Eleven days before a racist gunman rampaged through a Buffalo supermarket on May 14, Rep. Chris Jacobs joined a group of Second Amendment advocates in rural West Falls to film an ad for his re-election campaign.
The hunters and gun rights backers he consistently supported as a Second Amendment champion volunteered their help that morning, and the Republican congressman from Orchard Park even sported a shotgun for a crew filming for television this fall.
The ad will never run.
After 10 Black Buffalonians were killed in the Jefferson Avenue Tops Markets, Jacobs began to see the world differently. According to many of those who know him best, as well as the congressman himself, the tragedy affected him in a profound way – enough for him to reject his past alliance with the National Rifle Association and its absolute rejection of gun control measures, and ultimately, to end his political career.
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Friends and associates say that to win a tough primary for Congress in 2020, Jacobs – a longtime moderate who began his public service career working for then-Housing Secretary Jack Kemp – assumed a new political persona in New York State’s most conservative congressional district: that of an acolyte of then-President Donald Trump. In return, he received a “complete and total endorsement” from the then-president that many believe guaranteed his election.
But following the killings at Tops and in a Texas elementary school, Jacobs announced on May 27 he would join House Democrats and seek a ban on assault weapons. The disclosure stunned all who knew him, prompting Republican and Conservative leaders to immediately demand his removal from the congressional race. Several sources close to him say the announcement amounted to “political suicide.”
A few days later, Jacobs withdrew his candidacy, again surprising those around him. Party chairmen were flabbergasted. So was his campaign manager, his immediate family, and even his wife – Martina – according to several sources. Yet some were recognizing a change in Jacobs, a desire to escape Washington’s bitter partisanship, and in the gun issue, maybe a “way out.”
“Why else would you do that unless deep down you are not happy with the situation?” asked Erie County Conservative Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo. “Was this his way out? Yes. I don’t think he was happy there.”
But that’s not how Jacobs sees it. In an interview, he said his departure was about one thing only: the breach between him and the many Second Amendment absolutists in the largely suburban and rural district he had planned to represent.
“After Tops, I really was struggling with this,” he said. “It just made me think about the issue of these military-grade firearms.”
Jacobs said he started asking people he respected, including from a local gun rights group known as 1791 Society, why semiautomatic rifles should be legal.
“They’re very knowledgeable, but when it came to that issue, it just seemed like a blind spot,” Jacobs said. “Their rationale seemed empty to me. It didn’t ring true to me.”
Not ‘conservative enough’
Jacobs, 55, has never needed a political job to survive. As the wealthy scion of the family that founded Delaware North Cos., he could have pursued his real estate development career without the partisanship now dominating Washington. Jack O’Donnell, a Democratic lobbyist and longtime friend, said Jacobs nevertheless deftly advanced through his local and state positions. As a Republican in a Democratic Senate district, O’Donnell noted, Jacobs not only succeeded but thrived.
“Chris built a powerful brand as a moderate, reasonable Republican,” he said, “and there’s not a lot of that in either party these days. He is a thoughtful politician, and I think Chris has really tried hard to get the right answers.”
But then the congressional candidate found himself in a GOP primary field chock-full of arch-conservatives. He began leaning to the right – and won Trump’s support in the process. Even so, Washington’s conservative funding groups like the Club for Growth not only passed on helping in 2020, but savaged him in the process.
Its 2020 ads painted him as a “never-Trumper” with “a history of supporting liberal policies” – even though an independent PolitiFact analysis labeled the claims “false.”
Lorigo and his Conservatives backed attorney Beth A. Parlato in 2020, deeming Jacobs not “conservative enough.”
“As much as I like him, he wasn’t cut out for that district – the reddest in New York State,” Lorigo says now. “I had to go with Beth, though Chris was able to overcome it because of Trump.”
A West Falls production
Frank J. Panasuk, president of the 1791 Society, recalls recording the pro-gun ad for Jacobs just a few days before the Tops shooting. The congressman requested the gun group’s help, he said, resulting in their West Falls meeting for a campaign event that loomed as important to Jacobs.
“It was quite the production. We were there for hours,” Panasuk said, listing a camera crew, lighting people and a makeup person all assisting in the effort.
To hear Jacobs tell it, that video shoot was a reflection of his thinking on the gun issue at the time.
“I view myself as a Second Amendment supporter,” he said. “In the rural communities that I represented the last couple years, hunting is very much part of their culture: fathers taking their sons and teaching them about hunting and conservation as their fathers did for them. Conservation clubs and gun clubs are part of the social fabric there. So you know, that was the kind of line of that ad.”
Panasuk said Jacobs supported gun rights ever since issuing pistol permits as county clerk, and it seemed natural to return the favor. But in only a matter of days, Panasuk and other gun enthusiasts could barely fathom the news that Jacobs would now join Democratic efforts to ban assault weapons.
“He always consulted with us; asked us for help,” he said. “But then he turned around and stabbed us in the back.”
‘Is nowhere safe for us?’
But to Jacobs, calling for an assault weapons ban was all about standing up for his friends in Buffalo, his family and law enforcement.
