Jim Heaney is editor of INVESTIGATIVE POST, a nonprofit investigative reporting center based in Buffalo.

kcOct20-Chris-Jacobs07

The sprawling district of NY 27 stretches north, south, and east of Buffalo, and into the Finger Lakes.

Chris Jacobs used to be a moderate Republican who Democrats could think about voting for.

No more, not if you go by his words.

The moderate Chris Jacobs made a deal with the devil in accepting the endorsement of Donald Trump during his successful special election campaign for Congress. There was clearly a quid pro quo: Trump endorses Jacobs, who, in turn, supports the president, no matter how outrageous his policies or behavior.

Jacobs underscored his fealty to Trump during an interview with me a couple of weeks after he took office representing the 27th Congressional District. His words were strikingly different than when I interviewed for a September 2012 WGRZ morning program. 

At the time, Jacobs declared himself a “moderate Republican” and lamented the polarization resulting from extremism from Republicans and Democrats alike. Mind you, this was during a presidential campaign when Mitt Romney headed the GOP ticket.

Fast-forward to 2020. The Republican party has taken an extreme turn to the right and Trump has divided the nation as it hasn’t been since, well, I’m not sure. Vietnam? Maybe the Civil War? But never was heard a discouraging word when I asked Jacobs about Trump.

The president’s handling of the pandemic? “I think he’s done very well.”

Trump’s response to anti-racism protests? “I think the president is doing his job in terms of trying to keep people safe.”

Climate change? “We’re on the right track.”

At times, he sounded like a Trump mini-me, albeit not as harsh. He criticized Governor Andrew Cuomo and Democratic mayors and called out the press no fewer than three times during our interview. “I think they have fallen down time and time again,” he told me of my profession.

Jacobs also echoed numerous right-wing talking points. For example, he said the Green New Deal would “undermine our economy and our way of life.” He was quick to refer to violence and looting when discussing anti-racism protests. And he defended the rights of those who protest against measures designed to thwart the spread of COVID-19, such as the wearing of masks. 

The closest Jacobs came to parting ways with the president was saying, “I’m not a big tweeter” and that he  doesn’t support separating immigrant families on the Mexican border, although he described the administration’s overall policies as “humane.”  

Jacobs insists he hasn’t changed. “I am a conservative,” he said. “If you look at my positions, they haven’t changed much.”

The positions he espoused in his previous elected positions (Buffalo Board of Education, Erie County Clerk, State Senate) involved local or state issues. But now, he says, “I’m in national office. I’m talking national issues.” Much of his focus is nevertheless on Western New York. 

His sprawling district north, south, and east of Buffalo, stretching into the Finger Lakes, is largely rural. Its economy is rooted in agriculture. He snared an assignment to the House’s Agriculture Committee and hired as his top aide the outgoing chief of staff of a retiring congressman from Michigan who has agricultural experience. Jacobs has also garnered a seat on the Budget Committee.

Jacobs said he’ll pay close attention to the revised free trade agreement with Canada, in part to ensure compliance by our northern neighbors. He mentioned the Great Lakes as another issue of concern.

Perhaps more than anything, Jacobs said, he wants to contribute to a revitalization of Western New York. “We need to get our region growing again, our population growing again,” he said.

The newly minted congressman anticipates a good working relationship with Brian Higgins, noting, “Brian and I have been friends for a long, long time.” In fact, Jacobs said he hopes to emulate his colleague’s focus on local issues, stating, “I want to be similar in that way.” 

But first, Jacobs needs to win the November 3 election against Nate McMurray, a Democrat who has come close twice in winning the seat, first against Chris Collins in 2018 and in June’s special election against Jacobs.

Then there is the matter of Trump’s potential re-election. The president trails in the polls. What if he loses? Do we get the old Chris Jacobs back? He responded by predicting a Trump victory and declaring: “No, you’ll get the same Chris Jacobs.”

The question is, who is the same Chris Jacobs? Is he the one whose words place him in the ranks of Trump’s enablers? Or the one who, in his first congressional vote of consequence, sided with House Democrats in supporting a bill to provide additional funds to the US Postal Service?

I’m inclined to think Jacobs swallowed hard and accepted Trump’s endorsement as a means to get himself elected to Congress. This is transactional politics, or, as I would put it, a deal with the devil. It’s understandable at one level, I suppose, but hardly principled or admirable.

A look at Jacobs’ voting record in the state Senate provides a window into his real conservative values. In 2019, the state Conservative Party scored Jacobs at eighty-four percent—meaning he voted the Conservative platform on twenty-one of twenty-five bills the party used to rate legislators. In 2018, Jacobs scored sixty-five percent, going thirteen for twenty, according to Conservative Party values. 

Last year, Jacobs strayed from the conservative line, for example, by supporting a ban on oil and gas drilling in the state’s coastal areas. In 2018, the party faulted him for supporting a bill that included Medicaid funding for abortions. Based on his voting record, Jacobs does not appear to be a strict Republican ideologue. But Trump has made many a reasonable politician tremble and capitulate. The question is whether Chris Jacobs is one of them.

Jim Heaney is editor of Investigative Post, a nonprofit investigative reporting center based in Buffalo.

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