(Oct. 31, 2014) Charles Otto has had a long morning, doesn’t mince words and doesn’t slow down for anyone.
Seated in the hotel lobby where he’d just been speaking with a Republican women’s meeting, the short man with pale eyes, thick accent that’s all Somerset County and a distinguishing mole on his cheek looks like he could use a cup of coffee.
But once he gets rolling on an issue he can sink his teeth into, even the tape recorder has a hard time keeping pace.
He starts slow. When asked why he would seek a second term, his reply is a scant three words.
“Sometimes you wonder.”
After a laugh he finds his footing.
“Some days you feel like you make that difference, a lot of days you just don’t and you just get overwhelmed by some of it, but 90 percent of the legislation that goes through does come about by consensus,” he said.
Otto said he sees himself as part of building that consensus. He has experience working with volunteers and staff at the Somerset County Farm Bureau, where he was a past president, and was a charter member of the Mt. Vernon Fire Company, just to name two of many on his resume.
But consensus can be elusive, and Otto said there is only so much one person can do.
“Not on some of the big spending issues,” he said. “The Speaker, the President of the Senate and the Governor make those decisions, raise the taxes and buy the votes of the rest of the assembly.”
Otto’s goals as a delegate are simple.
“I want to represent agriculture and the seafood industry at the table, and business interests,” he said. “There are too many people in the legislature that don’t know how to sign the front of a check. Coming from small business, we had the worry of meeting the payroll and paying the taxes.”
As a native of Somerset County, Otto said he has friends and relatives in the seafood industry.
“Either oystering or fishing. I grew up on a farm and live on the farm. I still operate it. I’m the third generation there. I grow corn wheat and soybeans; we used to grow a significant amount of vegetables for the fresh market. We used to raise chickens, too, but since I got into politics I don’t know when I’ll be home and they need attention,” Otto said.
When not doing any of that, Otto works in sales management at the Farmers and Planners Company in Salisbury. With all of those responsibilities on his plate, politics wasn’t a convenient choice.
“I was upset when I saw my delegate, Paige Elmore, passed away four years ago. It was prior to the filing deadline, and I pondered it and I saw who had filed and I didn’t feel like my interests were being represented as they had been when I was growing up,” he said.
“I didn’t think the candidates I saw represented the values and interests, or had the expertise in the areas that were being threatened,” Otto continued, “knowing the business aspect, and the blood sweat and tears that go into growing a crop, and knowing the conservation aspect that goes in to protecting the soil, protecting the water and protecting the crop,” he said.
Those thoughts formed the basis for the jump into public life, but it wasn’t a jump he made alone.
“I was encouraged by friends and family, too. I’m not bringing a wife and kids into the fray. My friends with children said ‘you’ve got to do this,’ because they didn’t want to do it. They might like to do it or want to know somebody’s there that’s doing it. So that was a big part of it as well. I just floated the idea and people kept raising the bat, so I chose to pursue it,” he said.
In a small part of a big state, Otto said he knows how he can enforce a value set not necessarily embraced by the rest of the delegation.
“Well, you’ve got to be truthful and accurate and gain the respect of your peers – at least that’s the only way I know that’s effective,” he said. “Members of the General Assembly could tell me something I know is not true and I could know it from the start – and they can say it with a straight face. I hope that when I speak to them and tell them something, they know it’s accurate and to the best of my knowledge it’s correct whether it’s good or bad for my circumstance.”
What he really wants: fiscal discipline.
“I get concerned when we talk about all the cuts and this, that and the other and I watch the budget grow $1 billion each year,” Otto said. “Some programs may be cut, but there’s more shifting going on, and when we take the balanced budget, all the special funds that were dedicated – such as the transportation fund – to put monies into the general fund, it’s irresponsible.”
His solution seems simple.
“I think we should start back at a zero budget. We’ll start based on what we have now and then the departments can make some decisions as well. I think they should have some latitude in where those cuts come from. Like the counties do – tell the departments they need to take 10 percent out from wherever,” he said.
It is here Otto pauses, perhaps for the first time, and takes in an almost inhuman amount of air with one breath. When asked if that’s enough, this reporter can only reply “plenty.”