When he first rose to power, the former Ohio House speaker, now charged in a $60 million bribery scheme, rode herd over House Republicans with a big stick and plenty of charm. And he didn't mind being compared to Tony Soprano.
Editor’s note: In 2003, Columbus Monthly profiled Larry Householder as he first tightened his grip on political power in Capitol Square.
"What the hell am I doing over here?"
Larry Householder is looking around the east lobby of the Ohio Statehouse, where the Senate offices are located. He's following his press secretary, Dwight Crum, who assures him this is the quickest route back to the Riffe Center, where the House offices are. Householder keeps following, but doesn't like being out of his element. He's in the lair of a legislative body where nobody answers to him. “This," he says, "is the dark side."
Householder stops at a group of Cincinnati school children seated around an enlarged map of Ohio stenciled into the floor. He asks them where they're from, and asks if they can find their county on the map. One boy raises his hand. "Are you a senator?" he asks shyly.
"I wouldn't be a senator," Householder responds. "They don't know what they're doing."
He's joking, but indeed it is difficult to imagine Householder as a senator. He relishes the atmosphere of near chaos in the Ohio House and, as much as he preaches the importance of compromise, thrives among the sharply defined ideologies of its brash members. The Senate is dominated by older, laid-back gentlemen who take their time. Householder, by contrast, is a young man in a hurry. That's how he became speaker of the House in the first place.
His predecessor, Jo Ann Davidson, never wanted to hand her gavel over to Householder. But when Davidson anointed Bill Harris as the next speaker in 2000, Householder put up enough of a fight to force her to broker a shared speakership between the two—Harris for one year, Householder the next. Householder agreed to that deal until he decided he didn't have to. By that summer, he had enough votes pledged to him that he'd win the speaker's job outright, and Harris was sent to the Senate. Householder wasn't willing to wait his turn, even for a year.
Since then, he's done nothing less than rewrite the book on Ohio state politics for the term-limits era. His ruthless political style has made him a convenient boogeyman for Democrats and newspaper editorial pages. But this big, 44-year-old country boy with the slight Appalachian accent also has won a lot of people over. He's not the most powerful person at the State house—that's still the governor—but his is unquestionably the dominant personality.
"I guess I became sort of the conduit to try to bring people together, build relationships and make a family here," Householder says. He refers to a newspaper story that compared him to a famous TV mobster. "The article about me being the Tony Soprano of Ohio politics, there is a little bit of truth to that. There isa family. There is. And Ido demand loyalty. There's no question about it. I demand loyalty just the same as the head of a household demands loyalty. That's the only way you can do it. And you gotta reward loyalty and you got to punish disloyalty. That's the only way it works."
If you don't know Householder personally, chances are you don't like him. You've heard he's the field general for an army of right-wing rowdies, that he doesn't play well with others, including Gov. Bob Taft, that he runs unfair negative ads against Democrats, that he's a control freak who rules the House with an iron fist, that he raises unheard-of amounts of campaign money from lobbyists and forces his members to do the same. That's the caricature of Householder, and there's plenty of truth to it.
Householder is well aware of the things people say about him, and they don't much bother him. "I think they're all a little true," he says with a laugh. His only gripe is when it's suggested his motivations are selfish. Who is he out for then, if not for himself? Householder insists his loyalties are to his Republican caucus, to the House of Representatives as a whole and to the people of Ohio. That all sounds pretty lofty for a guy with Householder's reputation. But if his reputation was all there was to him, he wouldn't be speaker of the House—at least he wouldn't be an effective one.
One of Householder's secrets is that he's one of the most winsome, engaging folks you'd ever meet. He's comfortable in his own skin, carrying that intangible of authenticity that so many politicians search for their entire careers. Householder also outworks everybody—ask Bill Harris—and is a hell of a lot smarter than he looks. He’ll sit back in a meeting while his aides are discussing a complex issue and look bored, fiddling with his glasses, clicking his pen, maybe just staring up at the celing. Then he’ll command everyone's attention by throwing out an idea that they all wish they'd thought of.
The speaker is a conservative Republican. Culturally conservative agenda items have gained a degree of action that they never had under Speaker Davidson. But, contrary to popular belief, he isn't an idealogue. For one thing, he's too pragmatic to be an ideological purist. For another, the issues he speaks most passionately about aren't guns and God, but creating jobs and helping the poor. Coming from Perry County, a low-income rural area, Householder feels a kinship with Democrats from poor urban districts that he'll never have with someone like Bob Taft.
In fact, when he gets going, he sounds a little like a Democrat running for governor.
“You need visionaries," Householder says. "Right now in Ohio our perception, even of ourselves, is we're a backward state that's kind of slow, and we don't have our shit together. Fact the matter is, we do have our act together. We've got tremendous amounts of resources. We got everything we need. We just got to put the pieces in place. And if you can't be excited about that there's nothing to be excited about."
