daughters are ugly or whether they would be shared sexually at parties hosted by Jeffrey Epstein. Epstein, an associate of former President Bill Clinton, was a former financier and was found guilty ten years ago for soliciting sex from an underage girl.

Jacobus’ attack seemed to be the exclamation point on heated thread that included Caputo calling the columnist bitter, childless and alone. Jacobus, a boisterous critic of President Trump, referred to Caputo as a traitor and said he’d end up in jail for lying under oath.

“Cheri Jacobus is clearly mentally ill and she will hopefully get help,” Caputo said when reached by phone Friday evening.

In addition to testifying in front of a congressional committee, Caputo was deposed in May by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team.  Mueller was appointed to investigate alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 Presidential election. Caputo worked in Russia in the 1990’s for a media company later hired by Russian President Vladimir Putin.  

Caputo has repeatedly called the Russia collusion investigation bogus and has mounted a spirited defense which included an online fundraiser for his legal defense.  He’s also become a regular critic of the Mueller investigation on Fox News.  

Caputo’s ire isn’t limited to Jacobus, he also blamed Erie County’s Executive and the Chair of the Erie County Democratic Party.

“Mark Poloncarz and Jeremy Zellner are still paying WNYmedia to promote sexualized attacks on my family and they need to stop. Politics is a tough game but families have always been off limits. Unless Poloncarz and Zellner want that to change – for them too,” Caputo added.  

Zellner told WBEN radio Friday Caputo’s charges were baseless and didn’t warrant a response.


Reporting On A Rochester Icon

Covering the late Rep. Louise Slaughter was the most challenging and frustrating task I ever had as a journalist. Now, there are a lot of reasons for that, but the most prominent is because she was just too darn well liked.

As reporters, it’s our job to hold elected officials accountable. but during interviews with this particular politician, the phrase, “let me play devil’s advocate,” was pretty common.

It’s not unusual for politicians or their staffers to push back against a critical line of questioning or a story, but I quickly learned that criticizing Slaughter in Rochester was as sacrilegious as criticizing a Nick Tahou’s garbage plate. I mean, yeah, the plate is a little too spicy or a little too greasy for some, but keep your mouth shut if you don’t like it, because….well, it’s Rochester.

(I love garbage plates, by the way).

I came to Rochester in 2006 as a field reporter. I went to college not far from there, and since my brother lived in a nearby suburb, I already knew the city pretty well.  When asking the more seasoned members of the newsroom about the major players on the political scene, I quickly learned of the congresswoman simply known by members of the media as “Weezy.”

I heard stories of reporters who, when seeking a sound bite on a Bush Administration policy, were welcomed into Slaughter’s Fairport home and offered lemonade or cookies. It was common to hear colleagues tell me: “It’s like interviewing my grandma.” Needless to say, she was a local media favorite.

Not long after the Democrats took back control of the House, Slaughter’s feistiness and creative criticism of the GOP made her a national figure. As her star rose, the charming Democrat increasingly found herself in the middle of bitterly partisan fights.

The new chair of the House Rules Committee came under attack for proposing a constitutionally questionable procedural maneuver to pass the controversial Affordable Care Act in 2010, refused to hold town hall meetings during the height of the Tea Party movement, and compared Republicans to Nazis during a fight over abortion access in 2011.

While my bosses always encouraged me to cover these situations and to press the congresswoman and her staff, viewer comments on my voicemail and my political blog were always pro-Slaughter. It wasn’t uncommon to hear, “That’s not what she meant,” or “Her staff was behind that,” or my favorite, “That’s just how she talks, and I love that.”

To be fair, Slaughter never pretended to be a moderate. Her voting record and policies fell more in line with the left wing of the Democratic Party than the middle.  But despite the fact she was a proud liberal, she routinely enjoyed broad-based support from Republican voters

Slaughter’s Monroe County-based congressional district was redrawn a few times over the years as population shifted. At one point, she represented the infamous headphone-shaped district – aka the “earmuff” district – which ran from Rochester all the way west to Niagara Falls.

