Despite all the partisan rancor in Columbus and Washington, a recent spate of announcements by area lawmakers shows the two parties can at times carve out some middle ground.
“Not all issues are really partisan in nature. Not every issue is ideological,” said Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University. “In those areas, the parties are more likely to work together, especially when a local area is likely to be affected by an act of the government.”
Area legislators and those who served in years past say the bulk of what the Ohio General Assembly and the U.S. Congress accomplish happens without sparking headline-making political battles over hot-button issues like abortion, taxes, or immigration.
“The vast majority of bills that we pass almost everybody supports,” said Ohio House Minority Leader Fred Strahorn, D-Dayton.
Rep. Jim Butler, R-Butler, recently appeared at a press conference with Strahorn to announce a bill aimed at stopping or slowing down the demolition of Good Samaritan Hospital in Dayton.
Butler said plenty of issues can attract bipartisan support if legislators keep in mind the interests of the state’s residents. He said Strahorn, “shares my desire to attempt to reopen Good Samaritan Hospital for the people of Dayton.”
“It does not matter that Leader Strahorn is a Democrat and that I am a Republican — our end goals are the same,” Butler said. “We see the same problems and can agree on potential ways to rectify them. I am honored to be working with him.”
On Tuesday U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, joined U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, in announcing that Wright-Patterson Air Force Base had been picked by the U.S. Air Force as the preferred location for the F-35 Hybrid Product Support Integrator organization, which could bring about 400 jobs to Wright-Patt.
“Engagements like those work because they’re so big and they have such an importance to a region or a community,” Strahorn said. “Wright-Patt is the biggest employer in the region. And Good Sam has the potential to have a huge impact, both to the economy of that community and the spirit and health of the community.”
In an emailed statement, Turner said he often works with Brown and Portman to deliver “wins for the community.”
“Last week we were able to get a bill naming the federal building in downtown Dayton after Judge Walter Rice headed to the President’s desk,” Turner said. “This year we worked as a team to bring the largest expansion project ever to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base for a new $182 million building at the National Air and Space Intelligence Center.”
Turner said he’s also worked with Democrats on legislation addressing sexual assault in the military, substance abuse and other issues.
Portman last week announced a partnership with Democrat Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire on a cybersecurity bill. Meanwhile, Brown co-sponsored a bill with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., aimed at protecting small businesses from predatory lenders.
“I have introduced more than 240 bills, and more than 200 of which have been bipartisan,” Portman said. “In just the last two years, I’ve gotten more than 25 bills signed into law, including two notable ones on preventing online sex trafficking and combating the opioid crisis. So I’ve worked hard to find common ground and move these legislative priorities forward in a bipartisan way.”
Brown said he’s been the sponsor or co-sponsor on more than 20 bills that became law, and also works closely with Republicans on a number of committees, such as the joint House-Senate conference committee that wrote the final National Defense Authorization Bill.
He serves as co-chairman of the Joint Select Committee on Pensions alongside Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
“If you only watch cable news, you wouldn’t think anything bipartisan is getting done in Washington,” Brown said. “But there are plenty of issues where we put partisanship aside and make progress.”
However, on controversial subjects, none of those interviewed expressed optimism that bipartisan collaboration will become the norm anytime soon.
“There is a trend toward greater polarization, greater partisan division in recent years,” said Christopher Devine, assistant professor of political science at the University of Dayton.
Former Ohio Gov. Bob Taft said polarization is both encouraged and aggravated by social media and cable news channels that split along partisan lines.
“I just think the incessant battle for control of the House and Senate interferes with bipartisanship in important ways,” said Taft, a Republican who is a distinguished research associate at the University of Dayton. “A lot of the major issues are addressed with two warring camps battling, firing over the barricades at each other. In some quarters up in Congress, collaborating, partnering or being seen with the other party is like a negative.”
Taft served in the Ohio House in the late 1970s when Democrats held the majority. One of his colleagues was Paul Leonard, a Democrat who later became Dayton mayor and Ohio’s lieutenant governor. Tom Roberts, a Democrat who served first in the Ohio House and later the Senate, was a member of the House when his party lost the majority in 1994.
Leonard and Roberts remember a greater spirit of bipartisanship than Taft recalls during the tenure of Democratic control under former House Speaker Vern Riffe Jr. But all three say compromise occurred more often under Republican House Speaker Jo Ann Davidson because the chamber was more evenly divided politically.
That kind of deal-making isn’t needed when one party easily controls the legislature and the agenda, said Roberts, who is now NAACP Ohio Conference president.
Leonard and the others also said there was more socializing across party lines and that also helped humanize members of the other party.
“There was much more respect, in my opinion, among and between politicians,” said Leonard, who now teaches political science at Wright State University.
Former U.S. Rep. Tony Hall, D-Dayton, said bipartisanship would improve if there were more civility in politics, suggesting that more politicians should follow the example of former President George H.W. Bush, who died Nov. 30.
Portman agreed, saying that was “one of the most important lessons” he learned from the Republican former president.
“I think both parties need to step back from the brink and bring greater civility to our political discourse,” he said. “If we do so, then we can start to have a more productive conversation about some of these bigger issues where there is a stronger partisan divide.”
Staff writer Jim Otte contributed to this report.
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