Householder arrives at the Statehouse at about 9:45 on a Tuesday morning. It's the day after Memorial Day, and the speaker's running a little late for his 9:30 appointment. He pokes his head into his Statehouse quarters—a big office behind the House clerk's desk that he rarely uses—and cheerfully comments on the casual attire of State Rep. Jimmy Stewart, a thirtysomething freshman from Athens sporting an untucked short-sleeved shirt.
Stewart and Tracy Intihar, Householder's legislative affairs director, are in to brief the speaker on the progress of House Bill 6, Stewart's measure to expand the authority of state and local health officials in the event of a bioterrorism attack. Stewart tells Householder that some conservative Republicans are concerned the bill could lead to potential abuses of power by the government. Householder nods. "As you probably have recognized, we have some members in the caucus who haven't yet figured out that they're the government," the speaker says.
Intihar tells Householder that Rep. Sally Kilbane of Rocky River, a member of the homeland security committee, is among those calling for changes in Stewart's bill. Householder smiles, recalling that Kilbane had made headlines earlier in the year for making a fuss when Riffe Center security personnel insisted on searching her bag. "She doesn't want it amended to deal with purse searching or something like that?”
Householder turns to Stewart's political fortunes, asking what kind of reactions he's getting in his district. Stewart replies that he's had some decent press on H.B. 6, but has gotten flack from Ohio University types over higher education cuts in the budget. "You're gonna get that, Jimmy,” Householder says. "They're never satisfied."
After the meeting, Intihar takes a moment to give Householder a status report on a few issues. The House criminal justice committee is considering two sex offender registration bills, Senate Bill 5 and S.B. 9. Householder wants to roll the contents of S.B. 9 into S.B. 5 and simply pass one bill out of committee. "Senator Jacobson doesn't like that idea,” Intihar says. Jeff Jacobson, an ambitious Republican from Montgomery County, is the sponsor of SB. 5. "I think he's just trying to keep his bill his bill."
The speaker is unconcerned. "Just roll it in," he says. As for Jacobson, "Deal with him."
Columbus Mayor Mike Coleman arrives at 10:20, accompanied by Ty Marsh, his chief of staff. Coleman, a Democrat, is here representing Ohio's big-city mayors to talk about several issues of concern to the speaker. "Want comfortable chairs?” Householder asks, pointing to two red velvet armchairs. He and the mayor sit next to each other as Marsh takes a seat at the adjacent couch.
Coleman gripes for several minutes about Columbus' failure to acquire federal terrorism funds from the Bush administration as Householder listens sympathetically. Then the speaker changes the subject to the recent fire—the second one in the last two years—that severely damaged the mayor's home. "How're things going for you personally?" Householder asks. "Boy, you've had a string of bad luck. Did you guys lose all your personal stuff?"
At the top of the mayor's agenda is the local government fund. The governor proposed deep cuts in the fund, some of which were restored in the House-passed version of the budget. "We restored it to 90 percent of what it was," the speaker says. "If we're back to the House plan, do you think that's something you could live with?”
"If you could not cut it at all, that would be the best thing," Coleman says.
"Well," Householder says with a smile, "don't be disappointed if you get 90 percent, 'cause that may be the best you're gonna do."
The stories Householder tells are so good and fit his life story so perfectly that, well, some of them are a little hard to believe. Particularly the one about how he met Vern Riffe, the legendary Democratic House speaker. Riffe, a tough rural politician from Scioto County with an insurance background, is the politician to whom Householder is most often compared. Just months before Riffe's death in 1997, Bill Morgan, who was senior vice president for the Ohio Bankers Association, told Householder there was someone he wanted him to meet and invited him over to his office. Unbeknownst to Householder—then a freshman representative—Riffe's office was right next door, and Morgan introduced them.
"At the end of the conversation, he looked at me, and said, "Son,' he says, 'You're gonna be speaker,’ " Householder recalls. “ 'I know you will. Play your cards right, and you'll be speaker of the House. Greatest job in the world!’ He said, 'First of all, you've been in the insurance business. Now, I got a special place in my heart for a man from Southeastern Ohio who's been in the insurance business.’ "
Morgan confirms the story is true ("Vernal did tell him that," Morgan says). Then there's the one about Jim Rhodes visiting Householder's home when Rhodes was first running for governor and Householder was a boy. "Evidently someone had told him that my dad knew a lot of people in the agricultural community and had some tractor businesses, things like that, and that he would be a key person to get to know," Householder says. "And so, Governor Rhodes used to stop by every once in a while at the farm, and they'd sit and they'd talk." He and the former governor remained friends for years after that.
