The “luckiest” legislator isn't so lucky anymore.
The news was hardly shocking around Capitol Square. Long before he was found passed out in his idling pickup in a McDonald's drive-thru in early March, Statehouse insiders talked about Wes Retherford's drinking habits. “He's the kind of guy that if he ends up with a DUI in a year, everyone will go, ‘That's not a surprise,'” a lobbyist told Columbus Monthly last August. When contacted a few days after Retherford's March 12 arrest, the prescient politico downplayed his prediction. “To be fair, I think I've been saying that for the past three years,” the lobbyist said.
That comment underscores the strange saga of Retherford, a three-term state representative from Hamilton, just north of Cincinnati. During his four-and-a-half years in the General Assembly, the 33-year-old Republican has been criticized for his poor work ethic and accused of having a “partying problem in Columbus.” He was ordered to remove a liquor cabinet from his legislative office and publicly denounced by fellow Butler County Republicans trying to oust him from office. You didn't need to be Nostradamus to foresee trouble on Retherford's horizon. In early May, Retherford was convicted of operating a vehicle while impaired, a first-degree misdemeanor, in connection to the McDonald's incident in his home district in Butler County and was sentenced to a three-day alcohol intervention program and 180 days in jail, with 175 days suspended.
So how has Retherford survived? His critics point to Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger and other legislative leaders, whom they say enabled Retherford to keep his job despite his shortcomings. “They all knew about his personal behavior—all of them,” says Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones, an influential political leader in the Hamilton area. “They supported him anyway.”
In many ways, Retherford is an accidental legislator. In 2012, the then-political newbie ran for the 51st District House seat, where his predecessor had been term-limited out. Retherford was a long shot. But when his heavily favored Republican primary rival, Greg Jolivette, a former state rep, couldn't get on the ballot as a result of a filing miscue, Retherford, then just 28, ended up as the last Republican standing and cruised to victory in the conservative district.
The new job was quite a change for Retherford, a mortician's assistant at a Hamilton funeral home, whose duties include odd jobs like mowing the grass. As a member of the General Assembly, Retherford earns more than $60,000 a year, not to mention the respect and status that comes along with the position. Until his arrest this year, Retherford was “the luckiest guy on Cap Square,” a former House staffer says.
Retherford hasn't set the legislature on fire since he took office. In an anonymous survey of Statehouse insiders that appeared in the November issue of Columbus Monthly, Retherford was voted the laziest, the least principled and the second least engaged member of the General Assembly. “He's a swell fellow, never met any enemy,” a respondent said last year. “But Wes shows up to committees late, leaves early. While he's there, he can be charming and witty and funny, but he's not a heavy lifter.”
Several participants in Columbus Monthly's survey mentioned Retherford's drinking. Prior to his arrest, Retherford was perhaps best known for an incident in which Speaker Rosenberger ordered him to remove a liquor cabinet from his office. “He's a guy who enjoys the social scene and having a couple of drinks, but not in a productive way, and that might impact his performance the morning after,” a survey respondent said.
Word of Retherford's escapades began to make their way to his home district in Butler County soon after he arrived at the Statehouse. (The March arrest was Retherford's first alcohol-related legal incident.) “I was getting reports of things he was doing,” says Jones, the Butler County sheriff. “And it wasn't anything to do with what he had done legislatively. It was his personal life.” Jones and several other Republican leaders recruited Courtney “Corky” Combs, Retherford's predecessor in the Ohio House, to run against him. Combs secured endorsements from the Butler County Republican Party, along with the support of several leading Butler County Republican officials, including Jones and Retherford's Ohio House colleague Margy Conditt.
But Combs' campaign was thrown in the lurch when OHROC, the Ohio House finance arm, jumped into the race in support of Retherford, providing him with more than $46,000, according to Ohio Secretary of State campaign records. “That won the election,” Combs says. “They outspent me five to one.”
OHROC has a policy of supporting incumbent members, but Combs says Kenny Street, the organization's political director, had told him previously that the group would stay out of the race. What changed? Combs says he doesn't know. But a former House staffer says Retherford's friend, fellow state Rep. Jim Butler, convinced Rosenberger to change his position on the race. Butler, the leader of the House's most conservative wing, had previously challenged Rosenberger for the speakership in 2014. A consensus builder with an increasingly unruly caucus, Rosenberger may have wanted to avoid offending a group of conservatives that could cause trouble for him later or appear like he was punishing Retherford, an ally of Butler in the 2014 speaker contest. (Butler declined to comment for this article. Republican House spokesman Brad Miller, speaking on behalf of Rosenberger, also declined to discuss OHROC's machinations, citing a caucus rule of not commenting on campaign strategy.)
In an interview with Columbus Monthly, Retherford manages to be both remorseful and defiant. He declines to discuss his legal troubles or whether he has a drinking problem, other than to apologize for his actions and ask to “be judged based off the good that I've done in my community and by my future actions and lessons learned.” He attributes some of his troubles to rubbing “influential people in my party the wrong way.” He declines to elaborate, but when asked if Sheriff Jones is one of those people, he responds, “You can put two and two together.”
Retherford rejects calls for him to resign. “I'm looking forward to continuing serving my constituents,” he says. He notes his legislative achievements (securing capital-improvement projects, preventing a public-utility price increase for his constituents) and defends the support he received from his Ohio House colleagues. “All I know is that I have been a faithful member of our caucus,” he says. “I've helped other members. I've made my donations, and in return, when you do that, they support you. That's what happens.”