Democrats at the Statehouse are enjoying newfound influence under the auspices of their surprising benefactor, Larry Householder, the Republican speaker of the Ohio House. They'd better enjoy it while they can.

Rep. Emilia Strong Sykes knew things had changed when an aide scheduled 15 back-to-back meetings one morning during budget deliberations. People who had never approached the Akron Democrat during her previous two terms on the House Finance Committee suddenly sought out her support for their funding requests—or at least an introduction to others in her party who might sign on. “That was one very, very clear change, when all these people came in,” she recalls. “Suddenly they have to ask us, they have to engage with us, talk to us about what’s important in our districts, listen to our commentary, accept our criticism and feedback.”

After a decade of gerrymandered irrelevance, phones are ringing and appointment calendars are filling up again for Ohio House Democrats. They still hold just 38 of 99 seats—a mostly symbolic but no less embarrassing status dubbed a “superminority”—but their voices and votes have grown exponentially in importance.

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And they’ve got Republican House Speaker Larry Householder to thank. One year into an agreement that gave Householder half the votes he needed to win back the speaker’s gavel that he held from 2001 to 2004, Democrats, who control just a third of state government’s legislative, judicial and executive offices, are enjoying a thin slice of power. What was derided as a deal with the devil by critics who cited the Perry County Republican’s hardball tactics and brash conservatism is now a source of bragging material for a caucus that hasn’t had much press-release fodder since its short-lived majority in 2009 and 2010.

More than 40 percent of bills passed by the House in 2019 had at least one Democrat as a sponsor. Just 20 percent of House-passed bills in the previous two General Assembly sessions had Democratic sponsors.

The 2019 list includes a criminal-sentencing reform measure that would expand treatment options for those with drug convictions, a bill aimed at recruiting more public defenders by expanding law school loan forgiveness, a plan to create a state trust fund for water-improvement projects and increased funding for maternal health programs. “They’ve been pretty substantial,” says Sykes. “They’re not just road namings and resolutions and license plates.”

Sykes also emerged victorious from the Householder agreement, succeeding Fred Strahorn as the House minority leader after the Dayton Democrat couldn’t persuade his caucus to stick with Householder rival Ryan Smith, who had been elected speaker in 2018. Now, with the honeymoon over and an election year underway, Sykes and her fellow Democrats will soon discover if this marriage of convenience with a longtime political foe will last or if their surprising suitor will kick them to the curb as he solidifies power in his own party.

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When Householder regained the speakership last January, his calls for comity and cooperation prompted eyerolls across Capitol Square, not just toward the man saying the words but toward the Democrats who believed them. His first go-around on the dais was marked by fits of retribution; he once stripped key committee assignments from GOP lawmakers who voted against his wishes on a state budget. And his return to the Statehouse as a rank-and-file lawmaker had been dominated since 2017 by the fundraising and politicking it took to engineer his comeback as speaker.

For his own House race in a district east of Columbus that covers Perry, Coshocton and part of Licking counties, Householder aired a TV ad that showed him loading a rifle and shooting a television that represented “anti-Trump gun-grabbers” whom he said were out to get him. But in the race for speaker, 26 Democrats ended up backing the self-described “pro-life, pro-gun Christian conservative” who boasted about having the highest National Rifle Association rating in Ohio history. Combined with the votes of his own party, it was enough to win Householder the job.

“It’s not that we could have picked a more moderate Republican,” says Sykes, who helped engineer her party’s swing toward Householder and away from Smith, who had a majority of his own party behind him but not enough to clinch victory. “There was no moderate Republican to pick.”

Smith sealed his own fate with Democrats twice, first when he cut off remarks by Cleveland Democrat Stephanie Howse, head of the Legislative Black Caucus, during a House floor debate in November 2018 on a stand-your-ground gun bill, and next by never courting their support. “When he gaveled down Stephanie Howse, that was the moment I was like, ‘He is in trouble,’” recalls Rep. Kristin Boggs, a Columbus Democrat. She was on a panel the next day at a conference of the County Auditors Association of Ohio when a Smith ally, Rep. Ryan Scott, breezily dismissed the magnitude of Householder’s challenge. (Smith and Scott both quit their elected offices in 2019 for other jobs.)