"Jim Rhodes would call me religiously, sometimes every single day, sometimes once a week, just to talk about things and meet out at Scioto Country Club," Householder says. "We'd have lunch, and he'd hold court, and I'd get to listen to all those great conversations. He certainly taught me politics, but I don't know that he ever knew that he was teaching me politics. I watched very closely, and I had a great interest in Jim Rhodes because he's a guy who got things done. You know, you can disagree with policy, you can disagree with some of the things he did, but he made things happen."
Householder, his wife, Taundra, their five boys—ages 4 to 17—and countless llamas, sheep and horses now live on a farm in the town of Glenford, which is about a 45-minute drive east of Downtown Columbus, just south of I-70. It never occurred to Householder to live anywhere else. His family has been in Perry County since 1802—before it was Perry County and before Ohio was Ohio. It's one of those places where residents don't say which town they live in. They're just from Perry County.
Householder returned home after graduating from OU in 1982 and opened up an insurance business. When jobs started leaving in the early 1990s, Householder realized how few opportunities Perry County had for economic growth and began recruiting candidates to run for office. Eventually, he ran himself. He defeated a Democratic incumbent for Perry County commissioner, where he served for two years, helping to bring in water lines, new roads and a New Lexington branch of Hocking College.
The 91st House District, which Householder created for himself after the 2000 Census, is pretty safely Republican. But the one he lived in back in 1996 was a Democratic-leaning district represented by Mary Abel. Householder decided to run against her that year anyway, and got 56 percent of the vote. Knowing that term limits would force Davidson out after 2000, it didn't take him too long to decide he wouldn't mind being the one to replace her.
Since he wasn't popular with Davidson and her allies, Householder sought out an alternative route to power. Not only did he lobby every Republican representative, he traveled to the homes of all viable Republican House candidates to lobby for support. “I went out and built relationships," he says. "My wife and myself, sometimes the kids, would jump into the family van and drive—go to Cincinnati, go to Toledo, go to Cleveland, parts in between, Delta, Ohio; Bryan, Ohio—and talk to folks." The pro-Householder candidates performed remarkably well in the primaries, and the battle for speaker was over almost before it had begun.
Early in 2001, the new speaker brokered a deal with the schools coalition that was driving the decade-old school-funding lawsuit to end the case. They settled on an amount that would be raised through video-gaming proceeds, and Householder held a press conference. What he didn't do was check first with Gov. Taft or Senate President Dick Finan, both of whom felt they were being shown up by the new guy. Householder's deal was dead on arrival. "I coulda handled that better," he says. "I just sorta got caught up in the moment. It was so exciting."
While Householder's strategy was poor, many observers admired his energy and enthusiasm and noted this was the sort of bipartisan coalition-building he'd practiced as a county commissioner. But he wasn't able to translate that into Democratic votes for the biennial budget. Although he received unanimous support from his caucus, not a single Democrat voted for the budget. The speaker wasn't pleased and promised House minority leader Jack Ford—now the mayor of Toledo—he would demonstrate his displeasure in the 2002 election cycle.
"I sat and told Jack Ford, ‘Jack, we're gonna use this in a campaign. You'd better think about this.’ And he said, 'Oh, you just want me to get guys to vote for it.' And I said, ‘No, I'm gonna tell ya, we will use this in a campaign, and we'll win a couple of races. This is a huge issue. How do I know? Because the caucus used it against Mary Abel in my race.’ "
The budget wasn't all Householder used in the campaign. Provoking outrage from newspaper editorials and columns across the state, the House Republicans either misleadingly or outright falsely-accused one Democrat of being a deadbeat dad, another of being soft on drugs, another of supporting a tax hike she'd never seen.
Householder has no apologies. He says the Democrats played dirty, too, and don't get any flack for it because they lost. "As far as being a ferocious, I guess, campaigner, I will admit that I am. Yes, I am. ’Cause I know that you can't get the job done, you can't help people, you can't move the state forward, you can't complete your vision for the future unless you hold the office. And I'm a competitive person."
Houscholder's 11:30 meeting at his Riffe Center office is on H.B. 1, Taft's Third Frontier economic development plan. State Rep. Thom Collier, the economic development chairman, is in to discuss the governor's proposal. Everyone in the room seems to agree that Ohio's efforts to attract economic development stack up pretty poorly when compared with the efforts of other states. Householder suggests creating an advisory board of technology and development experts to help get Ohio up to speed.
But Intihar is worried the Taft administration won't like being told how to administer the governor's development plan. "I think we're gonna have to,” Householder says. "We could even give it some sexy name like Invest in Ohio, or Ohio Invest." He says pension companies could come to these board meetings and learn how to invest in the state. "Has the governor talked about any of this stuff?”
“He's talked about it,” Intihar says. “The question is do we offend the governor by putting it in the bill and giving it more structure?”
