When Republican Scott Ott ran for Lehigh County executive two years ago, he was a political rookie trying to unseat a well-known and well-financed Democratic incumbent.
If people dismissed Ott’s candidacy as being too much of a long-shot, they learned to pay attention. Ott came within 862 votes of beating that seasoned politico, Don Cunningham.
Now Ott, 49, a producer for a conservative, Internet-based television network, is running in the Republican primary for one of four at-large seats on the Lehigh County Board of Commissioners.
He is part of a slate of four candidates taking aim at fellow Republican Dean Browning for supporting a county budget last October that carried a 16 percent tax increase.
“I don’t have political ambitions,” said Ott, of South Whitehall, despite his second run at political office. “I’m interested in doing something to demonstrate the principles I believe in actually work.”
Ott, who became executive director of the Lehigh County Republican Committee following his executive run, touts fiscal conservatism. He argues that Lehigh County has a spending problem, not a revenue one. And if officials don’t stop overspending, he said, the county will face yet another tax hike next year.
In what he said is a governance strategy rather than a political one, Ott has teamed with three other candidates he called “like-minded” when it comes to fiscal matters. He is hoping that, as a team, he and Vic Mazziotti, David Najarian and Lisa Scheller would have enough votes to override an executive veto on matters such as line-item cuts to the budget. That, he said, would bring “checks and balances” to the county government.
“If we really believe these principles [of fiscal conservatism], we must be able to apply them somewhere,” Ott said.
While he sees county government as the best place to have an impact, he said an individual has little ability to get anything done on a legislative body such as the commissioners board. Even though Republicans have the majority right now (it’s a five-to-four split), six votes are needed for an override of the executive's veto. The Democrats on the board almost never divide, he said, and the Republicans who now serve have not unified.
Ott directs his sharpest criticism at Browning, a fellow Republican who, ironically, had counseled him on budget matters in his previous run for executive. Ott takes aim at Browning for not voting last October to send the budget back to Cunningham to make cuts to avoid the tax hike, and for not voting on an amended budget that would have reduced the tax increase.
Ott does not identify what he would have cut from the budget. "That's the executive's responsibility," he said. "You prioritize. What can we do without?" A starting point, he said, would have been the $3 million in cuts that the commissioners proposed, which would have reduced the tax hike to 13 percent.
Ott charges that Browning allowed Cunningham to "put on a show" before the board last fall, as the executive threatened draconian cuts that would have led to layoffs. Ott doubts Cunningham would have gutted law and order departments. "He doesn't want to own it," he said. "It was a bluff on the part of the county executive."
Browning has shot back at Ott and the rest of the slate, accusing them of not having any "real plan" for reducing county spending and criticizing them for not identifying what they'd specifically cut from the budget. In a prepared release, he called the attempt to send the budget back to Cunningham last October "a political gimmick" meant to shift blame to the executive for the property tax increase. He said he did not want to give false hope to county taxpayers then by going along with what he called "an irresponsible scheme."
For those who might ask, what's the big deal about a 16 percent tax hike if it adds up to only a few dollars more a day for taxpayers, Ott argues it is a big deal because the tax hikes on the local, state and federal levels add up. "Well, it all ends up on the same table," he said. "You get hit at every level."
He said the county commissioners must ask the tough questions of the executive and apply more oversight.
After the county executive race, Ott became executive director of the Lehigh County Republican Committee, where he helped organize get-out-the-vote efforts, set up social networking and recruited candidates for office. He said he left the position when his workload increased with pjtv.com, where he hosts news commentaries and developed a series on the U.S. Constitution.
Raised by his grandparents, he grew up in upper Bucks County and graduated from Palisades High School. He received a bachelor's degree from Penn State University in liberal arts/journalism.
Previously, Ott was executive director of Victory Valley Camp, a nonprofit Christian children’s camp. There, he said, he helped to restructure the budget, figuring out ways to economize and improve facilities. He teaches adult Sunday School at Cedar Crest Bible Fellowship Church in Salisbury Township.
He and his wife Stephanie have four children.
Ott said he and the other three candidates on his slate don't agree on everything but that they do have a common set of principles.
"We need to change the way our government thinks," he said. "Our primary responsbility is to the taxpayer."
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