When Robert G. Ortt ended his quest on Tuesday for the Republican nomination to succeed Chris Collins in Congress, his observations dwelled on realities.
The state senator from North Tonawanda recognized that Christopher L. Jacobs had wrapped up the GOP nomination for an April 28 special election, and that his Senate colleague would have plenty of money for what lies ahead.
He also noted his failure to win the Conservative Party nod, despite its Legislative Scorecard Award for his 100% support of conservative issues in the Senate.
“Even though in my heart I wanted to continue,” he said, “we have decided to withdraw and run for re-election to the Senate.”
But Ortt also leaves the race disenchanted with much of the process. He dismissed the Jan. 25 meeting in Wyoming County that nominated Jacobs as “secretive.” Jacobs’ connections among the party powers-that-be proved a “challenge,” he said, as was the money his competitor brought to the race.
“To go in there and think it was an open process and everyone had a fair chance – nobody believed that,” he said Tuesday.
The decision means he will not run in the GOP primary for the 27th Congressional District on June 23, which follows the April 28 special election featuring Jacobs vs. Democrat Nate McMurray. It now appears the primary lineup will include Jacobs, former Darien Town Justice Beth A. Parlato and Erie County Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw Jr.
Just a few weeks ago, Ortt appeared as a more than formidable contender. Army veteran of Afghanistan. Bronze Star winner. Former mayor of North Tonawanda. Impeccable conservative credentials for the deep red district.
But as he reflects, he sees the Jan. 25 meeting to select a special election candidate as too much to overcome. He arrived in Varysburg that day with backing from his home county of Niagara, as well as Orleans and Ontario. Jacobs, meanwhile, was supported by the district’s biggest county – Erie – and eventually won over smaller counties. Some cited Jacobs’ personal wealth and ability to finance the race as a key factor in his ultimate victory.
Ortt finished a close second in the voting, but all the party leaders stood behind state Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy to demonstrate support for Jacobs. On Tuesday, Ortt expressed his “obvious disappointment” in his loss to Jacobs, as well as the subsequent Conservative Party decision to nominate nobody for the special election and Parlato for the general.
He also noted that a degree of confusion surrounds the race because for the moment, Republicans and Conservatives are not united.
”If you pick someone who is not supported by the Conservatives, you’re asking for problems,” Ortt said. “Everything we talked about has come to fruition.
“If I had their endorsement I would be running in the primary,” he added. “There is no question it would have been a differentiating factor and I had a record certainly worthy of consideration.”
Parlato has “no record,” he said, and suspects she was nominated for the November general election because as an attorney, she can be removed from the general election ballot and substituted into a Supreme Court candidacy should Jacobs lose the special or primary elections.
The senator, who has campaigned for the seat ever since Collins was indicted on insider trading charges on Aug. 8, 2018, said he contended with “forces” not under his control. He noted that the county leaders had to deal with the situation handed them, but still felt too many forces were lined up for Jacobs.
He noted that Delaware North Cos. is run by members of the Jacobs family and for whom former Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, an informal Jacobs adviser, lobbies in Washington.
“And we always felt the state chairman certainly preferred Chris,” he said, referring to Langworthy.
He contrasted the “secretive” meeting without press notification with the open proceedings of the Conservative and Democratic parties. Democrats are set to officially nominate McMurray Thursday evening in Batavia.
“Obviously, there were aspects of that process we were not happy with,” Ortt said.
On Jan. 25, Mychajliw declared the selection ”compromised” because Langworthy’s wife – Erin K. Baker – was working as a Jacobs fundraiser. Ortt said Tuesday that Baker has the right to earn a living, but he was “not wild about” her husband’s presence in the Varysburg room in which the nomination was decided.
“My issue was that he was in the room. That certainly presented an optics issue and a potential conflict,” he said. “It just didn’t look good.
“I was always aware of that relationship,” he added of Baker’s role, “and the result was that it only re-enforces the conspiracy theory.”
Langworthy has maintained that he had no influence in the selection and merely facilitated the Varysburg meeting.
Ortt acknowledged that Reynolds had no direct input in the nomination process but could not overlook the influential former congressman’s “business connection to the family,” and that even any unofficial advisory capacity for Jacobs presented a “challenge.”
“That was always an obstacle to overcome,” he said.
Many observers thought Ortt’s candidacy was doomed from the start because he was indicted in 2017 by former Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman as part of political corruption probe in Niagara County. An Albany County judge eventually dismissed the charges, but they loomed as a possible campaign issue and Ortt tried to head them off with early January radio ads linking them to Albany politics.
“That was absolutely the right move. I have no regrets,” he said Tuesday. “In some ways, I was happy to do it.”
His latest filing with the Federal Elections Commission showed about $170,000 on hand, including $55,000 he loaned the campaign. He said Tuesday he hopes to determine a formula to pay back his donors, and will liquidate his federal campaign account.
He said he will hold off on endorsing anyone else for now, and that he’s “not going away.”
“I’m not losing my perspective,” he said of his withdrawal. “Life goes on and a lot of people face much more difficult decisions than this.”