COLUMBIA, SC — Russell Ott is a lobbyist and the son of a powerful politician – two things that normally offer the ingredients of an attack ad during an election.
But Ott says his time as a lobbyist for S.C. Farm Bureau taught him something some state lawmakers have not learned: how to work with both sides of the political aisle to get things done.
“Some people may view lobbying as a negative, but I think it will serve me well, if elected, because I have been working on relationships on both sides of the aisle at the State House for quite some time,” Ott said Tuesday. “From Day One, I would be able to go in and actually be productive.”
Ott, 35, is the first candidate to declare officially for the vacancy in House District 93, which covers Calhoun County and parts of Lexington and Orangeburg counties.
Ott’s father, Harry Ott, represented the district for 15 years, including eight years as House minority leader, where he helped set Democrats’ agenda. Harry Ott resigned from the House on June 30 to become state director for the Federal Farm Service Agency, a White House appointment.
Russell Ott says he is proud of his father’s service. But, he added, “I don’t want anyone to think that I’m going to slide in here because of who may have held the seat in the past.”
“It’s very important to me that the voters take a hard look at me based on my own merits, based on what I can bring to the table,” he said.
Ott’s experience includes time spent working as an administrator for the Lower Savannah Council of Governments. His work lead him to administrative roles in the towns of Elloree, North and Neeses – all in Orangeburg County.
“He did everything for North that he could, and he is an honest man, well liked by everyone,” said Earl Jeffcoat, the mayor of North. “When I first became mayor, I didn’t know a whole lot about what I was getting into. He guided me through the whole thing.”
The experience, Ott said, showed him how state and local governments work together. The state Legislature is an important source of revenue for many of the state’s smaller cities and counties. The state “local government fund” is supposed to give 4 percent of the state’s general fund revenue to local governments. But beginning with budget cuts brought on by the Great Recession – and continuing since – state lawmakers haven’t fully funded the local government fund.
“I am concerned about the way state government has cut local government funding over the last few years,” Ott said. “A system has been set up, we’ve made promises, and we need to uphold those promises.”
If elected, Ott said he would advocate for South Carolina’s rural communities. “I do think they get pushed to the side,” adding he also would push for education reform and road funding.
Road funding and education figure to be key legislative issues in the coming years.
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley has promised an education reform proposal before the start of the 2014 legislative session. Also, state lawmakers approved a road-funding deal this year that eventually would spend about $1 billion on road-and-bridge repairs, but officials estimate the state will have $29 billion worth of unfunded road repair needs over the next 20 years.
“It helped,” Ott said of the road deal. “But I definitely don’t think it goes near as far as it needs to.”
Ott said it is important that District 93 remains a Democratic seat.
“Republicans control everything. I’m a firm believer in checks and balances,” he said. “That may be why you see some infighting in the Republican Party right now, between old school Republicans and some of the new Tea Party members.”
Beginning Friday, candidates have two weeks to file for the seat. Party primaries are scheduled for Sept. 10, and, if necessary, runoffs will be held Sept. 24. The special election is scheduled for Oct. 29.
The election will be the first under new filing rules put in place after more than 200 candidates were removed from the ballot last year because they did not file their paperwork correctly. This time, candidates will file with their county election commissions, instead of their county political parties. If candidates do not file statements of economic interest, they will not be removed automatically from the ballot. However, candidates who never file an economic-interest statement could be prohibited from taking office if they win.
Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.