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Analysis: Ohio House speaker gives everyone much of what they want, including his rivals

Ohio House Speaker Jason Stephens speaks at a press conference Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio, to lay out the Republican-dominated chamber's priorities for the state's new legislative session.
Samantha Hendrickson
Ohio House Speaker Jason Stephens speaks at a press conference Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio, to lay out the Republican-dominated chamber's priorities for the state's new legislative session.

You have to hand it to Ohio House Speaker Jason Stephens.

When it comes to legislative skills, the Lawrence County Republican clearly is channeling some Lyndon Johnson vibes.

Two months ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone outside of the Ohio Statehouse who could correctly identify him as a state representative; he might as well be a wingman for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

That's not the case today, though, after a deft display of political legerdemain in which he quite literally stole the speakership from under the nose of his competitor, State Rep, Derek Merrin of suburban Toledo.

In November, Merrin, a Trump loyalist, won a non-binding vote for speaker in a meeting of the new Republican caucus.

Not long after that, though, Stephens did an end run around Merrin and cobbled together 22 Republican House members and all 32 Democrats in the Ohio House. It was enough to make him speaker.

RELATED: Ohio House has a new, unexpected speaker

Not bad for a guy who comes from an unincorporated high spot on State Route 141 in Lawrence County, the southernmost point of Ohio and an Appalachian county that has more in common with Kentucky and West Virginia than it does with big cities like Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland.

Pragmatic is the word to describe a place like Lawrence County.

And, now on Wednesday, Stephens made a move to cut Merrin off at the pass, rolling out a legislative agenda that includes much of what Merrin and his supporters want — including a ban on transgender girls participating in women's sports in Ohio high schools and college, and a "backpack bill," which would allow students to carry scholarship funds to whatever schools they want to attend, including private charter schools.

And, Stephens is reviving a resolution that would place a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would require that constitutional amendments be passed with 60% of the vote instead of a simple majority. Stephens said it has been assigned to a committee chaired by Rep. Scott Wiggam (R-Wooster), a Merrin supporter. You better believe that's why Ohio's two abortion rights groups came together to put an issue on the ballot this November that would, if passed, enshrine abortion rights in the Ohio constitution.

ANALYSIS: Why is Frank LaRose pushing a ballot issue not many seem to like?

The "culture warriors" of the GOP caucus want this to make it harder for abortion rights amendments to pass, along with redistricting plans that would take power away from the politicians, and a constitutional amendment raising the state's minimum wage.

All of this is anathema to the Democrats who voted to make Stephens speaker, but he gave them enough in his legislative agenda that the Democrats can support.

Something for everybody!

Stephens aced Merrin out of the speakership, but Merrin — who had the support of 42 Republican House members — had no intention of going away quietly. After Stephens won the election as speaker in January, Merrin declared himself the "caucus chairman" and his sidekick, State Rep. Phil Plummer of Dayton, as "caucus vice chairman" — titles that have never existed in the GOP caucus.

Suddenly, after the 22 GOP House members voted with the Democrats to make Stephens speaker, political action committees — some of them "dark money" groups — started popping up to go after the Gang of 22.

There were threats that the Merrin-backers would find candidates to challenge the 22 in next year's primary.

And Plummer was threatening to sue Stephens to gain control of the caucus' campaign fund.

RELATED: Derek Merrin, who lost bid for Ohio Speaker, calls meeting of supporters

Jai Chabria, a GOP political consultant who has been advising Stephens, said "there's some really awkward cosplaying going on by Merrin and Plummer."

"They pretend to be speaker, attack staff, threaten frivolous lawsuits and disparage conservative lawmakers," Chabria said. "They lose support every day that they continue this fantasy."

David Cohen, political science professor at the University of Akron, said the Merrin supporters going after the 22 Republicans who made Stephens speaker reminds him of the Donald Trump vendetta where the former president targeted 10 GOP members of Congress who voted to impeach him in Jan. 2021 for defeat.

"It's the same types from the MAGA wing of the party going after these 22," Cohen said. "That seems to be the center or gravity in Ohio politics these days."

After Stephens' press conference Wednesday, Merrin and his supporters held their own press conference, where Merrin said he is still reviewing the Stephens priority list.

There are bills he's "excited about" but there are also "missing gaps," Merrin said.

RELATED: Merrin backer talks about potential of 'third caucus' after vote for Ohio House speaker

As is always the case with legislation, the devil is in the details. But it is hard to imagine that most of Merrin's supporters won't end up voting for Stephens' legislation on transgender sports, the "backpack bill" and other items that are Holy Writ in the cultural conservatives' handbook.

"We are going to get agreement on most of this agenda," said State Rep. Bill Seitz of Green Township. "There may be 10 or so bitter-enders who will never accept it.

"But you don't go charging into the valley like General Custer at Little Big Horn, right into the middle of the Sioux warriors," Seitz said. "That didn't work out very well for General Custer, now did it?"

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