The judicial branch was likewise, if unofficially, supine. Until 1851, the General Assembly elected the state’s judges. The 1851 constitution let voters elect judges, but they tended to be Statehouse bystanders. When Chief Justice Frank Celebrezze, a Cleveland Democrat, tried to change that in the 1980s, you’d think Russian submarines had surfaced in Buckeye Lake, so swift and brutal was the conservative reaction.
So for much of the last century, the executive branch was on top: The legislature was part-time and because gerrymandering gave rural counties outsize clout only if a governor didn’t tend to the gripes of the Cornstalk Club or Cornstalk Brigade of rural state legislators.
But then a force of nature named James A. Rhodes became governor, a dealmaker who made that office more powerful than ever. The legislature, under Republican House Speaker Charles Kurfess and especially under Democratic Speaker Vern Riffe, pushed back.
No way Riffe, especially, would be anybody’s subordinate. So, in effect, the speakership (and Senate presidency, under Republicans Paul Gillmor and Stanley Aronoff, and Democrat Harry Meshel) became governors’ partners, not go-fers.
The twist in DeWine’s circumstances may be his perceived weakness – emphasis on “perceived” – in the eyes of the legislature’s Republicans.
In last month’s Republican gubernatorial primary, the governor drew 48.1% of the vote – that is, less than half the Republicans voting in the three-challenger primary supported him. In 2018, DeWine drew 59.8% of the vote in a one-challenger primary.
If effect, in any bout with legislative Republicans, DeWine is almost certainly seen as less formidable than he was before COVID-19 engulfed Ohio, and he was forced by circumstance to make unpopular decisions. The merits and demerits of those decisions are debatable. But given that nothing similar had sickened Ohio since so-called Spanish influenza, 100 years ago, it’s not like DeWine or anyone else had a handy template for responding to COVID-19.
There are templates to address the gun plague, though. Still, don’t expect the legislature to act. Starting with prickly executive-legislative relations, Ohio’s House and Senate have all kinds of lame excuses for not acting, except one they won’t mention: The gun lobbies’ power.
Thomas Suddes is a former legislative reporter with The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and writes from Ohio University. You can reach him at email@example.com.