JIM SHULTZ: Republican lessons for Senator Ortt

Jim Shultz

Last week New York’s new governor, Kathy Hochul, gave her first State of the State speech. Ms. Hochul is both the first woman to serve as our governor and the first governor from Western New York in more than 100 years. In her address, Governor Hochul laid out an agenda of proposals for tax relief, expanding rural internet service, and increased support for health care.

The Union-Sun & Journal published reactions to her speech from our three local state legislators. All three are Republicans, and the differences between them say a good deal about the current state of political leadership in our country.

Assemblyman Angelo Morinello, despite being a member of the opposite party, was generous in his praise. He said, “Governor Hochul gave a State of the State as it should be given. It was not a dog and pony show but a very direct presentation of the past and her vision of the future. I was pleased that she mentioned Niagara Falls and the need for strengthening Niagara Falls and the Erie Canal.” He added that he hoped the new governor would remain a political moderate.

Senator Robert Ortt, on the other hand, took very different approach. He had nothing good to say about anything in the governor’s address. Instead he cast the situation in Albany as almost apocalyptic. He declared, “Democrat One-Party Rule has been nothing short of a disaster for New York State. It is more vital than ever that we take back our state from out-of-touch politicians and restore some sanity and common sense to our government.”

Senator Ortt is a very intelligent man who suffers no shortage of either political skill or political ambition. Three years ago he tried to leave Albany for Washington, but was unsuccessful in his effort to win his party’s nomination for Congress. Afterwards he was elected by his Republican colleagues as their leader in the state senate.

In his declarations about the State of the State, Senator Ortt simply chose to work from the playbook of hyper-partisanship that we see on display now in Washington every day. It is a political strategy based on three principles: First, never admit to anything good or worthy in what the other party has to say. Second, present the threat they pose as something truly dire. Third, focus on what will expand your power instead of looking for common ground that benefits the people.

As we know too well, that kind of political leadership has become widespread these days, and the country suffers from it. It drives political division and keeps government from actually addressing practical problems, which is what government is supposed to do. To be honest, it is also just lazy.

It is, in fact, entirely possible to be supportive of the opposing party on things you think are good and still critical of it on issues where you disagree. If Senator Ortt would like to see an example of that approach in action, he can simply look at how his Republican colleague, Lockport-based Assemblyman Michael Norris, responded to Governor Hochul’s speech.

Mr. Norris said, “I was pleased to see Governor Hochul call for term limits for statewide elected officials and changes to the state ethics board. We need to address these proposals immediately to restore trust in our state government.” And at the same time he expressed his concern that the governor made no mention of the state’s controversial bail reform law, which Mr. Norris and most Republicans want to repeal. In place of hyper-partisanship for its own sake, Assemblyman Norris simply applied some old fashioned Niagara County common sense and separated what he saw as good and what he saw as bad.

Why is this important? As we were reminded by last week’s anniversary of the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, democracy in our country is in a more fragile state than it has been for generations. Political divisions are driving us apart and the rhetoric used by our elected officials is a key reason for those deepening divisions.

We live in a moment in which our political leaders need to pay much more attention to the effect they have on democracy itself. Are they acting as agents of division or of unity? We have too many politicians, in both parties, who make their top priority their own advancement up the ladder of power. And many of them see the approach taken by Senator Ortt as the way to move up.

Mr. Ortt will likely have a long political career here in Western New York. Governor Hochul is also likely to win another four years as our governor, replacing the arrogance of Andrew Cuomo with humility and deep roots right here in our community. When was the last time we had a governor who you see from time to time eating in a booth at Tom’s Diner?

As a Republican leader, Senator Ortt is in a unique position to be a bridge builder, joining with Governor Hochul, a fellow Western New Yorker, to address practical issues in a practical way. He could help New York set an example for the country for what rational politics looks like, just when we need such examples badly.

How can he do that? The answer is simple: Act a lot less like someone auditioning to be a talking head on Fox News, and a lot more like Assemblyman Norris and Assemblyman Morinello.

Jim Shultz is the founder and executive director of the Democracy Center and a father and grandfather in Lockport. See his writings at www.jimshultzthewriter.com and email him at: jimshultzthewriter@gmail.com.

Trending Video

Recommended for you