By JO INGLES
After two months of fighting, mostly by majority Republicans behind closed doors, the Ohio House has a new speaker. It was an unusual floor vote in that the majority couldn’t agree on a nominee. But the vote ends an impasse that stopped voting sessions in mid April when former speaker Cliff Rosenberger resigned amid an FBI inquiry.
The process to end the showdown over who would be Speaker was unprecedented. House Clerk Brad Young sounded more like an auctioneer as he took vote after vote after vote. For nearly three hours, Young rattled off names as members voted individually, putting into practice a rule that had never been used before.
As expected, Finance Committee chair Ryan Smith (R-Bidwell) was nominated, as was Democratic Minority Leader Fred Strahorn (D-Dayton). Joining them was Andy Thompson (R-Marietta), a term limited Republican who had come in second to Smith in closed-door Republican caucus voting a few weeks ago. Smith had called Thompson a “proxy” for Larry Householder, the former Speaker who wants to regain that position next year, but was not in the running for the short-term Speaker position.
And there was also a surprise entry into the contest – another term limited Republican, Jim Hughes (R-Columbus). With 91 of 98 members present, a candidate needed 46 votes to win outright. But after the first round, none of the candidates had the 46 votes needed to constitute a majority. So that meant the House had to vote nine more times before it could accept the candidate with the most votes. In round after round, Smith led consistently…..with 44 votes. Thompson and Hughes saw their votes vacillate back and forth while most Democrats voted as they said they would, for Strahorn. Lawmakers tried to break the monotony as they cast their votes. Rep. Jack Cera (D-Bellaire) responded with phrases like “The illustrious Fred Strahorn” or “The bearded Fred Strahorn” while Rep. John Becker (R-Cincinnati) used “the timeless Andy Thompson” and “Thompson….to infinity and beyond.”
The hours of repeated voting may have felt like infinity to lawmakers and those watching in the gallery. At one point there was a call for a recess by Rep. Niraj Antani (R-Miami Township), who’d been casting votes for Hughes, but that was quickly shouted down. After 11 rounds of voting, Acting Speaker Kirk Schuring (R-Canton) made this announcement: “44 votes for Representative Smith, 27 votes for Representative Strahorn, 13 votes for Representative Thompson, seven votes for Representative Hughes. Having received a plurality of all of the votes cast, Representative Smith is hereby declared elected Speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives,” Schuring read as he declared the winner.
Immediately after that, Smith was sworn in and took the dais. He called for unity after weeks of behind the scenes wrangling, and he is facing a House with fewer than half of its members casting votes for him. He reiterated the need to come together when talking to reporters afterward. “Well it’s certainly been a long journey but I’m looking forward and not looking back. I want to get to working on bills again and I think that will help bring this divide closer together and people back together,” Smith said.
When asked whether he would remove committee chairs who voted against him for Speaker, Smith didn’t hesitate in his answer.“I’m not looking to be retaliatory about that. I mean we live in a society where people can make their own choices. I think, at this point, I’m going to bring everybody back together and ask for a clean slate and start to rebuild trust,” Smith said.
Smith explained he wants the House to take up legislation immediately, including bills that crack down on payday lending and fund new voting machines. There are more than 150 bills awaiting action, and Smith anticipates there will be a few more House sessions before summer recess when members can do that.
Though the minority leader had most of his 33 member caucus supporting him throughout the voting, Strahorn said he was disgusted that it had come down to using this process to choose a new speaker. “I thought hearing my name 308 times was a little disturbing and the process was like watching grass grow,” Strahorn said.
And though critics may say Democrats could have broken the stalemate, Strahorn says he’s proud that they voted for him as a candidate that supports their issues and concerns. And Democrats are likely to use this incident as an illustration of Republican government gone awry. “To drag us through a vote, the same vote, ten or eleven times, knowing presumably what the outcome was going to be suggests a level of dysfunction in the Republican caucus that anybody has seen around here in many years,” Strahorn said.
Much of the debate between the Republicans came down to two factions within the caucus…..those who wanted Smith….and others who back Householder. They wanted someone else who was term limited to hold that seat so Smith wouldn’t have an upper hand in being elected speaker when the new general assembly takes over next year. And then there’s the matter of the $4 million sitting in the Ohio House campaign fund. As speaker, Smith now has a big say in how that money is dispersed.
With the fight for speaker over, the new question will be whether this legislature can unify enough to pass legislation that’s waiting in the wings….and whether it can come together enough to hold its majority in the house when Ohioans go to the polls this November.