“I said, ‘Is there anyone in this room who doesn’t think Larry Householder is on the phone with Stephanie Howse right now?’” Boggs says. “Scott kind of rolled his eyes and dismissed it. I truly don’t think they anticipated what was coming at them.”

It turns out Householder was on the phone with many House Democrats, making promises to allow votes on Democratic committee amendments, to give lawmakers notice before bringing abortion and gun bills to the House floor, to abandon right-to-work measures and to install cameras that could broadcast committee hearings across the state. “The other fella didn’t even call me,” says Rep. David Leland, a Columbus Democrat whose district includes parts of Clintonville and the North Side. “If someone’s going to ignore you during the courtship, what’s the marriage going to be like?” (Smith didn’t respond to a request to comment for this article.)

After years in the legislative wilderness, Householder’s proposal was one Sykes and her Democratic allies believed they couldn’t refuse. Boggs thought about her first House term in 2016 and being told by Republicans and fellow Democrats how good she had it if she was even asked to co-sponsor legislation. Sykes thought about the times she and other lawmakers of both parties were forced to vote on bills put before them with no time for study or even a quick read. “As we talked about it internally, it was: Do we want a stronger voice where we are not literally gaveled out of order, where we can actually have a seat at the table, where we can pass bills, or do we want to go back to business as usual?” Sykes recalls.

“We have been in a position of power now because the Republican caucus had been so divided, and it just came to a head,” she says. “I was shocked that the Republicans didn’t get it together. I just kept waiting and saying, ‘They are not going to want us to be in a position to make this decision.’ But they just couldn’t agree. So it was like great, we’ll take it. We’ll take full advantage of this opportunity.”

It won Democrats not just a seat at the table but also a starring role in a bit of surreal political theater as Leland held the Bible for Householder when he took the speaker’s oath on Jan. 7, 2019. The veteran Democrat quoted Ohio’s motto—“With God, all things are possible”—on his Twitter account that day and still gets a chuckle out of it. “He asked me to do it, and I did it,” he says.

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Democratic strategist Dale Butland cleared his throat, squared his shoulders and let loose his opinion about the deal his party had just cut four days earlier. “In his first go-around as speaker, Larry Householder revealed himself to be an ethically challenged, bare-knuckled bully who turned pay-to-play politics into an art form,” he said on the Jan. 11, 2019, edition of WOSU’s Columbus on the Record, alluding to a two-year FBI investigation into Householder’s fundraising tactics that ended in 2006 without charges. “I’ll be very surprised if this turns out well for Democrats, because my experience has been that those who lay down with rattlesnakes usually end up getting bitten.”

By June, though, Butland told The Plain Dealer of Cleveland that he was “pleasantly surprised” by Householder’s early performance. In a December interview with Columbus Monthly, however, he called the year a mixed bag. “On the one hand, he’s not the kind of my-way-or-the-highway type of person that John Kasich was when he was governor,” Butland says. “I think Speaker Householder seems to actually listen.”

But then there’s the other hand. While House Democratic leaders gush about a new culture of cooperation on Capitol Square, others in the party point to the same old result emanating from Broad and High. In April, same as the previous General Assembly, the new Householder-led House passed a six-week abortion ban that outlaws the procedure as soon as a fetal heartbeat is detected. This time, though, Gov. Mike DeWine signed it into law the next day.

In May, lawmakers passed an energy bill that weakens Ohio’s clean-energy standards and will raise money from utility ratepayers to bail out nuclear- and coal-powered plants. Since August, Householder has expressed reservations and allowed no action on gun legislation proposed by DeWine after a gunman in Dayton killed nine and wounded 17. In October, the speaker rejected a request to add sexual orientation and gender identity to House anti-discrimination policies. “If Larry Householder is going to portray himself as someone who is going to work with Democrats and compromise along the way, certainly there has been no compromise on these … very big, important issues,” Butland says. “I suppose compromise in the process is better than nothing. But if the end result is still going to be repugnant legislation and law, then I’m not sure what we’ve gained.”

House Democrats insist their deal with Householder doesn’t include sitting by while the majority endorses policies that cut against some of their party’s deepest convictions. “We tried to negotiate those issues being off the table,” Boggs says. “Ryan Smith was pretty much unwilling to communicate with us anything he was willing to do. Householder was very much up front about, ‘Hey, we still have a supermajority and these bills are going to come forward.’”

