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Ortt sees his military service as key ingredient for state role

This is the second of two articles on the State Senate race in the 62nd District.

By Thomas J. Prohaska

News Niagara Reporter

NORTH TONAWANDA – Robert G. Ortt has been mayor of North Tonawanda for five years, but he thinks his military record, including receiving the Bronze Star for service in Afghanistan in 2008, is what most qualifies him for the State Senate.

Ortt, 35, is the Republican nominee for the 62nd District seat being given up by the GOP’s George D. Maziarz, who has held it for 19 years. The district includes all of Niagara and Orleans counties and two towns in Monroe County.

Ortt’s Democratic opponent is Niagara Falls attorney and Board of Education member Johnny G. Destino.

Ortt said, “I think what people need most out of Albany right now, and in any level of government, is real leadership. That’s one of the things the voters have a choice of in this election, between a real leader, someone who’s led in combat, an executive in the City of North Tonawanda, or a career candidate.”

Destino ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Niagara Falls in 2011 and state senator in 2012, when he was a Republican and lost the GOP primary to Maziarz. He changed parties after that election.

In a 45-minute interview, Ortt talked about his experience as a first lieutenant in the Army National Guard, which he joined shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Before being deployed, Ortt, his unit’s executive officer, said he was responsible for making sure his outfit’s equipment was shipped to Afghanistan properly. “I was responsible to make sure my guys got the proper training,” he added.

In Afghanistan, his job was to train and mentor about 150 members of the Afghan National Police in and around Kandahar, the second-largest city in the country.

“That ranged anywhere from making sure they were being paid to having uniforms, ammunition, supplies, all way to going out on patrols with them,” Ortt said. “Afghan National Police aren’t like our police. They’re not dusting for fingerprints. The closest equivalent here would be a SWAT team. We were training them in small-unit light infantry tactics.”

The police were generally in a defensive posture, assigned to resist Taliban attacks, Ortt said. “They didn’t lack for courage, but they lacked a structure,” he said. “It was our job to turn them into a professional force that could stand up and provide security and legitimacy for their own country.”

Besides the Bronze Star, Ortt received the Combat Infantryman Badge, which is presented to anyone who has been in a firefight with enemy forces. He said he received the Bronze Star “as an end-of-tour award. It wasn’t for one specific instance. It was for my tour as a whole.”

He resigned from the National Guard after being elected mayor in November 2009. He had just been promoted to captain and had just gotten married. “I really felt I couldn’t do both the Guard and my responsibilities as mayor,” he said.

Ortt chose politics over a military career, and also had the option of a financial services career. He had obtained licenses in that field and in insurance after graduating from Canisius College, where his degree was in international relations and political science.

“Certainly there’s a level of sales in politics, selling ideas and selling your solutions, and that wasn’t unlike what I did a little bit as a financial adviser,” Ortt said.

Much of the money donated to Ortt’s campaign fund this year has come from large downstate contributors who were part of Maziarz’s donor base. In his role as chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, Maziarz was well situated to rake in money from big energy companies. Some of them have written checks to Ortt.

Ortt said that running for senator isn’t like running for mayor. “You need more money to get your message out,” he said. “It’s a broader district. My message is my message. That resonates with certain groups, just like with my opponent – there’s certain groups that want Democrats to control the Senate and there’s certain groups that want Republicans to control the Senate. Not being in Albany, I can only tell you that I’m going to vote my conscience, I’m going to vote my district. That may ultimately make some of the contributors happy. It may ultimately make some of the contributors unhappy, but it’s not going to influence how I vote.”

Ortt had to hit the ground running after Maziarz, who had filed nominating petitions for himself, suddenly pulled out of the race on the weekend of July 13-14. Ortt was chosen to replace him by a small committee of GOP leaders, although the full party committee later endorsed him.

Democrats, who hold the governorship and the Assembly, have been slowly but steadily chipping away at the GOP’s Senate majority in recent years. Now they believe this is the year they will take over the Senate, but Ortt doesn’t agree.

“I don’t think it’s a given, but I have to articulate what that really means for this district. The Democrats’ power base is New York City. If the Democrats control the Senate, more money is going to go to New York City and less money is going to come up here, period,” Ortt said.

He said the real division voters should be thinking about isn’t no much Republican versus Democrat as it is upstate versus downstate. “The Senate has acted, in my opinion, as the last firewall for upstate,” he said.

Ortt said that if Destino wins, he will find that out, even if he’s part of a Democratic majority. “It’s sort of ironic to think that my opponent would get more money up here. He’s going to get less,” Ortt contended.

He said one upstate-downstate issue that concerns him is the Farm Workers Fair Labor Practices Act, which already has passed the Assembly. It grants collective-bargaining rights to farm workers, institutes an 8-hour workday with overtime payments after that, makes farmworkers eligible for workers’ compensation, and requires farmers to give workers at least 24 consecutive hours of rest each week.

“It would basically unionize farms,” Ortt said. “I met with probably 25 farmers from Niagara and Orleans who said the day that bill becomes law is the day they put their farms up for sale. This bill is just another bill pushed by folks who maybe have never been to a farm, whether it’s from Brooklyn or wherever, that is going to hurt upstate jobs. It’s going to hurt upstate business, and, in particular, it’s going to hurt farms and agribusinesses in this district. Those are the things I’m going to be fighting against.”

Ortt acknowledged that the governor’s SAFE Act, the controversial gun-control law that he wants to see repealed, passed a Republican-led Senate. “You can only imagine what it would be if there were a Democratic Senate,” he said. “I intend to be a strong voice for upstate values and priorities.”

But if Ortt finds himself part of a Republican minority, he said, “I’m not afraid to work across the aisle to get things done for my district.” He said he would like to see more of that in regards to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s 10-part package of women’s equality bills. The GOP leaders in the Senate said they supported nine of the parts, but opposed a bill that they said would have expanded abortion rights. Cuomo wouldn’t budge, and none of the 10 became law.

Ortt said he “strongly supports” the other nine planks, including tougher equal-pay laws and laws to combat sexual harassment, domestic violence and human trafficking.

But he opposes abortion, except in cases of rape or incest, and said he wouldn’t vote for Cuomo’s abortion bill.

“I think it’s unfortunate that those issues, which everyone can agree on, are being held hostage in a partisan attempt to divide and score political points in an election season,” he said. “This is what I think voters are tired of. They want to see where you can find common ground and bring solutions about. We can get solutions here. We can bring them nine planks of women’s equality.”

Ortt said there’s much to dislike about the abortion bill, which he said “would allow abortion at almost any point in a pregnancy. Wherever your position is on abortion, I don’t think these are things that a lot of people in my district agree with. Having a nonlicensed physician perform an abortion, I think, is not good for women’s health,” he said. “I have very real reservations and opposition to that 10th plank.”

Ortt said he would have voted for the medical marijuana bill had he been in the Legislature, but does not support decriminalizing marijuana, as Destino does.

Also on the ballot is Paul E. Brown of North Tonawanda, representing the Working Families Party, but he has not campaigned actively and did not attend a debate Oct. 15 at Niagara County Community College.

Brown, president of the Buffalo Building and Construction Trades Council, which endorsed Ortt, is an acknowledged friend of the GOP candidate. Democrats say Brown’s only reason for pursuing a write-in effort in the Working Families primary was to keep Destino from winning that line.

Note: Democratic candidate Johnny G. Destino was profiled in last Sunday’s edition of Niagara Weekend. email: tprohaska@buffnews.com