Republicans Chris Collins and David Bellavia will face off in the June primary.
BUFFALO, N.Y. - In one of the most watched local races for Congress, accusations were flying this weekend over the future of the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.
Former Army Staff Sergeant David Bellavia is accusing his Republican primary-election opponent, Former Erie County Executive Chris Collins, of actually wanting to close the base if it's inefficient.
While it's not unusual for a candidate to take liberties with comments made by their opponent, this was such a strong accusation regarding such an important issue to this region that we had to put this one to the Truth Test. Based on all of the information we reviewed, Bellavia's characterization of Collins's position is false and does not pass the Truth Test.
Bellavia's accusation stems from a public appearance Saturday by Collins, who was speaking to a group of more than 100 Erie County Republicans. Based on accounts from multiple witnesses, a person in the audience asked Collins whether the local military base, as well as the V.A. Medical Center in Batavia, will stay open.
Collins, according to multiple witnesses, gave a general answer about the need for government facilities to be run efficiently. Within minutes, Bellavia, who was not at the event, sent out a press release. It reads, in part:
"Conservative Republican candidate for Congress David Bellavia today criticized his Republican Primary opponent's plan to close Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station if the vital air base did not prove to be efficient - a plan former County Executive Chris Collins unveiled today at the monthly Erie County Republican Roundtable.
"Collins also revealed his intention to close the Batavia Veterans Administration Medical Center if the facility did not live up to his measure of efficiency."
Sunday, we spoke to someone in the audience who supports neither candidate.
"We were shocked because nobody heard that," said Amherst Republican Mary Beth Rice, who attended the event. "It was totally misrepresented and (Bellavia) mischaracterized the whole subject matter."
We also spoke to Bellavia, who refused to take back his accusations.
REPORTER: How can you accuse him of having a plan to do this, if he never actually said that?
BELLAVIA: I stand by my statement. Mr. Collins made it crystal clear yesterday that his idea of an inefficient military and V-A operations will not get his support. People in the audience got that impression, and those backing Mr. Collins said otherwise.
REPORTER: Do you really feel that that's an honest attack, considering he never said that?
BELLAVIA: I stand by my statement. I think this is a great example of why we need eight debates in eight counties. It will give Mr. Collins a chance to clarify his murky position on the issues... If Mr. Collins is angry at how people interpreted some of his comments, he needs to be more careful about what he says. And if he thinks I'm tough on him, what if Representative [Kathy] Hochul gets ahold of him?
Both Republican candidates are fighting for the right to take on Democrat Kathy Hochul in 27th Congressional District in November.
The person who asked Collins about the base and V.A. Hospital said, in a statement released through the Bellavia campaign, that Collins's words gave her the impression he would close the facilities.
Collins said he made no such comments, and added that the best way to keep a military base or a V.A. hospital off the closure list is to show the administrators making the closure decision that the facility is efficiently run.
"What I also said is the best defense is a strong offense," Collins said. "And what we need to show is that we are a model of best practices in all of these facilities, and that I would certainly work with the administrators, much like we did in Erie County. The best way to make sure they're never closed is don't even get them on the list."
REPORTER: If the airbase is not an efficient facility, and government may not need it, should it stay open anyway?
COLLINS: That is such a critical portion of of the employment base in Niagara County, [so] we absolutely need to keep that open. We need to expand what we have. Western New York has suffered like no other region in the country. And again, I would be an advocate to make sure that we would have the funding brought back into our area to make sure that we not only maintain facilities, there is no reason we shouldn't be growing our facilities in that 27th Congressional district.