She may have had a slight Democratic voter enrollment edge in most races, but her margin of victory showed Republicans were crossing over and presumably voting against their core policy beliefs to support her. As someone relatively new to covering the news in Rochester, I found that baffling.

In 2012, Slaughter’s district was further redrawn within the borders of Monroe County. The county to this day has a Democratic Party enrollment edge, but is still controlled, in most cases, by elected Republicans.

That’s why when Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks decided to challenge Slaughter in 2012, conventional wisdom was that Republican voters, who overwhelmingly elected Brooks three times in a countywide race, would support her for Congress. It was seen by some as a changing of the guard and perhaps, after 26 years, time for Slaughter to step aside.

What ensued was the most contentious race I ever covered. There were months of negative campaign ads, bolstered by outside money on both sides. Slaughter’s campaign even took the unusual step of going after Brooks’ husband.

Slaughter’s team pulled out all the stops, even using an on-air clip of a story I put together about how the Democrats might try to attack Brooks. They used, what I felt at the time, was some questionable editing. I took it personally. But looking back, I’m not sure it was as big of a deal as I thought it was then.

Then it happened…an early October press conference that featured Slaughter in full dungeon, bringing fiery to a whole new level. Standing in front of the Genesee River, Slaughter angrily announced that Karl Rove’s Crossroads Super PAC was spending $1.4 million to take her out.

The Brooks campaign called the complaint hypocritical and the overall tone of the event “unhinged.” Since it seemed this Rove effort was in response to Slaughter’s colorful and highly publicized attacks on Republicans, I couldn’t help but think the voters might agree with Brooks.

I was wrong. Her constituents didn’t find her reaction hypocritical, they found it authentic. What her detractors called “unhinged,” everyone else saw as proof she still had fire in her belly.

Even as the polls leading up to election night showed Slaughter in the lead, conventional wisdom kept telling me Republican voters would vote the party line. I thought such a divisive campaign might take some bloom off the rose, so to speak.

Wrong again. While turnout among Democrat voters in the City of Rochester was high in the presidential year, it was Slaughter’s win in the Republican-dominated suburbs that was truly remarkable. A right-leaning county turned left for the 14th time.

At my first reporting job in Jamestown, Republican Rep. Jack Quinn told me something that really stuck with me. I’m paraphrasing here, but he basically said when the election is over, it really is about service. He said you represent people that voted for you and against you, and a lot of people who didn’t vote at all. Quinn was a Republican who ironically represented a left-leaning district.

Slaughter’s fingerprints may be on a few controversial pieces of legislation, but she brought home a lot funding for infrastructure, medical research, technology and programs for the poor. Her constituents didn’t always agree with her, but they felt like her heart was in the right place.

I mean we all have a family member or close friend we don’t always see eye to eye with, right? What’s important is do they believe what they’re saying? Are they authentic? Do they fight for what they believe is right? Twelve years of coverage later, when it comes to Louise Slaughter, I have to say the answer is yes.

now, as accolades pour in from all sides in memory of a southern transplant who transformed into one of Rochester’s most popular figures, Slaughter’s secret was simple: People just liked her.

Collins Predicts AHCA Will Pass

From the Morning Memo:

Despite infighting among House Republicans, Rep. Chris Collins said in an exclusive interview last night that believes the Affordable Care Act replacement bill will be passed today.

Collins said the Trump team reminded the House GOP conference behind closed doors last night on Capitol Hill that if the bill isn’t passed, the president would move on to tax reform. And if so-called “Obamacare” is left as is, the GOP will own it.

“Come 2018, you will see 50 percent increases in premiums,” said Collins, a longtime Trump ally. “There are several counties that don’t have a carrier right now for 2018, let alone 2019, and they may try to blame Obama and Pelosi. But we’re the governing body today, and all someone is going to know is that if they can’t get insurance next year is that it’s the Republicans who are in charge.”

