Although the timing is unexpected, North Tonawanda Mayor Robert G. Ortt sees his candidacy for the State Senate as a natural progression in his career.
Ortt announced Tuesday that he will seek the Senate seat now held by Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, who surprised many on Sunday when he said he would not seek re-election after nearly two decades in office.
Ortt was just 30 years old and newly married when he first was elected to the mayor’s post in 2009, after holding the job as city clerk-treasurer for two years. A Republican who describes himself as “a common-sense conservative,” he said he thinks government works better as a cooperative process rather than a confrontational one.
“I’m not big on labels,” Ortt said. “I’ll be willing to work with anybody, whatever it takes to make the 62nd District a better place. I think that’s what people want to see – people working together to get things done.”
He already has a couple issues he would like to address, should he make it to Albany.
“One is the economic environment they create – the unfunded mandates, the unfunded costs that get put onto local governments,” he said. “For instance, the tax cap. While I supported the idea, I didn’t need someone from Albany to tell me to keep our taxes down. We were already doing it.”
Ortt campaigned for re-election last year partly on his success in cutting the size of city government, mostly through attrition, and for presenting a 2013 budget with no tax increases.
His second statewide objective, he said, would be to join the official opposition to the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement (SAFE) Act, the gun-control law passed by the State Legislature and signed into law in January 2013, a month after the mass killing of 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
“On Day One as a senator, I will add my name to the bill to repeal the SAFE Act,” Ortt said. “It doesn’t do anything to make citizens safer. All it does it take away law-abiding citizens’ rights.”
Ortt, 35, is a native of North Tonawanda, and although he previously was mentioned a possible opponent for Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger, D-Kenmore, he said the Senate seat would be a much better fit for him, and not just because Schimminger’s district is largely Democratic.
“This represents my entire hometown; this (Niagara County) district is where I’m from,” he said. “I live here, my parents live here, my grandparents live here. It is an opportunity I didn’t see coming, but it is more like representing home.”
Ortt has spent all his life in Western New York, with one significant year away. He is a graduate of St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute and Canisius College, and was a member of the National Guard until he was elected mayor. While in the Guard, he spent 2008 in Afghanistan, training members of the Afghan National Police in Kandahar.
Serving in the military helped define his pragmatic approach to politics, he said.
“We need to look at changing the culture in Albany. I know everyone says that everything is politics, but I think we should look at it as leadership and service,” Ortt said.
Along those lines, he has no trouble acknowledging that Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who considers Maziarz a political ally, has done positive things for Western New York.
“I certainly appreciate the renewed emphasis on upstate. Economically, there has been more money coming back here and more effort to boost our economy,” Ortt said. “We need to continue practices that are friendly to business and jobs – not necessarily big giveaways, but fair practices.”
On the other hand, he said, he found the governor’s ill-fated proposal earlier this year to fund college education for prison inmates to be ridiculous.
“To try to set aside money to give convicted felons an advantage over hardworking families who are struggling to put their kids through school is just a slap in the face,” he said.
Ortt’s “common-sense conservatism” gained the attention of local Republican leaders, and he is all but ensured of receiving the nod of the party’s committee on vacancies. He would be running in a district that, while majority Republican when Maziarz was first elected, is now leaning Democratic since the 2012 redistricting, which brought the City of Niagara Falls into the district.
Before November, Ortt will need to win a primary in September against Gia M. Arnold, of Holley, a political newcomer.
The Democratic nominee is Johnny G. Destino, of Niagara Falls, who was chosen before Maziarz revealed his decision not to seek re-election.
News Political Reporter Robert J. McCarthy and Albany Bureau Chief Tom Precious contributed to this report. email: firstname.lastname@example.org