Larry Householder is the man of the House

Dan Williamson
State Rep. Larry Householder in the Ohio Statehouse

State Rep. Bill Seitz is given neither to humility nor flattery and generally believes he's smarter than most people about most things. But Seitz readily admits he misread the 2016 presidential election. Most people did.

But one person whose political instincts proved to be sharper than his own, Seitz says, was his old friend Larry Householder. “For the entire year he kept telling me Trump was going to win, and I kept telling him, ‘I don't think so,' and he kept telling me, ‘You watch,'” Seitz says with a laugh. “Larry was right.”

Householder's innate sense of politics will now be further tested over the next couple of years as he attempts a feat some may view every bit as unlikely as Donald Trump's. A decade after his political career ended with something of a whimper, Householder has returned as a newly elected member of the Ohio House of Representatives, where he once spent four eventful years as speaker. As happy as he is to be back, nobody believes that simply being one of 99 House members will be enough for Householder. He means to reclaim that gavel. “There's no doubt,” says the powerful lobbyist Neil Clark, “that his goal is to be speaker.”

You might recall Householder as a controversial figure even if you can't remember why. The governor's office, the Ohio Senate leadership and many top lobbyists viewed Householder as an arrogant usurper with little respect for established Statehouse protocol. And so he was. Hardball politics, aggressive fundraising and cultural conservatism were all part of Householder's persona, and he proudly embraced that brand.

But there was more to Householder than the caricature that he himself nurtured. Republican lobbyist Bob Klaffky, a Householder ally, says the key to his leadership was “political intuition and gut instinct combined with decisiveness.” Passionate about the legislative process, Householder was a hands-on lawmaker and cunning tactician. Members of his House Republican Caucus felt like they were part of something bigger than themselves;

they were part of a family, with Householder as its patriarch. He demanded intense loyalty, but—as corny as it sounds—he also made them feel loved.

“He was far more democratic—and I mean in a small-d way—with his caucus and far more personally engaged with members of his caucus than most of the other leaders I have known,” says Seitz, a Cincinnati attorney who was a House freshman when Householder became speaker. “Larry, to his great credit, always let the whole unruly caucus sit there and battle it out. Then he would reel them in, sort of like an exhausted fish at the end of the line.”

By the end of his term, however, the bloom was off the rose. Speculation swirled that Householder's bare-knuckle political style had descended into something darker. Allegations were made, investigations were initiated, and the speaker's top political enforcers were exiled from the Statehouse. Householder served out his term as speaker but lost much of his swagger, and those he'd antagonized with his bravado were delighted to see him knocked from his perch.

Even though nothing ever came of those investigations, Householder abandoned his plans to run for statewide office in 2006. Instead, he settled for a local job, running successfully to fill the last two years of an unexpired term in the Perry County auditor's office. Householder didn't like the job, finding county politics even more partisan than the Statehouse. He withdrew his candidacy for a full term in 2008 and decided to make up for lost time with his wife, Taundra, and five sons while working his family produce farm in Glenford. It seemed Ohio wouldn't have Larry Householder to kick around anymore.

While he expresses admiration for President Trump, Householder's political style is far more like Bill Clinton's. Many politicians express distaste for the political process, but like Clinton, Householder revels in the messiness—the ugliness, even—of campaigns and lawmaking every bit as much as the results. He seems like a guy equally at home in a Southern Baptist church pew as in a seedy bar. He can play the hillbilly in a way that masks his fierce intelligence, fooling adversaries into underestimating him. And, like the 42nd president, what Householder lacks in self-reflection he makes up for in magnetic charisma. “He's tough, he's smart, and he's charming,” says Dan McCarthy, another veteran Statehouse consultant.

If he is to win back the job he once loved, Householder now has a new group of 98 other House members to win over with his charm. Some of them already know of him; folks like Seitz have skirted term limits by going back and forth between the House and the Ohio Senate for 16 years. Others, though, weren't around when Householder was the House ringmaster and either haven't heard much about him or heard all the wrong things. “We all know there are plenty of folks who did not like Larry Householder,” Seitz says. “Some people around Capitol Square today who were not there have been told many bad things about Larry Householder and are somewhat skittish about his return.”

“I am a freshman,” Householder says, “and there's many people in this legislative body that I haven't had an opportunity to get to know yet. So I can't say whether I'm going to be speaker or not be speaker. I have no idea.”

