Bill Seitz and Ryan Smith: The Diplomat and the Street Fighter

Dave Ghose
Bill Seitz and Ryan Smith

The contrasting styles of Ryan Smith and Bill Seitz, the Statehouse's most effective legislators

The two most admired members of the Ohio General Assembly couldn't be more different. Ryan Smith is a low-key, small-town financial advisor known for his sincerity, pragmatism and fairness. Bill Seitz is a bombastic-big-city attorney with a keen intellect and a sharp wit. Smith listens carefully, treats everyone with respect and speaks plainly in a slight southern drawl. Seitz is loud, unfiltered and combative-"Donald Trump with more intelligence," as one longtime Statehouse insider puts it. The polar opposites prove there's no cookie-cutter mold for legislative success.

Smith is the lesser known of the two. In 2015, shortly after he was elected to his second full term in the Ohio House of Representatives, Smith was appointed chairman of the House Finance Committee, a plum and challenging assignment for someone with his limited experience. A conservative but not an ideologue, the 43-year-old Republican doesn't demonize government, and he's won over lobbyists and fellow lawmakers alike with his intelligence, accessibility and work ethic. "There's not a better legislator at the Statehouse than Ryan Smith," says a longtime Republican insider.

Smith comes from rural southern Ohio, where he runs a financial advisory firm in Gallipolis with his father and uncle. It's a part of the state with a long tradition of producing accomplished Ohio political leaders-think Jim Rhodes, Vern Riffe and John Carey, whom Smith replaced in the House-and the newcomer shares many of his predecessors' traits. "He comes out of a very humble setting, and he's a humble guy," says a state representative. "He's not flashy. He's not self-absorbed. He appears to everybody who deals with him to be in the game to get things done that he believes need to get done."

If Smith is the legislature's master diplomat, then Seitz is its best verbal street fighter. When Seitz delivers a speech on the Ohio Senate floor, everyone around the Statehouse pays attention. No other legislator can match his oratorical skills (he won best orator in the biggest landslide in the Columbus Monthly survey), and you never know if he might say something funny, surprising, persuasive, outrageous or all of the above. (And his admirers say he's even better late at night over a stiff drink.) "Bill Seitz has no filter," says a fellow Republican lawmaker. "He's unleashed at all times."

An accomplished Cincinnati antitrust attorney, Seitz isn't afraid of conflict. That, along with his strong work ethic, gift of gab and deep knowledge of public policy, has made him a powerful champion for a wide variety of causes over his nearly 16 years in the Ohio General Assembly, including criminal justice reform, legalized gambling, energy issues and eliminating red light cameras. "It's not nearly as much fun to deal with him when you're on the opposite end of an issue, but even then it is very entertaining," says a veteran contract lobbyist.

Seitz's outspokenness has gotten him into trouble in the past. In 2005, he faced ridicule when he expressed concerns that mothers breast-feeding in public could lead to people suing businesses after slipping on leaky breast milk. Then there was the brouhaha over Senate Bill 5, the legislature's failed attempt to roll back collective bargaining rights. Seitz went against his fellow Republicans, vociferously calling their plan an overreach. He was proven right when Ohio voters overturned the proposal, but Seitz paid a price for his apostasy. He never rose to a leadership position in the Senate as he did in the House, where he served as majority whip.

The contrast between Seitz and Smith is obvious during recent interviews with Columbus Monthly. Smith is succinct and deferential, crediting legislative veterans like Ron Amstutz and Kirk Schuring for helping him learn the ropes in the House. Seitz, meanwhile, is verbose and colorful. He talks about his pack-a-day cigarette habit ("I ain't dead yet, as the old song goes"), his favorite floor speech (the time he likened Ohio's shale beneficiaries to The Beverly Hillbillies) and his outspoken nature ("If you tell the truth every day, you don't have to worry about who you lied to yesterday").

The Man with the Golden Mouth

Highlights fromColumbus Monthly's conversation with Bill Seitz:

On what makes a good floor speech: "It has to combine the visceral and intellectual."

On political debate: "All of us around here-or I should say at least 90 percent of us around here-are very careful to avoid personal insults, personal attacks. You don't want to do that. But you also want to be very clear that you are convinced of the rectitude of your position and willing to defend it against all comers."

On technology: "I'm not very technologically savvy and readily admit it. [Aides] print out all the emails, and when I want to send you an email, I will take your email and write my response in pen and hand it back to them to send it."

On the "Iron Duke of the Ohio Senate": "One of the predecessors of mine in this very seat was a fellow named William H. Deddens. He was known as the 'Iron Duke of the Ohio Senate,' and he was sort of a crusty old personality. He and my father and my grandfather were all affiliated in a small building and loan. So as a little child, third and fourth grade, I would come in, and he would take the latest edition of National Review, William F. Buckley's magazine, and throw it down in front of me and say, 'Read this, sonny. You might learn something.' "

On smoking: "I quit a couple of times, each time for a year. This last one was more than 10 years ago, and I felt so miserable for the entire year. I felt like I had lost my mental edge, and I felt lethargic and lacking in energy. So whether it's up here or not [points to his head], I just think it helps keep me sharp."

On Senate Bill 5: "Sometimes you have to draw a line in the sand and say, 'I just can't support this.' And I did it, actually trying to tell my colleagues that this is an area of law that does warrant reform, but that you are going so far overboard that it's going to blow up in your face, and it's going to set the cause of public sector labor law reform back by 10 years. And though it's only five years, you can see that there has been precious little appetite for tackling any aspect of that since 2011."