COMMENTARY: New House speaker has chance to show some clout

Ohio’s House of Representatives has 99 members. On Wednesday, Rep. Ryan Smith, a Gallia County Republican, by drawing 44 votes of the 91 House votes cast – a plurality – was elected House speaker. But two of Smith’s votes came from Democrats: Reps. John Barnes, of Cleveland, and Bernadine Kent, of Columbus. So, with 61 of 66 House Republicans present and voting (four were absent, and the seat of Republican ex-Speaker Clifford Rosenberger, of Clinton County’s Clarksville, is vacant), Smith drew support from 41 of his fellow Republicans (net of his vote for himself).

That is, in an Ohio House with the biggest GOP majority since Ohio began electing House members from single-member districts in 1966, Smith won the speakership backed by about two-thirds of the Republicans present – and fewer than half of the 91 members voting. That doesn’t look like a resounding mandate.

Still, Smith’s weak tally among fellow House Republicans may be as much an opportunity as a peril. He wants to win a full two-year speakership when the 2019-20 General Assembly meets in January.

If, this year, Smith can get the House out of its hammock, and nudge members into passing substantial legislation, not the customary soft-serve (naming highways, designating annual “day of” observations), Smith will have demonstrated focus and clout as House leader.

In that connection, it surely wasn’t a coincidence that on Thursday, the first regular House session of Smith’s speakership, the House overwhelmingly passed House Bill 123, a payday loan reform bill the relentless payday-loan lobby had blocked for more than a year. When Rosenberger left the House in April, he said he was under federal investigation. One area of federal curiosity is said to be a junket Rosenberger took to London. Among those on the trip were payday-loan lobbyists.

Besides being Smith’s first day, Thursday was also the first day the Ohio House had voted on any bills since Rosenberger resigned in mid-April. The House’s passage of HB 123 put some distance between Rosenberger’s old caucus and the payday-loan lobby.

Smith, in landing the speakership by such a tight margin, has to demonstrate legislative clout. That’s because someone else also wants to be elected speaker in January — Rep. Larry Householder, a Republican from Perry County’s Glenford. He was speaker from 2001 through 2004. There’s a four-letter word for anyone who underestimates Householder: Fool.

Footnote: The legally required but antique voting procedure the House used Wednesday works this way: Someone running for speaker must win a majority of the votes cast. If, after 10 roll calls, no one has won a majority, then a candidate who wins a plurality – the single largest number – on the 11th or later roll call becomes speaker. That’s what Smith did on Wednesday’s 11th roll call. It appears the legislators passed that 1853 law because till then a plurality wasn’t enough to pick a speaker, and 1850’s speakership had required 11 roll-calls, and might have kept going if the list of candidates hadn’t changed. Eventual winner in 1850: John F. Morse, of Lake County’s Painesville, a member of the Free Soil Party.

Correction: Last week’s column said that, in the wake of Ohio’s 1970s Crofters scandal, Republicans won just one statewide elected executive office (Secretary of State Ted Brown won re-election). But as reader Tom Spring, of Circleville, pointed out, Lt. Gov. John Brown, a Medina Republican, was also re-elected (Before 1978, Ohio’s governors and lieutenant governors were separately elected, so John Brown was lieutenant to Democratic Gov. John J. Gilligan.) And Spring noted that the GOP also retained three Ohio Supreme Court seats in November 1970.

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