Being in a superminority means there’s little their party can do to sway the prevailing beliefs of House Republicans on issues such as gun rights and abortion, Democrats say. It would take 13 Republican defectors for Democrats to prevail; just three Republicans voted against the six-week abortion ban.

Still, protesters had time to fill the House gallery and hallways outside the chamber thanks to prior notice about the so-called Heartbeat Bill advancing to the floor, communication that might not have occurred under the previous regime. “We all have constituencies that we speak to, and [Householder] has a different constituency that he speaks to than I do,” says Leland, who’s also a former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. “That’s the state of Ohio. To think everybody’s going to be marching lockstep in the same direction is just not reality. You have to make the best of it for the people you represent.”

One of Leland’s priorities—public transportation—will get $70 million in annual state funding over the next two years, double the amount earmarked in the last state budget. He’s certain it’s because of the new culture of cooperation, and he hopes the same spirit will carry a bill he sponsored with Republican state Rep. Brett Hillyer to spare mentally ill criminals from receiving the death penalty.

“Now, are we winning every fight? Of course not,” Leland says. “Do we have major differences of opinion on critical issues? Of course we do. But there are opportunities for us to reach common ground on behalf of the people we represent. To me, that’s a huge leap forward.”

Do voters view it that way, though? A September poll by the American Enterprise Institute found that just 22 percent of Americans consider political compromise a sign of weakness. But other findings offer a different interpretation. For instance, half of respondents in that same survey believed at least one of the two major parties doesn’t want what’s best for the country, while a January 2019 George Washington University poll found a 50-50 split on the virtue of compromise itself, with half preferring politicians who stick to their principles. Add to the mix President Donald Trump’s Twitter tirades labeling opponents crooked, nasty, shifty or worse, and it’s no wonder what used to be called loyal opposition now calls itself the Resistance, and moderates from both parties regularly must fend off more conservative or liberal primary challengers.

Ohio has shown some of the same coarseness, to be sure, but state government and its politics are often less rigid than at the federal level, says Mike Curtin, the former Dispatch associate publisher who served in the Ohio House from 2013 to 2016 as a Democrat. The ability to run budget deficits in Washington means federal lawmakers don’t need to compromise on spending priorities in order to make everyone happy. In Columbus, meanwhile, budget compromise is necessary.

It’s a talent Householder has in spades. He might put forward a TV-ad image of a stand-your-ground partisan, but he’s often described as affable, accessible and pragmatic. It’s the opposite image-versus-reality juxtaposition of Kasich, who has cultivated a statesmanlike persona since his 2016 presidential race against Trump but is considered politically prickly and unyielding. “It’s hard not to like him personally,” Butland concedes of Householder. “He’s a world-class schmoozer.”

“Larry is very old-fashioned in terms of being a wheeler-dealer,” Curtin adds. “He’s not very ideological in terms of cutting taxes, cutting taxes, cutting taxes. Larry is not very ideological except where he needs to be.”

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With all 99 Ohio House seats on the ballot in 2020, it remains to be seen whether the second year of the current General Assembly session will unfold with the same talk of bipartisanship as 2019. In November, 20 Republicans introduced a bill that would charge abortion providers with murder and subject them to the death penalty. Sykes called the measure “brazen and absurd.”

Since Householder’s election as speaker last January, Smith and five Republicans who supported him resigned their seats. Their successors were chosen by committees of lawmakers who support Householder. That means a majority of Republicans are now in his corner, and Democratic support isn’t critical.

“Things become difficult when you’ve got people running against each other and all that,” the speaker told Statehouse reporters at the end of 2019, although he vowed to keep working on building relationships across the aisle. (Householder wasn’t available to be interviewed for this article.)

Boggs sees a typical election-year cycle repeating itself: GOP candidates facing primary challengers to their right will introduce legislation aimed at pleasing conservative voters but not pursue their bills when it comes time to pivot toward the general election in November.

Sykes says her eyes are wide open, just as they were when the deal with Householder was struck. “There are still things that he has needed our votes for,” she says. “There is still a contingent of his caucus that’s very conservative. Everything that he has wanted to get passed has required Democrats on board, including his speakership. It would be unwise, I think, to abandon that.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story included a quote from Rep. Niraj Antani, sourced from another state representative, about the importance of Democratic co-sponsors in getting legislation through the House. The quote was removed after Antani denied saying it. 

 

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