Ask Republican Larry Householder if he is running to be Ohio House speaker and he’ll give you a non-answer like ‘I just want to help others.’
But all signs point to yes, Householder wants his old job back.
Householder is using campaign funds to pay a media handler and sub-let sumptuous downtown Columbus office space from Rex Elsass, a long-time GOP strategist and political ad maker. The 25th floor office suite is a place where Householder can talk politics, raise campaign cash and hold meetings.
The speaker, who one of the three most powerful politicos in Ohio, wields enormous influence over how the state spends more than $140 billion and can put a halt to any piece of legislation. The current speaker, Cliff Rosenberger, R-Clarksville, will be forced out of office in 2018 due to term limits.
The Perry County Republican held the speaker’s gavel from 2001 to 2004. Under his leadership, Republican lawmakers passed Ohio’s first concealed weapons law, embraced medical malpractice and tort reforms that capped pain-and-suffering awards for victims, and adopted a state law to make sure Ohio never recognizes same-sex civil unions or marriages – a law later negated by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June 2015.
If Householder returns to the dais of power, he’ll be the first Ohioan in nearly six decades to recapture the position and only the third man to do so in Ohio history, according to Ohio Politics Almanac.
It would be an epic political comeback.
Statehouse newbies may see Householder as the aw-shucks country politician with a gregarious disposition. But veterans remember Householder as an ambitious, ruthless campaigner and aggressive fundraiser. The Other Paper, a now defunct alternative newspaper in Columbus, once ran the headline: “Who’s afraid of Larry Householder? Lots of people.”
He had designs on running for auditor in 2006 and then governor. But instead, Householder returned home to Perry County in December 2004, forced out by term limits and hounded by allegations of political corruption.
In 2004, two leaked memos about Team Householder triggered a two-year federal investigation.
Dwight Crum, an Ohio House staffer loyal to Householder wrote a 109-page to Householder and political consultants Brett Buerck and Kyle Sisk that laid out a plan to defeat then Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell and elevate Householder. “A political landscape without Ken Blackwell is a better landscape for Larry Householder,” the memo said.
Also circulating was an unsigned, nine-page memo containing allegations that Householder, Buerck, Sisk and others engaged in kickback schemes since 2002.
Blackwell, who worked on President Trump’s transition, urged Ohio Republican leaders to force Householder out of the speaker’s post. “Party officials must cease and desist from advancing the sophomoric nonsense that this mess is the result of the galloping testosterone of power hungry young operatives. This scandal is the result of a political culture that is rapidly slouching into total darkness and a Speaker who relishes being known as the prince of darkness,” Blackwell said at the time.
In 2006, the Public Integrity Section of the U.S. Department of Justice announced that its investigation concluded with no charges being filed.
Still, the investigation ran up legal bills and battered Householder’s reputation.
“I learned that in some newspapers, two anonymous sources can make something up and the story can still get printed,” he said, looking back.
“I felt secure. I hadn’t done anything improper,” he added. “At some point, everyone kinda jumped on.”
Scott Pullins, a former Republican political consultant and Householder ally, said FBI and IRS agents interviewed him for hours. “They asked all these kind of crazy, ridiculous questions and I kept sitting there, saying, ‘No, we talked about politics and policy. That’s it. That’s all we do.’”
Fast-forward 12 years and Householder is back in Columbus, serving with half a dozen Republican representatives who knew him back in the day. Another half dozen current representatives are so young that they were in K-12 schools when Householder first started as a lawmaker.
Householder said nowadays, people don’t ask him about the corruption allegations and federal investigation. “When you go through a proctology exam and you come out completely healthy, it proves to people your character,” he said. “And, yes, it was uncomfortable.”
Last year, when fellow Republican Bill Hayes opted not to run for re-election in the 72nd district, Householder seized the opening. He beat Cliff Biggers in a GOP primary and demolished Democrat John Carlisle in the general election.
“Larry Householder is driven by money and power. And he’s a survivor. He took a beating in the past, and he’s back and stronger and smarter,” said Sandy Theis, former bureau chief for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, which printed stories based on the anonymous memos.
Theis, a liberal Democrat with ProgressOhio, predicts that if Householder is speaker again, House Republicans fundraising will hit a new level and “under a Speaker Householder look for deep-pocketed interests like utilities and payday lenders to get what they want. Look for consumers of all kinds to get hosed.”
Householder is cozy with FirstEnergy, an Akron-based electric company with six million customers across six states. He and one of his five sons hitched a ride on a FirstEnergy corporate airplane to and from the presidential inauguration in Washington D.C. in January.
Householder, who names energy as one of the top issues facing Ohio, said he plans to either pay the cost of the flights out of his own pocket or disclose it on his ethics statement. He said he is still waiting to be billed by FirstEnergy for the trip.
Householder favors a plan to help keep two nuclear plants owned by a FirstEnergy subsidiary open by allowing the owners to charge customers extra money.
While Householder is clearly laying the groundwork for a return to power, it is far from a done deal. State Rep. Ryan Smith, R-Bidwell, chairman of the powerful House Finance Committee and a close ally to Rosenberger, wants the job too.
“I do want to be speaker but our speaker, Cliff Rosenberger, asked all of us not to run a speaker’s race until after the (state) budget (bill) is done. I’m trying to respect that,” Smith said.
The internal politics of legislative leadership posts are highly unpredictable. Just ask Republican Bill Harris, who had struck a deal to share the speakership duties with Householder back in 2000.
Harris never held the post in the House.
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