Nino Vitale: A Caucus of One

Dave Ghose
Nino Vitale

The aggressive irrelevancy of Nino Vitale

There are different types of ineffective Ohio legislators. Some are lazy. Others are passive. Some are just happy to go along for the ride and collect their $60,584 annual salary. But perhaps the most ineffective are the ones who "aggressively make themselves nonentities," as one longtime lobbyist puts it. They're ideological purists who seem to have no interest in compromise and governing. Nino Vitale is their poster child.

The Urbana Republican represents the 85th Ohio House District, one of the most conservative in the state. One of his predecessors is Jim Jordan, the Tea Party favorite who's now the leader of the Freedom Caucus in Congress. As you might expect, Vitale is a champion of conservative causes. He supports gun rights and fights against unions, abortion and gay marriage. But Vitale approaches his job differently than many conservatives, including Jordan. "[Jordan's] going to stick to his guns on the issues that matter to him, but he will work with you on the things he can work with you on. And when you're not working with him, he's at least going to be friendly," says a Republican lobbyist.

The same can't be said for Vitale. "He is a guy who's come here to vote no and be against everything, and you can't get anything if that's your approach," the Republican lobbyist says. Jim Butler, leader of the House's renegade conservative faction, might have his head in the clouds, but he's willing to work and listen. State Rep. John Becker toes the same conservative line as Vitale, but jokes around with his fellow legislators and even co-sponsored a bill with Bob Hagan, one of the General Assembly's most liberal members who left office in 2015. "Vitale doesn't do that," says a Democratic lawmaker. "He seems to be a caucus of one . . . He sits at his desk in the House chamber kind of seething in his own juices."

Vitale found himself in his party's crosshairs before he even arrived at the Statehouse. After winning his primary in 2014, he announced he was supporting Butler for speaker of the House, even though it was already clear that Cliff Rosenberger had the votes to win. The next year, Vitale voted against the Republican-prepared biennial state budget and refused to contribute to a House campaign finance committee. The state party punished Vitale by refusing to endorse him. "When you put someone like Nino in the legislature, you're hurting your cause far more than you're helping it," a lobbyist says.