“What happened in Buffalo profoundly affected me,” he said. “It was profound in terms of friends, mostly colleagues from the school board and how they were suffering because of those that they knew that had been lost. And there was a real sense of: ‘Is nowhere safe for us, you know, that can’t go to the supermarket?’ “
Then, just days after the Buffalo shooting, 19 fourth-graders and two teachers were slaughtered in a Uvalde, Texas, classroom, prompting Jacobs to think of his own two young daughters.
Around the same time, Jacobs had a conversation with a police officer that helped seal his decision that semiautomatic weapons don’t belong on the streets. That officer said that even though the officers that responded to the Tops shooting were wearing body armor, the shooter’s high-power rifle, with a high-capacity magazine, could have done grave damage to them if he had decided to keep shooting instead of surrendering.
“You know, that just floored me,” Jacobs said.
With all of that in mind, Jacobs announced his newfound stance on gun control after a May 27 news conference with the pro-gun Republican candidate for governor of New York, Rep. Lee Zeldin. Jacobs said in the interview that he didn’t tell anyone about his decision: not his political advisers, not his staff, not even his wife.
“I’m a person that certainly on the whole loves to get as many opinions on things, but there’s some times, I think, that you just have to digest things individually and come to your conclusion without external noise,” he said.
According to his online diary, Payton Gendron and Cory Clark – the customer service lead for the Iowa-based body armor manufacturer RMA Armament – interacted over a period of months on both the public social media site Reddit and in a private chatroom for hardcore weapons enthusiasts.
‘He needed to vote his conscience’
Some of the congressman’s closest friends and advisers now acknowledge that Jacobs faced no other option but to exit from this year’s race. He faced no intraparty opposition before his decision, they note, but any attempt to defend his new position was guaranteed to fail.
Former Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, knows the congressional turf to which Jacobs planned to move from his own days representing much of the area in the Assembly. Few other issues, he says, surpass gun rights in importance.
“Second Amendment rights are like a sacred part of life in these communities – you’re almost born with it,” the Springville native said. “I’m a Second Amendment guy; it’s part of my being.”
Long a mentor to Jacobs, Reynolds said he witnessed his protege drift rightward in Congress, more than when Jacobs represented much of the City of Buffalo in the State Senate. It all changed on May 27.
“I believe he came to the conclusion he needed to vote his conscience on certain aspects of gun control,” he said. “And as someone from Buffalo and Orchard Park, he knew some of those people senselessly murdered at Tops.”
More political reality entered the calculus. Jacobs was looking to assume the bulk of retiring Rep. Tom Reed’s district in the Southern Tier. Now he faced the daunting task of explaining his newfound conscience in a district where gun rights are sacrosanct – and where Jacobs is virtually unknown.
“Chris Jacobs had people forming an opinion of him before they actually had a chance to form an opinion of him,” Reynolds said.
Jacobs, too, knew it would be an ugly battle for him to try to keep his seat in a district so vehemently pro-gun.
“I probably could have made it through, but it would have been an incredibly divisive campaign with a lot outside money,” he said. “And you know, I just didn’t think that was good for a productive dialogue on this issue.”
‘We would have organized’
Anthony H. Gioia, the veteran Republican fundraiser, former ambassador to Malta, and longtime Jacobs family friend, calls the gun issue “the unfortunate blind spot for so many Republicans at a time when the country faces so many serious, serious problems.”
Did the move offer a “way out?”
“I don’t know if that’s true,” Gioia said. “I assume he thought he had a right to say that without being drummed out of the party. He’s a very moral guy who wanted to do the right thing for the right reasons, and to lose that kind of voice in Congress is a real shame.”
Other Republicans lament Jacob’s exit from the House after only one term. They praise his quick grasp of agricultural issues, his adherence to other core GOP principles and his past defense of Trump. But not even his staunchest supporters believe he could survive the vote to ban assault weapons.
“We would have organized,” said Panasuk of the 1791 Society. “If gun owners tolerated what he said and did, what’s the sense of standing for the Second Amendment?”
Others say Jacobs could still survive politically, maybe in an executive post like county executive, but never in a body that requires more votes on guns.
“There is no question in my mind he is an honorable person,” said Lorigo, the Conservative chairman, adding he told Jacobs he could support him for county executive next year.
“I told him: I would have no problem endorsing you for county executive. I think you would be perfect for it,” Lorigo said. “That’s how we left it.”
Back to Buffalo and the private sector
O’Donnell, the Democratic lobbyist and Jacobs friend, believes Jacobs will continue in some capacity of public service.
“I think he feels called to serve and that he’s part of the community,” he said. “Exactly what that looks like and when it is, I don’t know.”
For now, though, Jacobs plans to return to his real estate development company. He and his family will move back to Buffalo, to the house they never sold, where his daughters will be nearer to their grandmother and the rest of their family.
Will he ever run for office again?
“I never say never, but right now I’m kind of excited to go to the private sector,” he said.
And he does so thinking still of Kemp, who represented a different kind of Republican Party at a different time: one where leaders pushed first and foremost for broadening economic opportunity, while leaving a little leeway for members to chart their own path on other issues.
“I would have loved to continue to serve for a while more, and again, it was an honor to serve in the district Jack Kemp served,” Jacobs said. “But I also hope that the likes of Jack Kemp would be proud that I took a stand on a major issue of our time, and that is that we need to get more measured in terms of our Second Amendment rights, balancing that with safety.”