Election Day is fast approaching, and it is with that in mind that we asked the two major party candidates competing to replace retiring Republican State Sen. George Maziarz in the 62ndState Senate District to answer a number of questions about what they stand for and how they will represent our interests in Albany.
The seat opened up after Maziarz announced in July--with no hint prior to then-- that he had lost his passion for the job as word began to leak out that the U. S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York was investigating his campaign spending stemming from the findings of the now defunct Moreland Commission on Public Corruption.
Within days, Republicans tapped North Tonawanda Mayor Robert Ortt as their candidate against the endorsed Democrat, Niagara Falls attorney and school board member Johnny Destino. Ortt won a GOP primary against Gia Arnold, then of Holley in Orleans County, and the Ortt-Destino race began in earnest. Arnold endorsed Destino shortly after losing the primary to Ortt.
In the interest of fairness, the Reporter asked both Ortt and Destino to respond a series of questions to try and help enlighten our readers on their agenda.
1. Why Are You Running For State Senate?
Robert Ortt: Being the mayor of North Tonawanda for the past five years you get a sense for the impact that state government has on local government, local property taxpayers, small businesses, the school district, and you understand the bad and the good.
With Sen. (George) Maziarz's decision to retire, one that was made rather suddenly, I saw a void, a need for leadership. We had certainly a leader in Sen. Maziarz. I think it is important that we had someone who can go to Albany and represent this district and fight for small businesses, fight for constitutional freedoms, and fight for the values and the interests that are important for Niagara, Orleans and Monroe counties, against the downstate interest, the New York City liberal interests.
For me, this is just a continuation of what my adult life has been about: Service to country, community, stepping up, being a leader.
Johnny Destino: I am running for NYS Senate to represent the people of the 62nd district honestly and fairly, putting our interests first, rather than the NYC special interest groups that have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to my opponents. I am the only candidate with private-sector management experience and, as an attorney and member of the Board of Education of the largest school system in the district, I am day-one ready to lead us in Albany. We can’t keep electing career politicians with no real-world business experience and expect things to change. It’s time to elect a professional with a resume of success who will stand up for the people.
2. Do you see a fundamental division between the downstate NY liberal interests and the people of Niagara Orleans and Monroe?
Destino: There are obvious regional differences between downstate and upstate, chief among them being the importance of our rural agricultural economy. That being said, we need to start electing public servants who are going to fight to protect our interests – not sell us out for large donations from corporations and NYC special interest groups. Within our district in particular, I wouldn’t say there is a fundamental division between our rural and urban population centers – we all want the same thing: access to quality education, investments in improving our aging infrastructure, and lowering our energy costs. I will say that our rural communities are suffering the inequity of not having access to high-speed internet and natural gas hookups. I am going to push for the expansion of our fiber-optic networks into these underserved communities and will fight against the types of mega-mergers like Comcast and Time Warner if they don’t commit to helping extend their networks into these areas.
Ortt: They are significantly different. For example, you have the SAFE Act. Drive over all of Western New York and you will see "Repeal the SAFE Act" signs dotted over all of Western New York. I don't believe those signs just belong to conservatives and Republicans, there's a lot of Democrats who are hunters, that are pro-Second Amendment. It is a way of life up here whereas there seems to be a lot of support for the SAFE Act in the New York City region.
Or look at the Fair Farm Workers act. It has been blocked by the Republican Senate. This bill would bring a 40-hour work week to farms. That means family members too, anybody working on the farm. Anything beyond 40 hours would require overtime.
It would basically unionize small farms.
This district, as you know, has a lot of small, family farms. It's a huge part of the community. Now you have a bill introduced by, clearly, someone who has never set foot on a farm. I know people who work on farms and they do not work a 40 hour week. They're getting up before it light outside and going to bed after it's dark outside.
I just recently met with about 20 farmers and several of them told me, if this bill passes, on that day, they will put up a for sale sign on their property. These are not corporate farms. They are small family farms.
Down in New York City, it is a different economy and there is just different interests.
I'm not here to demonize those interests. There's senators downstate who represent their constituent's interest. But we need strong voice up here to say 'wait a second this bill is not a good bill because it is going to hurt our small farmers, hurt our family-owned farms, and our agri-business and chase more jobs out of Western New York." This is a bill I would actively oppose.
Those are two clear examples: the SAFE Act and the farm bill that don't fit with the economy or the values of the folks up here.
