If you're looking for someone with plenty of experience who still offers a fresh perspective on public service, Robert Ortt might be your man. He is a well-versed, sharp and kind person and hopes to be working in government for the long haul. And yesterday, his career took off.
On Tuesday I had the opportunity to sit down with Ortt very soon after he announced his candidacy for the New York State Senate. Despite the whirlwind of a day he was having, he came across as a relatable guy who wants to make a difference for his district in Albany.
The young mayor of North Tonawanda was born and raised in the city and graduated from Canisus College with a Bachelor of Arts in political science and a minor in international affairs. After school, Ortt managed investments and estate planning at Primera Financial Services. As interesting as that was, he said his adult life really started on September 11, 2001: The attack on America changed everything.
"I was just out of Canisus, a young guy, wasn't sure what I was going to do and a month later I had signed up for the Army National Guard," Ortt remembers. "I was commissioned an officer and ultimately went to Afghanistan in 2008."
Ortt served in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan from March to December of 2008, trying to stop the Taliban from offering safe haven to al Queda terrorist activities. For his Army service, Ortt was awarded the Bronze Star, the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Army Commendation Medal, and the Afghan Campaign Medal.
Even before he deployed overseas, Ortt worked in government as the Treasurer of North Tonawanda. Upon his return from combat, he was elected mayor of the city in 2009 and has held the title ever since.
As Mayor, Ortt has reduced the cost of government, rebuilt the city and restored pride to North Tonawanda. He saved the city $2.3 million by reducing the size of the government 16 percent, arranged five new union contracts that saved taxpayers money, and held off tax increases for the past two years. He also invested heavily in infrastructure with miles of repaired roadways and encouraged economic growth. To restore pride to his city, Ortt brought the Niagara River Rocks concert series to the area and initiated many veterans programs.
Being Mayor of his hometown has the job of a lifetime for Ortt. "It's been a great experience. It's led me to meet some really great people and get a better appreciation for my hometown," he said. "It doesn't even feel like a job."
But life for the 32-year old had changed drastically just a few hours before we sat down together. Now he is a candidate for New York State Senate in the wake of Senator Maziarz's abrupt retirement. He's in the eye of the storm - and apparently, he's loving it.
"Senator Maziarz was a tireless worker, very responsive to his constituents and brought an incredible work ethic. I certainly want to continue that," Ortt said, noting it will be hard to fill George Maziarz's shoes. "I intend to be accessible to my constituents, to know what's on their minds, and to do whatever I can to represent them in Albany."
Running for Senate is just another way for Ortt to serve. It would allow him to be a stronger voice for the region and bring much needed, service-oriented leadership to Albany. "It's an opportunity for me to give back to an area that has been so good to me. It's important for good people with experience and with credentials to step up and offer their services," he said.
To Albany, he will bring his belief in smaller government and treating people with respect.
"The best building block of society is the family and the home. I find that if the family and the home were stronger there wouldn't be a need sometimes for as much government involvement and government spending. I believe less is more," Ortt said.
"We all know there are issues facing our area, our state, our country and we need to engage in real honest to goodness conversation." Ortt said. "We need to be honest about the tough decisions and make those decisions. "
If elected, Ortt believes being a veteran will help him make difficult choices. He recalls his time in the service fondly and believes the values he learned in the military would be helpful in Albany.
"I think that service, someone who served the country, especially served their country in combat and wore a uniform and led other young Americans in combat, in harms way, that says a lot about that person," Ortt says. "My proudest job will always be leading young men and women in combat."
Ortt has many plans for Albany. He wants to separate politics from service and bring in values that are reflective of the district.. He's a fiscal hawk, and he'll focus on the budget He's also an advocate of term limits as a way to change Albany.
Of course, keeping the Maziarz seat in Republican hands will be vital to maintaining Republican control of the Senate. Even if Ortt wins, conventional wisdom says it's still likely the GOP will lose leadership. And Ortt is not disenchanted by the chance he'll serve in the minority.
"I don't care if you're Republican or Democrat, I'll work with anybody to get things done for my constituents," he says when asked about bipartisanship. "At the end of the day, the people of the district don't care who you're working with. They want to see you work together to get things accomplished."
And Ortt does have great plans for Albany: If elected Senator for the 66th district, he hopes to create better a economic environment and a better future for his district by bringing new jobs to the area. He envisions serving as a steward for how tax dollars are spent. But he does have one very specific task on his agenda for his first day.
"My first day in Albany, my first day as a state senator I am going to add my name to another list of Senators who want to repeal the SAFE Act," he said confidently. Governor Andrew Coumo's signature gun control legislation is unpopular in the district, even though party registration tilts Democrat.
With Gia Arnold pestering him in the primary and Democrat candidate Johnny Destino waiting for him in the general election, the road to the State Senate won't be easy for Rob Ortt. But political insiders say it's likely he will be adding his name to that list one day soon.