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Published: Monday, 9/1/2003

Early posturing under way in quest for House speaker

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - The selection of Ohio's next House speaker is more than a year away, but alliances already are being forged behind the scenes.

Rep. Jon Husted, a Montpelier native and champion of charter schools, has emerged as an early front-runner in a potential Dayton-area power play for leadership of the House and Senate.

Rep. Chuck Blasdel, 32, an East Liverpool Republican with strong ties to the financial community, is presented as the alternative to what some consider to be the strong-handed approach of Speaker Larry Householder (R., Glenford).

Mr. Householder cannot run for re-election because of term limits.

Others mentioned include Rep. Tim Grendell, 49, of Chesterland, part of the ultra-conservative faction of the Republican caucus; Rep. Stephen Buehrer, 36, assistant majority floor leader from Delta.

Rep. Jon Peterson, 49, the assistant majority whip from Delaware, has been mentioned, but also has been linked with Mr. Blasdel's candidacy.

“There are two very distinct groups-the conservatives who believe they should remain true to the tenants of the right wing of the party and the conservatives in power,” said House Minority Leader Chris Redfern (D., Catawba Island).

Democrats, outnumbered 62-37, will vote on the next speaker, but do not look for candidates to turn to them for help. “That would be the end of the Republican Party,” said Mr. Husted.

Mr. Householder engineered his rise to the top by raising money to recruit and support candidates in Republican primaries in the many open legislative seats of 2000 created by the first wave of term limits.

With 45 of the 99 members in the chamber replaced that year, Mr. Householder helped elect a political base that remained loyal to him as he sought to replace Speaker Jo Ann Davidson, who could not seek re-election.

A unique power-sharing agreement was struck nearly a year before the 2000 caucus vote for speaker in which Rep. Bill Harris (R., Ashland) and Mr. Householder agreed to split the two-year term. The deal didn't last long.

“In contested primaries, his people won, which gave him the upper hand on Bill Harris,” said Mr. Buehrer. “That explains why Larry Householder is speaker, and Bill Harris is a senator.”

All of the legislators agree the Householder playbook won't be enough this time. With so many lawmakers still early in their careers, there are expected to be only six to 10 Republican contests in 2004.

In addition to defending vacated Republican seats, Mr. Husted said he will help protect members in uncomfortable positions because of their tax votes.

“We need to make sure we defend every single Republican member of the General Assembly,” he said. “We've heard talk of running [GOP] candidates against sitting members, an absolute violation of an unwritten caucus rule.”

Mr. Householder insists he is not backing any candidate and he hedges on whether he believes a candidate who could serve two terms would be preferable over someone who could serve just one. That's an argument he used for his selection in 2000 over Mr. Harris.

“It was a pretty good pitch then,” he said with a smile. Then he added, “It's really up to these members what they want to do. I'm not going to stand in the way or try to prod anybody forward.”

Both Mr. Husted and Mr. Blasdel can run for two more terms. Insiders suggest Mr. Householder has quietly positioned the loyal Mr. Husted, who supported his controversial two-year budget on July 1, sales-tax increase and all. Mr. Blasdel did not, although he is quick to point out he supported past budget patches.

During a July fund-raiser in Toledo, Mr. Householder introduced Mr. Husted as the man who wants his job.

“Right or wrong, people associate Husted with Larry and Blasdel as being one of the more conservative group that wants to change the process,” said one lawmaker who wished to remain anonymous. “Chuck is more mainstream than Tim [Grendell], not as outspoken, and more palatable.”

Mr. Husted's move for the top spot is occurring at the same time that Sen. Jeff Jacobson is making a move for Senate president. That could give Dayton area Republicans the top leadership post in both houses of the General Assembly.

Mr. Grendell said Mr. Husted appears to have the momentum.

“I'm surprised people are making such a hard and fast commitment to anybody 18 months out,” he said. “It's basically jump on the bandwagon now or be left behind.”

Mr. Husted led the push on high-profile bills reforming the state's charitable bingo and charter-school laws, receiving $5,000 in campaign contributions within two years from Akron charter school magnate David Brennan.

Mr. Blasdel, with his own accounting and finance business and serving as chairman of the House Banking, Pensions, and Securities Committee, has developed strong ties with the financial community. He has emerged as a leader of the issue of predatory lending.

“Larry was the right guy in the right place at the right time,” said Mr. Blasdel. “There were so many new members on both sides of the aisle that we needed a very strong leader in order to get things done.... The next speaker will have a lot of new members with a similar amount of experience who will want a seat at the table. It will take a speaker with a different leadership style.”

Viewed as a dark-horse, Mr. Buehrer has quietly visited members and has kept his options open. He rose to leadership as part of Team Householder in 2001, only to be later placed on his do-not-call list.

He fell out of favor when he refused to support Mr. Householder's tax and spending increases.

“I'm very concerned about the future of the House as an entity,” he said. “In this term-limited environment, in our three branches of government, I want to see a new leader who is very interested in policy, who is focused on implementing that policy in the legislative process.”



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