3. Do you support or oppose the GENDA Bill which, while it may have some fine notions, would create unisex bathrooms.
Ortt: I oppose. The Democratic party, the further you get downstate, it becomes far more liberal. The New York City Democrats are far more liberal. If you have all three branches owned by the Democratic party, you are going to see that there are not going to be any checks on the more liberal branch of the party.
There isn't anybody here that says to me, 'the biggest issue we have is unisex bathrooms.'
We need to focus on what will help grow jobs and repealing regulations that will help small businesses to grow, to protect small farms and our constitutional freedoms, to stop unfunded mandates, that's what I hear about.
We need someone in the senate who understand these issues and that which is coming out of New York City is not a priority, or does not reflect the values of this community.
Destino: As with any legislation seeking to address and remedy instances of discrimination, we need to find the right balance that protects and respects both the rights of the majority and minority groups. I am not in favor of mandating the use of unisex bathrooms, for instance, since cis-gender men and women alike could reasonably be against having to share these facilities with members of the opposite sex for wholly non-discriminatory reasons.
4. Do you agree or disagree: It is less government's job to grow jobs than it is government's job to get out of the way of people growing their own jobs.
Destino: Government’s do not create jobs, but our elected officials have the ability to create the conditions in which the private-sector entrepreneurs are looking for before they make their investments. We are seeing that today in Buffalo where the government, recognizing the high-cost of doing business in NYS are offering incentives to offset those costs and spurring private-investment in the region.
Ortt: No elected official ever created a job that was not on the government payroll. What government can do is allow an environment that can create jobs, an environment that is pro growth, pro-development, where entrepreneurs and developers can create jobs. In New York State's case, it means getting out of the way.
Sometimes government can be proactive, whether it is putting in place tax credits or certain incentives that can help grow business, but in New York State, we give out gobs of public money to get companies to come here. You can’t say you have a healthy economy until you have private investment coming in without handouts. In the end, if the money being pumped into a project is mostly government money, you really haven't turned the corner. You need to create an environment that incentives people to take risks. New York state does the opposite.
New York's government is very often in the way of job creation and I think we have to have someone to go to Albany who understands that, and works to get government out of the way as best they can.
5. What is your take on the Buffalo Billion?
Ortt: I appreciate the governor's focus on upstate as far as economic development goes. I do think some of it is political. At the end of the day, you are not really turning the corner when you have government pick the winners and losers and hand out money. At some point the private sector has to be putting their own money into it. Government or the governor should not be in the position of picking winners and losers and deciding what companies and industries come here. That should be a local decision.
For example, the governor created this Start-UP NY, where a company doesn't pay taxes for 10 years.
That sounds great for the company that comes in and hires 150 people, but the problem is, what about all the companies that were paying taxes for years and years and there's not break for them? And what's worse, they're actually paying the taxes or shouldering the burden of those who are not paying taxes.
What I would like to see is something more comprehensive, create a long term environment regardless of who the governor is, regardless of who is in the legislature. You can find other states that are growing. You don't have to reinvent the wheel. Our folks have been moving there. Whether it is the Carolinas, Kentucky, Texas or Tennessee, these states are drawing our residents.
What are they doing that we are not doing?
I would not have had the Buffalo billion. I would like comprehensive tax cuts, regulation reform, and streamlining regulations to allow businesses to operate here. You could have some incentives. I like tax credits rather than handouts.
Destino: I fully support the Buffalo Billion initiative and applaud Gov. Cuomo for finally turning NYS’ attention toward Western New York. I know that Kathy Hochul is going to be a strong partner and ally of mine in Albany. We are going to make sure that Niagara and Orleans Counties get the same attention Buffalo has. Remember, this is our money we are getting back and I will fight to make sure we get every penny.
The problem with the Republican ideology is that their only solution to fixing the problem they created by shipping our manufacturing jobs overseas is to further cut jobs and services. They’re succeeding in destroying the middle class and are now railing against the unions who are the only ones left fighting to maintain a decent quality of life for all Americans. We need a new economic nationalism, a fight to end the failed free-trade agreements that disproportionately hurt our working men and women. It’s getting clearer every day the only ones benefitting from all of this are the hedge-fund vulture capitalists and the career politicians who take their donations.