“The problem is," says Householder, “if we don't put the structure into place we're not gonna have the long-term vision to have the effect we want.” Karen Minton, a House policy staffer who specializes in economic development, notes that Taft might not be offended anyway, because he's mentioned some of the things they're talking about.
Rep Collier chimes in. "We didn't create the Thind Frontier," he says cheerfully. “We just made it better.”
That seems to remind Householder of a Beatles song. "Take a sad song and make it better," he says, and he and Collier break out laughing. Ultimately, the decision's made to put language creating the advisory board into HB. 1. "If we can get a commision together to have excitement, yell at each other and scream at each other and eat pizzas late at night, that would be key." Householder says. "Right now I don't see any excitement. I don't see anyone out there screaming about the Third Frontier."
After lunch is a somewhat fruitless meeting on prescription drug reform with State Rep. John Hagan of Stark County. Then Householder heads to the Rhodes Tower for one on H.B. 2, which would implement the recommendations of the Governor's Commission on Teaching Success. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Clyde Evans of Rio Grande, suggests expanding the bill's scope to make recommendations on merit pay at the higher-education level. Householder likes the idea, but doesn't think Evans should include it in H.B. 2. "That's gonna be a fight," he says. He tells Evans to start work on another bill dealing with higher education instead. "When you get into a fistfight, Clyde, you don't want to fight the whole town."
Householder seems drained after a late afternoon meeting with Taft and Senate President Doug White. He's planning to be at his son's baseball game in Perry County in the evening, but first has an appointment with Lisa Hamler-Podolski, executive director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks. "When am I dealing with Lisa Podolski? Can I change? Can I do the Superman thing?" The Superman thing, apparently, is stepping into his office restroom and reappearing moments later in blue jeans, a gray T-shirt and a Woody Hayes-style OSU ball cap.
At around 5:45, Crum accompanies Householder to Second Harvest's East Gay Street office and reminds him they're behind schedule. "I knew the governor was gonna be 20 minutes late,” Householder says. "Dwight, you're gonna have to get me moving here." Once inside, Hamler-Podolski thanks Householder for restoring food-bank money that Taft had left out of his budget proposal. Householder tells her he has "every bit of faith" the money will survive in the conference committee with the Senate, but can't promise her Taft won't use his line-item veto pen to leave it on the cutting-room floor. Taft is wary of earmarking money for specific hunger programs.
"Any advice?" she asks. Householder slowly shakes his head.
After the meeting, Crum drives Householder to Somerset, a Perry County town lined with yellow ribbons and American flags, where his 9-year-old son Nathan's baseball game already has begun. Householder is one of the team's coaches. "Used to be the head coach," he says, “but I can't always guarantee I'm gonna be there." He arrives at about 7:15, just in time to see the shortstop—wearing a bright yellow jersey with HOUSEHOLDER scrunched over a big No. 33—lunge in vain for a ground ball and immediately run to the shallow part of the outfield to assume his role as the cutoff man. Nathan's dad heads toward the diamond to coach third base. "We're winning today," he says.
On a coffee table in Householder's Riffe Center office is an item that looks a little like a fire poker, with a sharp metal point sticking straight out and another curved downward into a hook. "Know what that is?" Householder says. "It's an elephant tamer." A trainer would use it to grab an elephant's ear or tusk to guide or correct the animal's behavior. The speaker jokes he's never used it on one of his members. "I’ve never had to," he says with a smile. "A member's having trouble on a bill, and I just point to it, explain how it works, and that's all I have to do."
Householder's tough on his caucus, and he's proud of that. He thinks he's taught them unselfishness and hard work. He believes most of them have learned the importance of sacrificing temporary individual aspirations for the good of the team. It's why he was so tough on a few Republican lawmakers last year—stripping them of committees and chairmanships—after word surfaced of a potential coup against him, and it's why he eventually allowed them back into his good graces. He's gotten members to raise campaign money and then give it to the caucus fund. He's convinced lawmakers to vote for bills they don't want to vote for, simply as character building exercises.
After the 2004 election, Householder will succumb to term limits himself. He tentatively plans to run for state auditor in 2006 and maybe someday for governor. In the meantime, he knows there's a chance there could be a leadership void and that team mentality could give way to selfishness and backbiting. But he doesn't think the answer is to maintain order by trying to handpick the next speaker. In fact, he thinks that would be the worst thing he could do.
"There has to be the fight," he says. “One good thing about the system of government we have is the strong are survivors. And that not only helps you by making it and becoming what you strive to become, but it helps train you for the wars that you're gonna have with the job. You know, you've gotta be a street fighter to have this position. You've gotta be tough. And you have to go through that process. It makes you tough."
"You know, every 15-minute meeting, one meeting I might be hugging a member, the next meeting I might have to be whackin' a member. And it's sorta like the family, you know. There's times you need whacked, and there's times you need hugged."
This story originally appeared in the July 2003 issue of Columbus Monthly.
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