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Smith Calls for Unity After an Unprecedented Battle for Ohio House Speaker

Photo of Ryan Smith
Ryan Smith says he hopes to unify the House.

After two months of fighting, mostly by majority Republicans behind closed doors, the Ohio House has a new speaker. It was an unusual floor vote because the majority couldn’t agree on a nominee. But the vote ends an impasse that stopped voting sessions in mid-April when former speaker Cliff Rosenberger resigned amid an FBI inquiry.

House Clerk Brad Young sounded more like an auctioneer as he took vote after vote after vote.

For nearly three hours, Young rattled off names as members voted individually, putting into practice a rule that had never been used before. As expected, Finance Committee Chair Ryan Smith was nominated, as was Democratic Minority Leader Fred Strahorn. Joining them was Andy Thompson, a term-limited Republican who had come in second to Smith in closed-door Republican caucus voting a few weeks ago.

A proxy battle
Smith had called Thompson a proxy for Larry Householder, the former speaker who wants to regain that position next year, but was not in the running for the short-term speaker position. And there was a surprise entry into the contest – another term-limited Republican, Jim Hughes.

With 91 of 98 members present, a candidate needed 46 votes to win outright. But after the first round, none of the candidates enough votes. So that meant the House had to vote nine more times before it could accept the candidate with the most votes.

In round after round, Smith led consistently, with 44 votes. Thompson and Hughes saw their votes vacillate while most Democrats voted as they said they would, for Strahorn.

Trying to lighten things up a bit
Lawmakers tried to break the monotony as they cast their votes.

Young: “Representative Cera?”

Cera: “The bearded Fred Strahorn.”

Young: “Representative Becker?”

Becker: “The timeless Andy Thompson.”

Young: “Representative Cera?”

Cera: “The illustrious Fred Strahorn.”

Young: “Representative Becker?”

Becker: “Thompson to infinity and beyond.”

The hours of repeated voting may have felt like infinity to lawmakers and those watching in the gallery. At one point there was a call for a recess by Republican Niraj Antani, who’d been casting votes for Hughes. But that was quickly shouted down.

A call for unity
After 11 rounds of voting, Acting Speaker Kirk Schuring made this announcement.

“Having received a plurality of all of the votes cast, Rep. Smith is hereby declared elected Speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives.”

'I'm not looking to be retaliatory about that. ... I'm going to bring everybody back together and ask for a clean slate and start to rebuild trust.'

Immediately after that, Smith was sworn in and took the dais.

He called for unity after weeks of behind the scenes wrangling, and he is facing a House with fewer than half of its members casting votes for him. He reiterated the need to come together when talking to reporters afterward.

Asked if he would remove committee chairs who voted against him for speaker, Smith didn’t hesitate.

“I’m not looking to be retaliatory about that. We live in a society where people can make their own choices. I think, at this point, I’m going to bring everybody back together and ask for a clean slate and start to rebuild trust.”

A move onto business
Smith said he wants the House to take up legislation immediately, including bills that crack down on payday lending and fund new voting machines. More than 150 bills are awaiting action, and Smith anticipates a few more House sessions before summer recess.

'The process was like watching grass grow.'

Though the minority leader had most of his 33-member caucus supporting him throughout the voting, Strahorn said he was disgusted that it had come down to using this process to choose a new speaker.

"I thought hearing my name 308 times was a little disturbing and the process was like watching grass grow.”

And though critics may say Democrats could have broken the stalemate, Strahorn says he’s proud that they voted for him as a candidate who supports their issues. And Democrats are likely to use this incident as an illustration of Republican government gone awry.

An advantage for 2019?
Much of the debate between the Republicans came down to two factions within the caucus: those who wanted Smith and others who back Householder. The Householder supporters wanted someone else who was term-limited to hold that seat so Smith wouldn’t have an upper hand when the new General Assembly takes over next year.

And then there’s the $4 million sitting in the Ohio House campaign fund. As speaker, Smith now has a big say in how that money is dispersed.

Jo Ingles is a professional journalist who covers politics and Ohio government for the Ohio Public Radio and Television for the Ohio Public Radio and Television Statehouse News Bureau. She reports on issues of importance to Ohioans including education, legislation, politics, and life and death issues such as capital punishment. Jo started her career in Louisville, Kentucky in the mid 80’s when she helped produce a televised presidential debate for ABC News, worked for a creative services company and served as a general assignment report for a commercial radio station. In 1989, she returned back to her native Ohio to work at the WOSU Stations in Columbus where she began a long resume in public radio.