Collins also defended his amendment that would shift the counties’ share of Medicaid to the state – a move designed to appeal to his fellow moderate upstate House members and would only apply to New York. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has described the idea as “radical conservative ideology in Washington” and tantamount to declaring war on his state

Collins, in turn, said Cuomo is “bullying” elected state officials and hospitals to issue public statements criticizing the idea.

“These guys react to this governor because he controls those purse strings,” the congressman said. “He has sharp elbows, who I’ve basically called a thug and an extortionist.”

After it became clear he didn’t have enough support to pass it, House Speaker Paul Ryan called off a vote on the AHCA yesterday that was scheduled to coincide with the seventh anniversary of the Affordable Health Care Act’s signing. All eyes will be on Washington today to see if a vote takes place, as the White House has insisted.

Duffy: Photonics Project Safe Despite SUNY Poly Mess


That’s the short version of the message former LG Bob Duffy sent to those in Rochester and Buffalo who are concerned about some of the negative attention alleged bid-rigging and corruption charges could have on two multi-million dollar local projects.

“I do understand the concern; I certainly understand the optics and perceptions,” said Duffy during a CapTon interview last night.

Now the CEO of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce and chairman of the American Institute for Manufacturing Photonics Leadership Council, Duffy finds himself in a familiar role of cheerleader-in-chief. Following the resignation of head of SUNY Polytechnic, Alain Kaloyeros, the administrator of the photonics investment in the wake of charges brought by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, Duffy urged calm.

“I think people should just stand by,” he said. “The criminal justice system for anything that pops up will run its course.”

Despite reports that one the companies set to make an investment may be rethinking its move to Rochester, Duffy insisted the project is full steam ahead with or without “Photonica.”

“I’m not sure how strong that deal was in the first place,” he said. “We certainly welcome Photonica to come, but they are not the foundation of the Photonics TAP facility in Rochester.”

The testing and packaging (TAP) facility is still on track to be built by summer 2017, and Duffy expressed confidence that corrective actions being taken by Empire State Development President Howard Zemsky will bring companies like Phontonica back into the fold.

“There may be some projects that were promised down the road that maybe were not well-funded,” Duffy said. “And I have confidence now that the governor’s team – and specifically Howard Zemsky, who is an accomplished private sector business leader, somebody that I have great respect for and great trust in – he’s evaluating all these contracts now to make sure the ones in place are funded, that they are appropriate, that there are no issues whatsoever.”

Duffy was on his way out the door when several Buffalo Billion related projects went out to bid. When asked specifically about Bharara’s allegations related to the awarding of contracts in the SolarCity project at Buffalo’s Riverbend, Duffy backed his former boss.

“I never at any time in my tenure saw, heard or felt anything inappropriate, illegal, anything having to do with corruption – and you know what? I have pretty good instincts,” the former LG insisted. “Quite frankly, I’ve never been involved in a scandal. I would’ve walked away in a heartbeat if that were the case. I never saw that.”

In the meantime, Duffy hopes skills that served him well during his decades in public life – his ability to read the room, and his personal skills – will buy the state and those in the private sector a little more time to work things out.

“Everybody just relax,” he said. “Have faith that the right things will be done. If things are appropriate, they’ll move on unimpeded without any question and if there are issues along the way, it gives the governor’s team a chance to step in and fix those and get back on track.”

Primary Wins Bolster Erie County Democratic Chairman’s Leadership

Just two years ago, things didn’t appear to be going all that well for Erie County’s Democratic Committee chairman. The committee was fresh off a series of primary challenges from a group of renegade Democrats that contributed to the party losing control of the county legislature to the GOP in 2013.

A year later, town of Amherst Council member Mark Manna challenged Zellner’s chairmanship, arguing large factions of the party were unhappy with his performance. With power brokers like Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and former Chairman Len Lenihan in his corner, Zellner fended off the challenge and was re-elected.

