SUDDES: Speaker Batchelder’s death a loss to Ohio

Thomas Suddes is an adjunct assistant professor at Ohio University and the former Statehouse reporter for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer.

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Thomas Suddes is an adjunct assistant professor at Ohio University and the former Statehouse reporter for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer.

The most telling fact about cross-party respect for the late William G. Batchelder III, perhaps Ohio’s leading Republican conservative, was this: When Bill Batchelder spoke, the Ohio House – as big a collection of egos as a room can hold – always seemed to listen.

Batchelder, age 79, House speaker from 2011 through 2014, and a House member for decades before, died on Feb. 12, felled by Alzheimer’s disease. Coincidentally but perhaps appropriately, the Medina resident, a GOP stalwart, died on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.

During Bill Batchelder’s long legislative career, he was Ohio’s outstanding conservative voice, and its most eloquent, following a pattern set by his political idol, the first Sen. Robert A. Taft (1889-1953), the Cincinnati Republican.

Batchelder had a sharp wit, an unforgettable laugh and a big smile. The first House session day each year on which Batchelder wore a seersucker suit was the surest sign that, by his reckoning, spring had well and truly arrived.

He had peerless knowledge of the American Founding and the founders’ principles. Had Bill Batchelder not become a lawyer, he would have been a keen teacher. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Ohio Wesleyan University, where his met his future wife, Alice Moore Batchelder, now a senior judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals (Sixth Circuit). Then he earned his law degree at Ohio State. The Batchelders have two children, Elisabeth (Matthew) Akers, of Doylestown, and William (Xela) Batchelder IV, of Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, and eight grandchildren.

For all his eloquence and vivacity, Bill Batchelder remained a practical politician. To be sure, he had smart-aleck facets; once, to protest limits on debate imposed by 20-year Ohio House Speaker Vernal G. Riffe, Jr., a Scioto County Democrat, Batchelder wore a dog muzzle in the House chamber. But he also had a pragmatic side, which ran rings around bystanders not paying attention.

In October 2013, for example, then-Speaker Batchelder and 37 other House Republicans filed what’s known as a formal “protest” in the House Journal. They objected to the plan by GOP then-Gov. John R. Kasich’s administration to use Ohio’s Controlling Board, not the legislature, to expand Ohio Medicaid, an expansion authorized by Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

Despite the protest, Batchelder removed two anti-Medicaid-expansion House Republicans from the Controlling Board. Five days after the protest, one of the two Controlling Board replacements Batchelder named voted “yes” on expansion. Kasich said last week that Batchelder’s Controlling Board moves helped secure the expansion of Ohio’s Medicaid program.

Coincidently or not, the first Bob Taft, “Mr. Republican,” wrote these words in 1945: “We have long ago accepted the principle that people unable to provide themselves with adequate medical care shall receive it free from the government.”

Batchelder’s expertise in Ohio banking and savings and loan laws helped protect the savings of thousands of S&L depositors imperiled by the 1985 collapse of Cincinnati-based Home State Savings Bank during the administration of Democratic Gov. Richard F. Celeste.

Batchelder wore his wisdom lightly and many times with mirth. Once reminded that big-government Federalist Alexander Hamilton had founded the Bank of New York (now the Bank of New York Mellon), Batchelder quipped, “That’s too bad.” It was joy, to fans of classic political oratory, to hear a robust, eloquent Batchelder speech in the Ohio House chamber.

Bill Batchelder cherished his family, revered Masonry (he was elected to the 33rd degree) and was as serious as he could be about ideas, conveyed most often with smiles, not frowns. Speaker Batchelder’s death is a loss not only to those who loved him, but also to the state he served so long and so well.

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