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Ortt, Destino square off in Niagara Falls debate

NIAGARA FALLS – Republican Robert G. Ortt again tried to avoid talking about State Sen. George D. Maziarz during a Wednesday evening debate, much like he did the first time he and Democrat Johnny G. Destino squared off.

But this time, he was a little less successful at not mentioning the state senator he and Destino are trying to replace in the 62nd District. What made it more difficult was the moderator used the first question of the event to ask Ortt how he felt about Maziarz, who is not seeking re-election after 19 years in Albany.

Ortt, who in an Oct. 15 debate at Niagara County Community College resisted Destino’s attempts to tie him to the departing lawmaker, dismissed the notion that any Republican from North Tonawanda, characteristics he shares with Maziarz, “must be the spitting image of Sen. Maziarz.”

“Yes, I am a Republican, so philosophically we may have similar views on certain issues,” Ortt said, “but I am not running to be the king of Niagara County politics. I am running to be the state senator from this district.”

Ortt, mayor of North Tonawanda since 2010, did not attempt to tie Destino to prominent Democrats like Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and President Obama, like he did in the first debate.

In the 54-minute debate between the major-party candidates at the Niagara Falls Public Library, supporters of each candidate enthusiastically cheered their candidate’s answers.

The session was moderated by Niagara University assistant professor Corey Bower and sponsored by the Niagara Falls Block Club Council, the Rotary Club of Niagara Falls, the Kiwanis Club of Niagara Falls and the Niagara Falls chapter of the NAACP. It spanned topics from the potential differences in needs for urban and rural areas of the district and the SAFE Act to party allegiances and the state’s Common Core standards.

When asked where there are any laws that should be different in urban and rural areas, Destino, a Niagara Falls School Board member since 2010, said, “I’m not going to Albany to pass laws, per se. I’m going there to make sure the people of the 62nd District are represented and protected.”

Ortt, who also will appear on the Conservative and Independence lines in next week’s election, almost immediately differed on what he thinks the job would be if he is elected.

“First of all, as a state legislator, you do go to pass laws or to propose legislation, or in some cases to fight laws and oppose laws,” Ortt said.

The candidates also talked about campaign materials, including at least three pro-Ortt or anti-Destino mailers paid for by the New York Republican State Committee. One anti-Destino mailer linked him to a 2011 situation when he was running as a Republican for mayor of Niagara Falls and had some campaign signs paid for by contractor John J. Gross Jr. in an amount that exceeded donation limits. Gross, who has many supporters in the Falls, also has a criminal history and was awaiting a prison sentence for tax fraud around the time the issue arose. Gross was hailed by Falls Republicans before he was most recently incarcerated.

Ortt said the flier followed news reports of Destino, who had the tea party endorsement when he ran against Maziarz in the GOP primary for the 62nd District Senate seat two years ago, receiving financial support from Senate Democrats.

Destino, who repaid the amount that exceeded limits, called the flier part of “the sickening game” of local politics and, when asked what he thought prompted the flier, said, “it could be they don’t like the poll [results] they’re seeing.”

Paul E. Brown, who has the Working Families Party line in the race, did not attend Wednesday’s debate. Brown, considered to be a “fraudulent candidate” by local Democrats who say he entered the Working Families primary simply to keep Destino from winning the line, has acknowledged being friends with Ortt. Brown also did not attend the debate at NCCC.