This September, his committee’s hand-picked candidates swept Tuesday’s primaries for District Attorney, State Assembly, and State Senate.

“This was no ordinary Democratic primary,” Zellner said. “It’s fair to say there was more at stake than usual.  As a party we have forces within us who represented the past and were determined to prevent us from moving forward with new voices and new promise for the future.”

In 2013, a Political Action Committee funded and influenced by former Erie County Democratic Party Chair and well-known political operative Steve Pigeon, contributed to the county legislature coup.  A probe into the practices of the PAC reportedly led to nine charges of bribery and extortion against him earlier this year.

Zellner and his committee linked Pigeon to two of the non-party endorsed candidates in Tuesday’s primary: Assembly candidate Kristy Mazurek, who was the treasurer of the PAC, and District Attorney candidate Michael Flaherty who hired some operatives with close ties to Pigeon.  They believe wins by DA Candidate John Flynn, Assembly Candidate Monica Wallace, and Senate hopeful Amber Small were a rejection of Pigeon and his brand of politics.

“If you want to win as a Democrat, you need to work with our team and we bring in people who are new, Amber Small, new candidate, Monica Wallace, new candidate. It’s not like we just recycle the old candidates,” said Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.  

Zellner’s supporters have long rebuked claims the party is divided, arguing there were only a small faction of subversives. Erie County GOP chair Nick Langworthy disagreed.

He said his counterparts have been fighting for decades but believes it is simply a function of the party’s size.  There are 150,000 more enrolled Democrats than Republicans in Erie County, a circumstance which creates its own set of challenges.

Typically when a party’s that big, there’s some regional division. There are some differences of opinion and there tend to be factions, said Erie County Republican Committee Chairman Nick Langworthy“I congratulate him, wish him well, not too well as we look to the general election but I’m sure it’s a great relief to him. A lot of hard work goes into that that the public doesn’t see.

In recent years, Zellner has seen former adversaries like state Senator Tim Kennedy and even the Governor reunite with his committee. He’s also long touted his close ties to Hillary Clinton, a connection that Zellner hopes will help his party-endorsed candidates in November.

No matter what happens November 8th, Zellner’s position as the leader of the party now seems more secure than it’s ever been.

It was a stark choice and the question was simple. Could we rise up and pull together as a party and deliver the strong leadership that this community needs and deserves?  We have shown this community exactly what kind of organization we are and what organization we want to be,” Zellner added.

Paladino Calls Paul Ryan And His Trump Endorsement ‘Irrelevant’

Despite his endorsement of Donald Trump on Thursday, a boisterous Trump supporter didn’t back off of his criticism of House Speaker Paul Ryan.  Just a day after blasting Ryan in an email, former GOP gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino didn’t seem impressed with the Wisconsin Republican’s change of heart.

“I said he’s a yellow-bellied coward in my memo,” Paladino said.

Ryan refused to endorse Trump even after his remaining GOP rivals exited the race.  He previously cited conservative principles as the reason for keeping Trump at arm’s length.

“For a man who didn’t show many conservative values when he took a bunch of RINO Republicans and joined the Democrats in voting in an omnibus spending bill for a trillion dollars that (President) Obama wanted,” said Paladino.

Paladino scoffed at establishment and conservative Republican opposition to his preferred candidate. He even defended Trump’s efforts to appeal to moderate and independent voters.

“If you’re way over to the right you’re not going to get elected,” Paladino said.

That statement is a bit of a departure from the Paladino we’ve come to expect. The Buffalo businessman described his 2010 gubernatorial campaign and his continued involvement in state politics as a continued effort to drag the state Republican party to the right.

“These days you have to be 100 percent conservative or we’re going to vote for the liberal?  What’s wrong with these people?” asked Paladino.

Ryan announced Thursday he would be voting for Trump.  He said a Trump presidency would aid the House majority in implementing its agenda.