A freshman though he is, Householder does not discourage any of his colleagues or staff from addressing him as “speaker.” That includes Anna Lippincott, a young political consultant who advises Householder—but was in the fifth grade when he actually held the job. “He is the speaker,” Lippincott declares.

“Well,” Householder chimes in, “but there's lots of speakers.”

For the moment, however, there's only one. Cliff Rosenberger, who hails from Clarksville in southern Ohio, was re-elected to the House's top job in January and will be speaker until his final term expires at the end of 2018. Yet Householder has already clashed publicly with Rosenberger. In February, apparently displeased with his House committee assignments, Householder declared he would only serve on three of the five panels Rosenberger appointed him to—the three that interested him.

Rosenberger says he has nothing bad to say about Householder, but he doesn't go out of his way to say anything nice about him, either. Their relationship may yet blossom into a friendship, but it got off to a rocky start last year when Householder became suspicious that Rosenberger was supporting his Republican primary opponent, Cliff Biggers, a Baptist minister who is president of the Coshocton City Council.

“Speaker Rosenberger and I talked early on, and I explained my intentions,” Householder says. “I don't know how he took that, or what his actions were and weren't. We shook hands, and he looked me in the eye and said, ‘I won't be involved.'” Asked whether he believes the speaker kept his word, Householder shrugs with a hint of a grin.

“I did not get involved directly,” Rosenberger says. “Larry has his theories, and he can keep having his theories. I told him at the get-go I had heard a lot about his personal background, but I didn't hold that against him.” Householder won the primary with about 72 percent of the vote and cruised through the general election.

He says it was his youngest son, Luke, who talked him into running for the legislature again. Late in 2015, Luke told his father he would be casting his first vote in the March primary, and it would be pretty special if he could cast that vote for his dad. “I'm pretty sure his brothers put him up to it,” Householder adds with a chuckle. It probably didn't take too much convincing. “Taundra says, ‘It's nice to see you smiling again.'”

The year 2000 doesn't seem so long ago until you consider how different politics was then. It was before the 9/11 terrorist attacks and before social media. Barack Obama was an unknown Illinois state legislator and Donald Trump was a Democrat. But things were about to change.

Most notably, the legislative term limits that had been enacted by Ohio voters in 1992 had claimed their first class of state lawmakers. Among them was Jo Ann Davidson, a moderate Republican from Reynoldsburg who had served six years as speaker of the Ohio House. Davidson had tapped Rep. Bill Harris, a northern Ohio auto dealer, to replace her. Mild-mannered and unfailingly decent, Harris seemed like a safe choice for the speaker's job.

The only trouble was that Larry Householder wanted to be speaker, too. In his fourth year in the legislature, Householder recognized that, thanks to term limits, he wouldn't have the luxury of waiting his turn—and that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Coming from southeast Ohio, Householder could connect with the more socially conservative members who felt unrepresented by the current Republican leadership. Those lawmakers wanted to expand rights for gun owners and to push back against the growing tolerance and acceptance of openly gay people. Householder wasn't really one of them—he was more interested in economic issues than the culture war—but he could speak their language.

Householder lobbied his colleagues, but many of them were pledged to Harris. So he drove around the state and introduced himself to Republicans who were running for the House. If he met one that was supporting Harris, he found out who else was running for that seat in the Republican primary and promised to support that candidate in exchange for supporting him for speaker. After the 2000 Republican primary, it was clear that enough of Householder's candidates had won to shift the balance of power. As the Republican leadership hastily found an open Senate seat for Harris, Householder was crowned the new speaker.

It would be an understatement to say that expectations were low for the new House leadership in 2001. “We had nobody who had been a chairman before, nobody who had been a vice chairman before and nobody who had carried any significant legislation,” Householder recalls, “and the talk around town was we were the most conservative legislature in the history of the legislature, and we wouldn't get a budget passed.”

But they passed a budget—and more. Householder rewarded the social conservatives with Ohio's concealed-carry gun law and a prohibition against gay unions—even though same-sex couples already were denied the right to marry. But he also steered the House in directions that went beyond conservative orthodoxy. He fought for more money for food banks, for a more equitable school funding formula and for a gasoline tax increase to pay for roads and bridges.

Rep. John Boccieri, a Youngstown-area Democrat and Air Force veteran who served with Householder and is now back in the House, says Householder helped him enact a few of his minority-party proposals, including laws to support community college and funding for Boccieri's fellow veterans. “He's 6-4—he always had a persona of being tough. But deep down he was trying to look for ways to help you rather than burn you,” Boccieri says.

