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Missouri Rep. Bill Otto plans to challenge U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner in 2016

Rep. Bill Otto, D-Maryland Heights, has been elected to two terms in the Missouri House.
Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Rep. Bill Otto, D-Maryland Heights, has been elected to two terms in the Missouri House.

State Rep. Bill Otto, a Democrat from Maryland Heights, has announced that he’s prepared to challenge U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner for Congress in 2016.

Wagner, R-Ballwin, is former head of the Missouri Republican Party and already has begun moving up the congressional House leadership. But Otto contended in Tuesday’s announcement that she’s also among the “elitists’’ who are ignoring the average voters in favor of powerful special interests.

“Congresswoman Wagner has simply dropped the ball in representing us,” Otto said.  “We need a representative who understands our needs and puts us ahead of their personal political ambitions, a person who is more concerned about the people of our district than their political party, a person who can truly work across the aisle, make the hard decisions, and then is willing to come home to explain their actions."

Otto, 59, is a veteran of the Navy and spent 31 years as an air traffic controller, much of it at Lambert St. Louis International Airport.

He also is emphasizing his hard-scrabble early background, where he spent part of his youth in a boys’ home and was sent out on his own at age 17.

Otto is a former member of the Bridgeton City Council and is in his second term in the state House.  He just barely won re-election last fall, defeating Republican Joe Corica by only 154 votes.

Otto’s challenge in taking on Wagner is clear; she handily won re-election last fall, capturing 64 percent of the congressional district’s vote against Democrat Arthur Lieber.

But Democrats see some potential in the district, because Lieber wasn’t well known and had little money.  Wagner, meanwhile, is a money-raising powerhouse. She already has $1.6 million in the bank.

Otto is pledging to be a more aggressive rival and cites his focus for veterans issues. He also is emphasizing his concerns with how the federal and state governments have been handling the problems with the Bridgeton landfill. He has called for the radioactive waste at the neighboring Westlake landfill to be removed.

Wagner has had weak Democratic opponents since her first campaign for Congress in 2012.  Otto’s candidacy could be a signal that Democrats hope to change that scenario, and force Wagner to spend more time campaigning in her own district.

In 2012 and in 2014, Wagner’s perceived strength in her home district allowed her to spend time campaigning for Republicans elsewhere.

Democrats also may be looking beyond 2016. Wagner is widely believed to be considering a bid for the U.S. Senate in 2018, when Democrat Claire McCaskill would next be on the ballot, should she opt to seek re-election.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.