Six weeks ago, Republican Jason Stevens, a second-term representative from rural southern Ohio, scored an upset victory over Rep. Derek Merin.
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The battle for political control of the Ohio House of Representatives has exposed the risks facing the Republican Party as factions of its supermajority in the legislature fight more over tactics and a willingness to upend long-held institutional norms than policy.
Six weeks ago, Republican Jason Stevens, a second-term representative from rural southern Ohio, scored an unexpected bipartisan victory for the speaker over Rep. Derek Merrin. Since then, Stevens’ detractors have racked up headline after headline about his maneuvers — even though the uniform law has yet to be enacted. This includes the crucial and time-sensitive state budget.
And the fighting seems far from over. As Stevens finally prepares to unveil the Republican session’s priorities on Wednesday, a group of GOP lawmakers lined up against him — calling themselves the “Republican Majority” — has not ruled out suing him for control of the election campaign fund.
The faction wants the judge to clarify whether the speaker of the House of Representatives and the leader of the faction must necessarily be the same person. Although Ohio law does not appear to require it, Stevens argued that he is both.
“I’m the speaker of the House, the leader of the Republican caucus, and I’m very happy that we can prepare and move forward,” Stevens told reporters after successfully passing the House rules on Jan. 24 during a typically dull procedural session. turned out to be hoarse.
“Our house is now in order,” he declared, even as Merrin supporters stood by, claiming violations of the constitution and rules. This included Stevens not allowing them to speak in the hall – a time-honored tool of speakers everywhere – and starting the session at 2.05pm instead of 2.00pm.
It’s all part of a growing line of attacks on Stevens and Republicans who have backed him that has rattled the legislature in a state where the GOP controls every branch of government and twice elected Republican Donald Trump president by wide margins.
A. joined the fight announced the takeover caucus of the Republican Party from the Merino camp, a call for the resignation of Stevens, condemnation of Stevens and his Republican supporters by the Ohio Republican Party Central Committee and attack ads from one of several single-party PACs now starting to run for re-election.
“There are a lot of people right now who don’t feel like they have a voice because the Democrats elected the speaker of the House,” Merin told reporters on the day he declared himself in charge of the party and its fundraising operation, despite , with the fact that the Associated Press has not yet received records of this secret ballot in response to its requests.
Fracture is a known risk of supermajority rule.
Aristotle Houtras, who served as executive secretary to the late Ohio Democratic House Speaker Vernal Rief, who led the chamber from 1975 to 1995, recalled how the legendary Ohio politician fretted after his party won 62 of 99 seats in 1982: “It might be too much, guys.” Republicans have 67 this year.
“Even Vern Riefe, the longest-serving speaker in Ohio history, knew it could be difficult to manage too large a majority,” said Hutras, who was a young caucus staffer in 1982. “When there are too many people in a meeting, every man is a king.”
Hutras said Rife quickly resolved the conflict by getting down to work right away.
Merino’s group believes the math is on their side. Forty-three of the 67 Republicans in the House of Representatives supported him for speaker, a clear majority of members of the House. But 22 broke down and supported Stevens in defiance the results of the speaker’s informal vote in November and unite with all 32 House Democrats.
Clearly confused, angry and impressed, the Merino camp went on the attack. Although Merino’s term is limited to two years, many of his allies are new lawmakers whose ability to deliver may depend on the House’s financial support.
They asked the party’s central committee to censure Stevens and those who voted for him, including stripping him of future party endorsements and campaign funds. The commission didn’t go that far, but they did vote to convict 22 lawmakers — as they did after then-U.S. Rep. Anthony Gonzalez voted to impeach Trump.
Their resolution declared the Democrats the enemy with a “dangerous and perverse” agenda that Stevens and others now refused to allow Republicans to block.
Focused lawmakers pushed back. State Rep. Bill Seitz, a longtime Republican from Cincinnati, said his record as a conservative is clear. State Rep. Sarah Carruthers chided Merino in an interview with the Dayton Daily News, calling him a crybaby who can’t stand being passed over.
State Rep. John Cross quipped to the USA Today Network’s Ohio bureau, “You’re telling me I’m a Republican who voted for a Republican speaker and the state GOP is condemning me?” It looks like the scumbags are running the lunatic asylum.’
The Ironton Tribune, located in the heart of the county where Stevens is a former commissioner and auditor, called the conviction “juvenile” and “politics at its worst.”
“There doesn’t seem to be any interest in dropping the weird rhetoric and acting like the adults in the room,” they wrote.
The newspaper urged Republican Gov. Mike DeWine to speak out and urge the party to “move in the direction of actually getting things done in Columbus.”
DeWine, an establishment Republican whose support for Trump has been weak, has had his share of clashes with the state’s central committee, where his opponents an aggressive early response to the coronavirus grew in their numbers. He said he stays away from it.
His budget bill, a $57.5 billion government spending plan over two years starting July 1, is among the House bills that have yet to materialize — though some committee action has begun on the proposal.
The disagreements between Stevens and Merrin are mainly related to stylistic decisions, including speed measure to a vote that would make it more difficult to amend the Ohio constitution, and whether to completely repeal Ohio’s income tax, for example.
The main exception is trade unions. Questions of Stevens a so called “backpack” it would extend Ohio’s vouchers to all schoolchildren, including those who attend private schools, and appears to have rejected an anti-union “right-to-work” bill this session, which was Merino’s priority.
Groups promoting parental rights, a growing republican priority nationally used union donations to try to connect Stevens and his leadership with former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, who on trial for corruption in Cincinnati. They cast the group as in the pocket of Big Labour, including the same teachers unions that supported Householder and opposed the backpack bill.
“Conservatives in Ohio are stunned by the backroom deals that led to Jason Stevens becoming speaker,” said Mike Gibbons, a former candidate for the US Senate and chairman of Decisive Action Ohio. “Because we have seen again and again that these deals ended up being victims of fundamental conservative politics.”
He said he represents a group of conservative leaders and groups that have a clear agenda. They are pushing to repeal Ohio’s income tax and a set of bills that died last session, including the backpack bill, ban on transgender student-athletes in women’s sports and one Prohibition of gender-affirming surgeries on minors.
They also support a ballot proposal that would raise the threshold for changing Ohio’s constitution from 50% to 60%. The idea came up out of the blue during last year’s lameduck session, just as abortion rights, redistricting reform, and legalization of recreational marijuana were being discussed. Then-Speaker Bob Kapp, also a Republican, declined to bring the matter up for consideration due to a lack of votes. Under Stevens, house missed the cutoff on February 1st for getting on the spring ballot.
Gibbons said his coalition will take its issues “directly to Ohio voters, making the case” in the coming weeks.