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Analysis: How Democrats put the brakes on the culture wars in the Ohio House

Allison Russo, Democratic candidate for 15th Congressional District, speaks to supporters at a campaign event Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, in Upper Arlington, Ohio.
Jay LaPrete
Rep. Allison Russo (D-Upper Arlington) speaks to supporters at a campaign event Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021.

Ohio House Minority Leader Allison Russo is one sharp negotiator.

She would probably do well setting up a three-card monte spot on the corner of Broad and High to relieve the downtown Columbus lunch crowd of their money.

The 46-year-old Democratic state representative from the Columbus suburb of Upper Arlington clearly knows something about sleight-of-hand. But instead of using her powers for ill-gotten gains, her victims are right-wing Republican legislators who are hell-bent on using their offices to fight ill-advised culture wars.

What Russo pulled off last week was power politics at its best. LBJ would have approved.

Rather than sit around for the next two years of the 135th Ohio General Assembly watching the Republican super-majority ram through legislation designed only to please their Trumpian base, she cut a deal.

Russo delivered the votes of all 32 Democrats in the 99-member Ohio House to State Rep. Jason Stephens of Lawrence County, the southernmost outpost of Ohio, so that Stephens could become the new House speaker.

Jason Stephens on the Ohio House floor in 2019.
Ohio House of Representatives
Jason Stephens on the Ohio House floor in 2019.

"The fact that you had every single Democratic vote and 22 Republicans come together to elect a speaker was a pretty impressive feat," said David Cohen, professor of political science at the University of Akron.

"There are some very radical ideas that have come out of the Republican caucus lately," Cohen said. "This might put a lid on some of the more extreme proposals."

Politicians from Lawrence County, population 57,445, tend to be pragmatic, not averse to some old-fashioned horse trading to get what they want.

In Stephens' case, it was the speakership. Back in November, after the election, the 67 members of the GOP caucus had to choose a leader. State Rep. Derek Merrin from suburban Toledo was the preferred choice for speaker over Stephens.

But Stephens didn't give up.

Throughout December, he worked with Russo and the Democratic leadership to work out a deal.

They were successful. The 32 Democrats voted with 22 Republican state representatives to give Stephens 54 votes for speaker. All Stephens needed was a bare majority of 50 votes.

State Rep. Jessica Miranda of Forest Park, the minority whip of the House, was deeply involved in the negotiations.

"We wanted to make sure our issues are going to be worked on," Miranda said. "Good government is bipartisan government."

Miranda said the Democrats wanted an end to a legislature driven by "culture war" issues like banning transgender athletes from competing in high school sports and the "straw man" of critical race theory, trying to stop educators from teaching the history of slavery and race relations.

Prior to the Jan. 3 vote on the speaker, Merrin had made his legislative agenda clear. It included:

  • a near-total abortion ban
  • a "right to work" bill
  • phasing out the state income tax
  • expanding the school voucher system

Merrin, in an interview with Cleveland.com, accused Stephens of plotting against him in December while Merrin's father, a Baptist minister, was in hospice care.

Russo told reporters there was no "grand deal" to throw support to Stephens in a quid pro quo.

'We could do with less rancor in the House'

Another item stuck in the craw of many in the Ohio GOP is the fact that, as speaker, Stephens is likely to not allow a GOP proposal changing the threshold for state constitutional amendments to appear on the May ballot. Rep. Brian Stewart (R-Pickaway County), with the backing of Secretary of State Frank LaRose, want to require future state constitutional amendments pass with 60% of the vote, as opposed to the simple majority that is required now.

That makes Democrats and backers of potential constitutional amendments on abortion rights, minimum wage, redistricting reform and other issues very, very happy.

The unhappy crowd turned out to be the Ohio Republican Party's 66-member central committee, which met last week to choose a new state party chair.

It turned out that Alex Triantafilou, the long-time Hamilton County GOP chairman, would win that job. But his principal rival for the state chair's job, Summit County GOP Chairman Bryan Williams, filed a motion to censure the 22 Republicans who voted with the Democrats for speaker.

Williams wanted those 22 stripped of their Ohio GOP endorsements and any campaign funds from the party. But cooler heads prevailed on the central committee — the censure was approved, but it had no teeth because they took out the sanctions.

Four of the 22 state representatives were from Southwest Ohio — Bill Seitz of Green Township, Cindy Abrams of Harrison, Sara Carruthers of Hamilton, and Jean Schmidt of Clermont County.

Seitz said the Ohio GOP central committee should have butted out.

"Everyone has an opinion, and that's fine," Seitz said. "But the party's central committee has no business meddling in the workings of the legislature."

After about 40 years in public office, Seitz said, "I don't know how anybody could make a credible case that I am not a conservative Republican."

bill seitz in the Ohio Statehouse
Andrew Welsh-Huggins
State Rep. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican, speaks on legislation in this Sept. 22, 2021 file photo taken at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. Seitz said concerns raised on a rewrite of Ohio's election laws that includes both new restrictions on voting and some added conveniences long supported by voting rights advocates, will not be ready for 2022 elections.

One reason the central committee pulled back on the sanctions was that many of the 22 Republicans on the naughty list are some of the best fundraisers the Ohio GOP has.

Seitz is among them; he gave the Ohio GOP House campaign committee $412,000 in the 2022 campaign cycle.

"The irony of this is that the same day they voted to censure us, I got a letter from the Hamilton County Republican Party asking me to renew my 'Early Bird' contribution," Seitz said.

"There are two kinds of people in our Republican caucus," he added. "There are people who believe in incremental change and working across the aisle. That's my side. Then there are those who just want to rip off the bandage.

"We could do with a lot less rancor in the House."

He can thank Allison Russo for that opportunity.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.