But members of the Senate and Gov. Bob Taft's team found him to be an irritating adversary. Seitz says this is because Householder “outfoxed them” on most occasions, and Householder wholeheartedly agrees. “I know there were several senators who got their noses bent out of shape because they felt that we won a lot,” Householder says. “They even had a standing rule that I wasn't allowed to negotiate directly with certain members of the Senate because they felt they always lost. I can't help that.”

But what also roiled many of his contemporaries was the arrogance with which he and his team operated.

Critics observed that Householder's early political successes had somehow convinced him that he was now king of Capitol Square. Adding fuel to the fire were his top aides, Brett Buerck and Kyle Sisk, who played the bad cops for their gregarious boss. Buerck and Sisk were effective in hustling for votes and contributions, but their disrespectful manner earned them a long list of enemies.

Through an anonymously penned memo that launched state and federal investigations, those enemies struck back with allegations that the speaker and his minions had hatched an illegal campaign-contribution money-laundering scheme. No charges were ever filed against any of them, but the assertions were enough for Householder to fire his loyal lieutenants—convincing many around the Statehouse that the whole lot of them must be guilty of something, even if nobody was certain what it was.

Clark—one of the few men on Capitol Square with a personality to match Householder's—was an early ally who ultimately turned against the speaker, openly expressing satisfaction over his apparent downfall. Today, though, Clark is charitable in his assessment of Householder's tenure. “You can't say that he wasn't a successful speaker, because he was. He didn't leave in disgrace. He left because he was termed.”

Many, including Clark, Klaffky and Seitz, blame Householder's troubles on his staff. He doesn't blame his former aides for anything. In fact, he doesn't acknowledge any mistakes at all. “Anytime you're a person who is able to lead a body that had a lot of accomplishments, you're going to have friends, and you're going to have adversaries,” he says. “I don't have any regrets.”

When Rosenberger departs at the start of 2019, the smart money is on Rep. Ryan Smith, the well-liked chairman of the House Finance Committee, to take over as speaker for two years. Rosenberger does not plan to endorse anyone to succeed him, but he's clearly a fan of Smith. “Ryan has a very inclusive leadership style that is very straightforward and honest about what he's going to do and how he's going to do it,” Rosenberger says.

Smith, who lives in Gallia County in the southeast corner of the state, has not declared for the job but thinks he has the qualities to be good at it. “Any speaker needs to be a good communicator, a good listener, have integrity and be honest,” he says. As for his potential rival, Smith says “interesting guy,” while quickly acknowledging he doesn't know much about him.

Householder knows that if the speakership goes to the person whose turn is due, it will go to Smith. But he has never been one to wait for his turn. “That position is one that has to be earned,” he says. “No one can be anointed, and people who are anointed usually don't have very successful terms.”

Clark believes anyone would be foolish to dismiss Householder's odds. “When it's time for December of 2018 to come around, I would expect Larry to be one of the two choices for speaker,” he says. “He works 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The man is never off. He had no problem having conference calls at 3 o'clock in the morning. He went to bed late and got up early. If they think they're going to run over him in his aspirations to be speaker, they're mistaken, because he takes it very seriously.”

One advantage Householder has now that he didn't have in 2000 is that he knows how to do the job. “He's got the experience,” Boccieri says. “I certainly think he has the wherewithal to become speaker again, no question.” But Householder won't be able to sneak up on anybody like he did 17 years ago. This time, everyone sees him coming.

If the next two years in the General Assembly are orderly and predictable, Ryan Smith will be awfully tough to beat. On the other hand, nothing seems to be orderly or predictable these days. Etiquette and decorum may have gone the way of CD players and moderate Republicans. “Predicting a speaker's race or anything in politics is a dangerous road to go down,” Rosenberger says. “The sands shift quite quickly here.”

With an open gubernatorial race in 2018, who knows whether current alliances will hold under the weight of a competitive Republican primary? “Politics has become so turbulent,speculation about the next speaker's race is meaningless,” McCarthy says.“We don't even know who the members are going to be in 2019.” And remember—Larry Householder's back in the mix. He might just make some turmoil of his own.

There's a famous scene in “Patton” in which the legendary World War II general, played by George C. Scott, surveys the carnage on a European battlefield and declares, “I love it. God help me, I do love it so.” It's one of Householder's favorite movies, and he recites the line with a grin.

“That's me,” he says. “I love chaos. I thrive on it.”