The former Green Party candidate in a congressional race has been exposed as a Republican plant with ties to the GOP congressman he supposedly sought to challenge
Michael Zak petitioned to run under the Green Party ticket in New York’s 27th congressional district, a seat currently held by Rep. Chris Collins. Zak’s candidacy petition listed as the official contact person Ross Kostecky, a local Republican operative who interned on Collins’s 2009 campaign for Erie County, New York executive, The Daily Beast has found.
“Of course I know Ross Kostecky. I’ve known him for years. He’s a good Republican,” said Chris Grant, Collins’s campaign director. “As to why he did this, you’d have to ask him. Our campaign has absolutely nothing to do with [Michael Zak]. We don’t know this person.”
In 2016, Kostecky was an alternate delegate at the Republican National Convention, where he snapped a photo of Collins seconding the nomination of Donald Trump for president. Collins and Kostecky did not respond to requests for comment; Zak could not be reached for comment.
Grant, a longtime Collins aide who served as the lawmaker’s chief of staff until late 2015, was adamant that he, Collins, nor the campaign had anything to do with Zak’s candidacy.
“I can’t decide what’s more upsetting, the bias you have coming into this or the sheer lack of work you did before picking up the phone. Have you talked to Ross? Have you called him? Have you done that work? No? OK,” Grant told The Daily Beast last week.
Kostecky did not respond to calls to his home or office at the Erie County Legislature, where he works as a clerk. Zak rescinded his candidacy on April 16 after news of his connection to Kostecky prompted local reporters to show up at his doorstep.
The Green Party and Democrats say Kostecky’s involvement is a clear sign that Collins was behind Zak’s candidacy, which they say was nothing more than an obvious effort to siphon votes away from Collins’ Democratic opponent, Nate McMurray.
“I have a hard time believing that someone in [Collins’s] campaign wasn’t aware of this,” said Erie County Green Party chairman Eric Jones. “The local Republican leadership is aware of this; it’s part of their playbook.”
Jones and McMurray point to a since-removed Facebook profile they say belonged to Zak as evidence of his right-wing political beliefs. The profile contained a racist meme about Asians and a photo proclaiming March to be “Stop Blaming White People Month,” among other things.
“All them women marching for equal rights and my wife stayed home to make me a sandwich,” “Mike Zak” wrote on January 21.
Zak was simply a plant, Jones said, and a clever one at that: he shares a first and last name with an actual Erie County Green Party member who runs a Buffalo cooperative farm. That’s why so many Green Party members signed the petition to get the imposter Michael Zak on the ballot, Jones said.
“Republicans are hoping that when people go into the voting booth on election day, they’ll see the Green Party candidate and that will take away one or two percent of the vote from Democrats,” Jones said.
This isn’t the first time that Republicans have been caught “stealing” the Green Party line, Jones said.
In 2015, the chairman of the Erie County Republican Committee personally delivered to county election officials a petition to get 87-year-old Lynette Batt registered as the Green Party candidate for a seat in the county legislature, according to Jones.
Republicans were behind another fake Green Party candidate in 2016, when party operatives personally delivered a candidacy petition for a man named James DePasquale, who had recently registered as a Green Party member but who Jones said was a Republican plant.
The Green Party took the Erie County Board of Elections to court, but a judge ruled that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to determine that DePasquale didn’t support the Green Party platform, allowing him on the ballot for a state senate seat that his non-existent campaign lost in a predictable landslide.
Jones admits the lawsuit against the county elections board was a “hail mary.” Knowing Republicans did nothing illegal by having one of their own register as a Green Party member and petition to get on the ballot, Jones’ predecessor filed the lawsuit in an attempt to bring attention to the issue of “line-stealing” candidates, which he says is somewhat unique to Western New York.
“Just because something’s legal doesn’t mean it’s ethical,” he said. “It’s an obvious attempt to take advantage of voters going into the voting booth.”
Collins was elected in 2012 after narrowly defeating a Democrat. In his 2016 reelection he won nearly 70 percent of the vote (the same year Trump won almost 60 percent in the district). Nevertheless, he is being targeted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2018. Jones said the the Green Party stunt with Zak shows Collins thinks he’s vulnerable.
“I do think it’s a winnable race for the Democrats just because how much negativity you have toward Trump these days, even among a lot of Republicans,” Jones said. “And then you have Collins, who has all these scandals involving his finances.”
Those scandals include being accused last summer by the independent Office of Congressional Ethics of using his position as a lawmaker to help his pharmaceutical company. The OCE recommended that the House Ethics Committee launch their own investigation into the congressman, which has yet to formally begin.
Earlier this month, The Daily Beast reported that Collins has supported legislation that would have helped his company, Innate Immunotherapeutics. Two weeks ago, Collins told a local news station last week that, while it was “interesting” to watch the Zak/Green Party drama play out, he had nothing to do with the candidate.