Paladino called Ryan, and his “half-hearted” endorsement, irrelevant.

“Finally he comes out today and says he’s going to vote for him?  He didn’t want to give a full endorsement.  It’s like make up your mind buddy.  Obviously he’s not going to be a great statesman,” Paladino added

Nojay Facing GOP Primary

He was rated the most conservative member of the New York State Legislature by the State Conservative Party in a conservative Assembly district, but that ranking isn’t shielding Bill Nojay from a Republican Primary challenge.

Last week, Honeoye Falls Mayor Rick Milne announced he was seeking the 133rd Assembly seat through a social media post.

“It is my belief, that the residents of the 133rd Assembly District deserve representation that will actively serve all the communities within the district and strive to support all the communities in a positive way,” Milne wrote.

Milne was elected mayor in 2005 and noted he served as president of the New York State Conference of Mayors in 2015 in his announcement.

When reached by phone Tuesday night, Nojay touted his opposition to Governor Cuomo’s policies on gun control and the minimum wage, which earned him that conservative ranking.

“If he’s suggesting he’d vote differently then let’s talk about the issues,” Nojay said. “If he has a substantive problem with any vote I’ve taken I’d love to hear from him.”

This primary challenge came just days before the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reported he had consulted on Lovely Warren’s Democratic primary challenge of Rochester Mayor Tom Richards in 2013, a report Nojay described as old news.

“It was not at all a secret.  It was widely known in political circles in Rochester,” he said.

Nojay said he voiced his support for Warren on his radio talk show because there was no Republican in the race for Rochester mayor.  Nojay explained a mutual friend then got him involved with Warren.

“In 2013 the choice was between an incumbent Mayor who had no vision for the city and a young vibrant candidate.  (Assemblyman) David Gantt asked me to help out and I did,” said Nojay.

Despite follow up reports on his ethics filings, Nojay insisted he had nothing to hide and chalked up the examination of three-year-old information to this upcoming election cycle.

The 133rd Assembly district includes Livingston, and parts of Steuben and Monroe counties.  Nojay has already received the endorsement of the Livingston and Steuben Republican Parties.

The Monroe County GOP will hold its nominating convention Wednesday night.


Trump Supporter Floats Rice As VP; Says Support Of ‘Establishment Elite’ Not Needed

The first sitting congressman to endorse Donald Trump for president doesn’t presume to be in a position to give Trump advice, but as the Trump campaign starts to vet potential vice presidential candidates, Chris Collins said he’d add one name to the list if asked.

“I can tell you my first, second, and third choice is Condoleezza Rice. She’s a game changer,” Collins said.

Given Trump’s icy relationship with Rice’s former boss, George W. Bush, the Western New York Republican admits it’s unclear if the former Secretary of State would even consider teaming up with Trump.

“But if she did it, she would follow Mr. Trump and become the first female President of the United States,” said Collins.

Collins made the suggestion as the Trump team prepares for a much anticipated meeting with GOP congressional leaders Thursday in Washington. Collins is the co-chair of Trump’s House Leadership Committee and was called to House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office, Wednesday afternoon.

“What I shared with Mr. Ryan today is that Donald Trump listens. He is someone who seeks alternative positions. He is someone from the private sector, as I am, who wants to hear different points of view. He wants to hear lively debate. And he is someone generally in meetings who lets other people do the talking and you wouldn’t necessarily see that on the campaign trail when he’s at rallies,” Collins said.

Ryan and Trump will meet for the first time since the Speaker told CNN last week he was not ready to endorse the presumptive nominee. The comments caught Collins and other Trump supporters off guard.

“He’s (Ryan) agreed we’re going to be united and I said ‘well the sooner you can get comfortable enough to say that, very directly, the better, frankly.’ I’d be thrilled if it’s tomorrow but I guess I don’t necessarily expect it will be, but it will be over the next few weeks, I’m sure, and I’ll let the two of them work that out,” said Collins.

