While incumbents won most of November’s local state legislative races, four area Republicans are taking new statehouse offices next week, with the group reflecting national trends of having more women and younger people in elected office.
When Jena Powell is sworn in Monday to represent Miami and southern Darke counties in the Ohio House, she’ll be the youngest member of the Ohio legislature, at age 25. The district just north of hers, including parts of Darke, Shelby, Auglaize and Mercer counties, will be represented by 31-year-old Susan Manchester, who previously worked for U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan.
“I think a big issue a lot of people are talking about is the lack of Republican women — in U.S. Congress for sure. I think we all benefit when there are more voices at the table,” Manchester said. “What people cared about most was that I would work hard and do a good job for this district. … When I make that my focus, nothing else matters.”
Elsewhere, former Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer will be sworn in to represent the northern strip of Montgomery County, including Huber Heights, Vandalia, Englewood and several other communities.
New 5th District State Senator Steve Huffman moves over from the Ohio House, where he spent the past four years. His Senate district includes much of the city of Dayton and west-central Montgomery County, along with Miami County, Preble County and southern Darke County.
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Republicans maintained supermajorities in both houses of the legislature in the November election, although their margin in the House dropped from 66-33 to 61-38. They also retained the governorship with Mike DeWine’s win, meaning 2019-20 will be the ninth and 10th years in a row that Republicans have controlled all three.
State representatives serve two-year terms, and state senators serve four years. Ohio law limits members of both houses to a maximum of eight years in the same house.
Rep. Jena Powell
Powell, of Arcanum, is in business with her siblings as vice president of sales and marketing for Huntington Outdoor Advertising. She campaigned on an anti-abortion, pro-gun rights platform focusing on lower taxes and less regulation.
She said she’s spent the past two months talking with legislators to find areas for collaboration but said she won’t lose focus on the core issues she campaigned on.
“Darke and Miami County are very pro-life. We just saw with Gov. Kasich vetoing the Heartbeat bill, and unfortunately, our senator (outgoing Bill Beagle) was a vote that we needed to override that veto,” Powell said. “We’re not being heard in Columbus by, kind of the machine, by the governor and other representatives. This is an area where we go, ‘No, we’re not backing down. We’re fighting for what we believe in.’ ”
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Powell said state funding for local governments — which has been cut in the past decade — will be a key issue in the upcoming budget cycle because “local governments are hurting.” She didn’t give any specifics on tax or regulatory changes she seeks, saying she’s still researching bills already in the works.
Powell said she ran because of ideas, not her age or gender, and suggested her district was “ready for something different,” including someone who would fight for what she stood for.
“Wisdom doesn’t always come with age,” Powell said. “What it comes with is knowing who you are, knowing what you believe in and knowing that I’m accountable to the people who elected me, and I will fight for them and do the work tirelessly to learn what it takes to be an amazing representative.”
Rep. Phil Plummer
Plummer, 54, is chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party and was Montgomery County’s sheriff for a decade, just stepping down after being elected to the Ohio House in November. He laid out a handful of issues that will be on his priority list, both in this spring’s state budget process and the rest of his first term in the legislature.
Plummer said the state must continue to work on the opioid crisis, “funding specific things that work instead of the shotgun approach.” He also said Ohio has “dropped the ball” on mental illness issues and must improve, saying 30 percent of county jail inmates shouldn’t be there because their issues are mental health-based.
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He said he’d like to see increased penalties for people who flee from police, citing crashes that kill innocent people, and increased penalties for human trafficking offenses, calling that a huge issue. He also said some local government funding should be restored.
Plummer said more diversity of age and gender in the legislature will give more perspectives. When he was told Manchester had praised his expertise on drug issues, he quickly said he hoped he could improve his knowledge of agricultural issues by talking to her.
“You’ve got 99 state reps, and each community has its own individual needs,” Plummer said. “It’s just getting to know the people, getting to know their communities and conveying what our community needs. It seems that the big Cs – Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland – always make out, especially in the budget process. So I’m going to fight for our region. We’ve been neglected.”
Rep. Susan Manchester
Manchester, 31, served as a legislative assistant to Jordan, was a community outreach director for Big Brothers, Big Sisters, and is the daughter of state school board member Martha Manchester.
Not surprisingly after working with Jordan, she said she’ll bring a fiscal conservative approach to the state budget process. She and Powell both repeatedly said long-term implications of legislative decisions are crucial.
Manchester said school funding and Medicaid expansion will be major issues in the budget cycle, and she said more funding is likely needed to fight the drug epidemic, as “we see the next generation growing up without parents.” Manchester called Medicaid expansion in its current form “non-viable.”
“I think the state offers very generous government assistance packages, and the way those programs are structured, it puts people in a position where it is better to stay on assistance than to get into a job and move up the ladder of self-sufficiency,” Manchester said. “I want to look at how we can level off our programs so people are not in a zero-sum game of choosing between employment and government assistance.”
Manchester said it will be important to develop relationships with both Republican and Democratic state legislators.
“I look forward to being able to engage with colleagues and have some heated disagreements, because I think out of conflict rises the best solutions,” she said.
Sen. Steve Huffman
Huffman, 54, is a physician and former Miami County Coroner who spent the past four years in the Ohio House seat just won by Powell. His cousin, Matt Huffman, is the state senator for the district immediately to his north.
Huffman said he thinks the legislature will “continue to try to chip away” at Ohio’s personal and business tax rates, in an attempt to draw residents and businesses. Like others, he supports increasing funding to local governments, “so they can get local projects done.” And he said he plans to look at changes to Ohio’s medical marijuana law to clarify how cannabidiol (CBD) is regulated.
But he said the biggest issue in the state budget process will not be a new one.
“I think we will struggle on the same struggle we’ve had for over 25 years — the illegal formula of state education funding,” Huffman said. “We just need to get it right.”
Huffman has called Medicaid “ineffective,” but he said it would be “awful tough to get rid of” the state’s expansion program. He does think the state will pursue a work requirement for the small percentage of able-bodied recipients who are not currently working or in training.
Huffman said the new members of the legislature are right to focus on knowing their colleagues.
“I have an advantage of having been in the House for four years,” Huffman said. “To me it’s the relationships in Columbus, the relationships with other members of the House and Senate, that is the way to get things done.”