In a struggle that dates back 200-plus years, Statehouse clout runs in cycles, and at the moment the legislative branch – Ohio’s Senate and House – is riding high.
That’s one reason Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, head of the executive branch, has been buffaloed by a legislature that, sure as the next school shooting, will ignore his gun-safety proposals. That’s also a reason why Ohio’s House and Senate in so many words told Ohio’s Supreme Court to get lost when a 4-3 court majority tried to kill gerrymandering.
Sure, personality plays a role in these triangular moves. The two Lima Republicans who run the General Assembly, Senate President Matt Huffman and House Speaker Robert Cupp didn’t get where they got by playing pat-a-cake. (And though Cupp is a lame duck, Huffman will likely land back in the House when term-limits remove him from the Senate.)
Institutionally, there’s a history behind Statehouse power plays. When a bunch of white males gathered in Chillicothe in 1802 to write Ohio’s first constitution, among their key aims was to limit the power of future governors. The framers had had it with federally appointed territorial Gov. Arthur St. Clair, who thought the executive branch should be on top in Ohio.
Though the governorship was re-shaped by a later constitution (in 1851). Ohio’s governors didn’t win veto power over General Assembly legislation until 1903 – a hundred years after Ohio had become a state.
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.
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