6. Are New York taxes too high or are we getting so many great services that it is worth it?
Destino: Taxes are too high. However the problem is that there are too few taxpayers left to shoulder the increasingly heavy burden. We know that the massive population loss over the past two decades has contributed to this and the solution is to help create the jobs necessary to start re-patriating the New Yorkers who’ve left for jobs elsewhere. I am a prime example of someone who left New York State after college and jumped at the first opportunity to move back home when a good job became available.
Ortt: New York State taxes are too high. New York State taxes are prohibitive. New York State taxes are the reason people leave New York. Do I have 100 programs that I can cut or change? No, I am not a senator right now. But, do I feel that taxes are too high and is that a priority of mine? Yes. If you want proof, look at my record as mayor for the past four years. We have passed four straight budgets with no tax increases. I cut spending in North Tonawanda. We consolidated departments, reduced the workforce. I think I have a pretty good record at a local level of being committed to keeping taxes down, keeping costs down and making the tough decisions to do that.
7. What are the chances of the Republicans keeping control of Senate and the ramifications of losing control both statewide and locally in this district?
Destino: Republican control of the senate has proved to be a disaster for Western New York. Remember, for 12 years during Gov. Pataki’s governorship, he had a Republican majority in the senate. They’ve proven time and time again that their true constituents are the big-moneyed corporate special interests and not those of the people of their districts. During the internet boom of the nineties, WNY’s economy was stagnant. Do we want more of the same? I am looking at the success in Buffalo today as a result of the cooperation between local and state officials and want to emulate that for the 62nd district. I am going to put our interests first – not NYC. Just look at the record of failure we’ve had for past 20 years and ask yourself if you want that to continue?
Ortt: I think Republicans are in a good position to have an outright majority. There are seats across the state that Republicans can pick up. A Republican senate is good for New York and certainly upstate. At the end of the day, the Democratic power base is clearly downstate. I think it is very important that we have a two party government. A Republican senate is a check on downstate liberal Democrats.
8. What are your thoughts on Sen. Maziarz?
Ortt: Senator Maziarz worked incredibly hard. He was tireless and that included his accessibility. Part of working hard for your constituents means you are out with your constituents. Certainly no one can take that away from him. That is something I would emulate. As a mayor, that’s what I know. When you're a mayor of a city of 31,000, you go to the grocery store and see your constituents. You go out to dinner in a city like North Tonawanda and everybody knows each other. You learn to enjoy that, to embrace that, and it becomes part of the job. I would absolutely want to continue that as Sen. Rob Ortt because your constituency put you in Albany; they elected you to do a job. You have to be in your district, be amongst the people you work for and that's not the people in Albany. It’s the people back here.
I think that is why Sen. Maziarz was always out always working and was accessible. That was just in his nature and I think that is something that is important for any elected official. I hope to be as accessible and visible as Senator Maziarz was and work as hard on behalf of the residents.
Destino: For the past two and half years I’ve been calling this man out for what he truly was – a controlling, conniving, self-serving career politician who put his own interests above the greater good of his district. Hopefully U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara continues to pursue and prosecute this investigation fully. Some people still won’t accept that he did anything wrong and that’s why it’s important that the prosecutor follow this through to conviction in order to restore public integrity.
9. Your message to the undecided voter?
Destino: I am the only candidate in this race invested in the future and prepared to lead. As the father of three young sons, I am more interested in their future than accelerating my own political career. If people are on the fence in this election, they should ask themselves “Are you happy with the direction we’ve been moving over the past two decades?” A vote for Destino is a vote to move us in a new direction. A look at the political machine running my opponent’s campaign should provide all the proof you need that he is the candidate of the status quo. If you want to end the politics of personal destruction, the anonymous phone calls and attack ads, then please vote for me on Nov. 4th.
Ortt: This is an important election, a critical choice for upstate in this district. The future of upstate is in the balance in this election.
In the 62nd district, we need a strong leader with a proven record of success.
We are going to have a freshman senator and voters should choose the man who is best qualified to stand up to the downstate interests and stand up for our interests and fight for our constitutional freedoms and also work with others to get things done when that is appropriate.
I think I am the only candidate in this race that has that leadership background and has that experience of being chief executive for five years of the City of North Tonawanda.
Sitting across the table, negotiating with unions, putting budgets together with no tax increases, leading young men and women in combat in Afghanistan and also my work in the private sector in the financial services industry.
I think I am the only candidate that has that background, the only candidate that can bring this to the table and I would certainly ask for your consideration and support on Nov 4.