Trump has been under pressure from traditional and more conservative Republicans to not only embrace traditional GOP ideas, but to moderate his tone on the campaign trail. Collins doesn’t expect Trump to bow to that pressure.

“Mr. Trump has to be true to who he is, and I think we will continue to see and hear an outspoken individual but his top-line message hasn’t changed,” Collins said. “The George Bushes, one and two, the Mitt Romneys? He does not need them in his camp. In fact the more that they get aggravated the more Donald Trump’s popularity soars. We want a united party but if you’re talking about establishment Republicans I want them on board, but quite frankly, no, Donald Trump doesn’t need them on board to win this election.”

As far as choosing a VP, Collins will leave that to the Trump team, but he’s holding onto hope unification leads to Rice joining the ticket.

“She brings extraordinary respect and experience. And certainly being a woman she would assist with this ticket. She my kind of thinking outside the box kind of choice,” Collins added.

Paladino Not Celebrating Narrow School Board Re-Election

Former New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino appeared to win his second term on the Buffalo Public School Board on Tuesday night. Paladino went to bed with a 107 vote lead over 18-year-old high school senior Austin Harig. There are 140 absentee ballots yet to be counted.

While Paladino is likely to hold on to his seat, it appears he’ll return as a minority member – a prospect Paladino didn’t seem too optimistic about.

“What you’re going to see now is poor, uninformed, unable leadership drive this district further into an incompetent and in many cases corrupt mode that it has been falling into for a long time now,” Paladino said.

Paladino said his “narrow” victory over Harig felt hollow, claiming Harig was just suspended from school for tardiness.

“I don’t understand why a $1 billion institution would be relegated to the immaturity and absolutely ‘off the reservation’ ability of an 18-year-old kid. But that’s who they supported. And I narrowly beat him. Narrowly,” Paladino said.

The Erie County Board of Elections confirms the turnout was half of what it was three years ago when Paladino won convincingly. Two years later, Paladino backed candidates who helped win control of the board.

“The reform group was in the process of taking our schools to a better place,” Paladino said.

Paladino accused Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, the Democratic Party, the Buffalo Teachers Federation and the AFL-CIO of teaming up to “buy” the election.

“They knew how to buy it, Paladino said. “It was unfortunate that the people couldn’t see it coming because our press is so lacking. But today was a bad day for the City of Buffalo.”

The Buffalo businessman has devoted the past few months to the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Two Paladino-backed candidates failed to get their names on the ballot and lost write-in campaigns, including the current board’s president.

As Paladino continues to consider another run for governor in 2018, his commitment to the school board going forward seems uncertain.

“We’ll see how I feel tomorrow. Right now I don’t feel too good about what’s happened,” Paladino said. “At some point someone has to get a hold of this monster and do something about it. We tried.”

Western New York Congressman Says Potential Democrat Attacks on Trump Hypocritical

A day after Western New York Republican Chris Collins became the first sitting congressional representative to back Donald Trump for President, he took things a step further. During an appearance on CNN, Collins forcefully defended the GOP frontrunner.

When asked by Jake Tapper if past comments that some deem demeaning to women would be used against Trump by Democrats in the general election, Collins was quick to respond.

“I can tell you the republican response is ‘Anyone but Hillary.’ I don’t know that Hillary would even have the audacity to take Donald Trump on his stance with women, given her stance with Monica Lewinsky and her husband and all of the past misdeeds of Bill Clinton. She basically stood by her husband and all of his actions and in fact demonized the very victim of his actions. I don’t think Hillary Clinton would even then be as disingenuous to suggest she’s going to go after Bill,” Collins said.

The former Erie County Executive, a successful businessman himself, isn’t necessarily known to make biting partisan attacks. Collins response may signal Trump’s best argument to unify the GOP if he does win the primary.

“Again, anyone but Hillary,” Collins said.