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Familiar Face: Ortwerth reflects on his long history in the Capitol

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – At 10 years old, Joe Ortwerth would read the morning newspaper front to back. He did not skip to the funny pages as many children would. Instead, he opted for news about the city, the state, the nation, and whatever other current events were unfolding in the world.

That morning ritual would spark a life of political involvement for the native of Dogtown, a neighborhood in St. Louis.

“You can’t not be captivated by current events and not develop a real fondness for politics and government at the same time,” he says.

Joe Ortwerth

Now, he has nearly twenty years of experience working in Jefferson City politics in various capacities. He worked on campaigns as a youngster, assisting local Democrats before shifting Republican in his later teen years. He was first elected to the state house in 1982, being sworn in the following year at just 25 years old. He served as a Republican state representative until 1994 before leaving to become the St. Charles County Executive in 1995, a post he held until 2006. He ran for lt. governor in 2000, but he lost in the Republican primary to then-State Treasurer Wendell Bailey.

Currently, he works as the executive director of the Missouri Family Policy Council in O’Fallon, a faith-based organization that lobbies on right to life and sanctity of life issues while also arguing for traditional marriage and religious freedom. The organization started in 2007 and has ties to Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and the Alliance Defending Freedom. He works in close contact with many legislators, elected officials and others in Jefferson City.

Ortwerth has over 30 years of experience in politics and he has seen it from two different worlds, as a legislator and now as a lobbyist.

However, things have changed since he held office in Jefferson City. One of the largest, and one that he spoke at length about, was the institution of term limits, an act he has observed over the years has both positive and negative effects on the state government’s ability to perform its duties.

“There was a crying need for term limits in the sense of the leadership of the legislature,” Ortwerth said. “For individuals to maintain the job as Speaker of the House or Pro Tem of the Senate for indefinite periods of time was definitely unhealthy. It resulted in an enormous concentration of power in one individual that extended over much too long a period of time.”

For the members of the General Assembly not in leadership positions, the fresh faces and new ideas have been nice, says Ortwerth. But it comes with a catch.

“Individuals in either chamber who had been around for a long period of time, had areas of expertise in what they were involved in,” he says. “In the absence of that and those kinds of personalities, lobbyists and bureaucrats have much more influence because they possess the most knowledge and experience.”

He argues that because elected officials do not hold office for a long time, they no longer have the same amount of experience or expertise into certain issues that senators and representatives had before term limits were instituted.

Now a lobbyist that knows the intricacies of the pro-life argument on the right in a way few people do in Missouri, he reflects that his current occupation as a lobbyist is a path he never would have expected to walk when he first entered into public service.

“The nature of public life is … communal,” he says. “You’re spending a lot of time working on behalf of communities at large, you’re speaking to large groups, much of what you’re doing has pretty expansive impact. When you’re working as a lobbyist… your activity is much more one-on-one… You’re trying to influence the thinking of those in public office.

“I would say in either case, as an elected official you are balancing your individual convictions with the beliefs and values of your constituents. As somebody who is working for a nonprofit, an advocate, a lobbyist, you’re promoting your value system within the context of others. It’s a lot different, you’re not answering to constituents. You’re instead answering to a board of directors.”

That depth and breadth of experience talking with groups of people and individuals has given him total control over his conversational ability. He is measured but not slow, verbose but not stuffy, and with his deep voice, he gives an impression of authority, of wisdom beyond his 59 years on this earth.

In fact, many people within the Capitol look to him for just such wisdom. Ortwerth is a practicing minister with deep religious convictions stretching back as long, if not longer to his interest in politics. While he once studied to join the Catholic priesthood, he is now an evangelical Christian, and he offers spiritual advice and counsel to anyone in the state house who asks for it because he believes God has put him in a place to work in politics while also working a life of ministry.

Ortwerth says that while the public often views the life of a politician as glamorous, filled with pleasures and perks, the reality is much different, and it weighs on those that hold office.

“Any elected official will tell you there are lots of very lonely moments, lots of very empty moments where you feel that the efforts that you are undertaking, the things you are trying to do may not measure up to the demands of the job, not because you are failing to put in the effort that you need to but because no single person can totally impact the outcome of any particular issue,” he says. “What happens for so many legislators is a feeling of futility that we’re just spinning our wheels.”

As with any walk of life, that sense of meaninglessness causes significant strife. Ortwerth encourages people to do their best to be an inspiration to their constituents and that what they’re doing does matter. While he considers himself a strict constitutional conservative, he values the role played by government and those who govern.

“I have viewed the government particularly on the local and to some degree on the state level as being an agent of good when it chooses to be,” he says. “There’s no reason that people should view government as a non-responsive, non-caring colossus. It takes individuals who have good managerial skills, but also have and empathy for the people to be able to come in and see that government is responding to the people in a fashion that can actually make some difference in their life.”

He also says that though the pressures of political life can be daunting, eventually there comes a moment that makes it worthwhile.

“Every single person who’s here plays a pivotal role at some point in the process,” he says.