Mr. Householder Goes To Columbus: Part II of a Series

Personality and Policy Trumps Chicken Wings

By John Corrigan

 

(NEW LEXINGTON) Freshman legislator Larry Householder (R-Glenford) spent 1997 making friends around the Statehouse while a few suspicious eyes were cast towards him.  By the time the Ohio Supreme Court rendered its first verdict in the DeRolph v. Ohio school funding constitutional challenge, Perry County was the most talked about county of the 88. Journalists took trips to interview educators and school children, and Larry “Bud” Householder was happy to talk to anyone who would listen about rural Ohio, its benefits, and challenges.

 

Householder had set his eyes on an open seat in Speaker JoAnn Davidson’s (R-Reynoldsburg) leadership team as an interloper. Davidson’s famous moderation in pursuit of political governance was at odds with Householder’s edgier approach to politics. “God and Guns” may resonate among the few, but Davidson not a fan of that approach, preferred the Chamber of Commerce issues over the movement conservatism of populist legislators like Householder.

 

Householder put together coalitions and tried to steer the state’s response to the DeRolph decision towards a greater change in the state’s school funding formula to benefit long forgotten rural districts. Davidson, who walked closely behind the lead of Governor George V. Voinovich (R-OH) was wary of both the “Robin Hood” approach to school funding – securing funds from wealthier suburban and property tax rich urban school districts to transfer wealth to rural districts- as well as issues like pooling property tax dollars or income tax increases. The freshman Householder, try as he might, was unable to persuade the Davidson led caucus, but continued to make friends all across Capital Square.

 

School and funding issues dominated Householder’s first two years.  He introduced few bills, most with a local flair, and reasoned that he would not be passing much legislation that he cared about in any event. Householder built caucus relationships and planned to seek the open leadership position of Assistant Majority Whip after the 1998 election, a test vote, but an important one, to put him closer to his ultimate legislative goal, the Speaker’s Chair, after Davidson would leave The Statehouse due to term limits after the 2000 election.

 

In the run up to 1998’s leadership fight, Householder became a tireless worker, and literally someone who would get two hours of sleep per night while he worked his district and members of the House GOP for future leadership considerations. He distinguished himself from rivals, Representative Lynn Olman (R-Maumee) and Representative Kevin Coughlin (R-Cuyahoga Falls) by talking policy and suggesting a shift to a more conservative approach to governance.  Olman and Coughlin also were building relationships, but the more traditional Davidson way, through social interaction and friendships. They would frequently invite House Republicans to Statehouse watering holes and while munching on chicken wings, would build friendships that they hoped would advance them to the coveted open position in leadership.

 

Householder would go out of his way to tell members that he too liked wings, but preferred advancing rural interests and socially conservative public policy.  His allies would contact members and try to point out the difference, arguing that Householder was a substantive leader who could be trusted to work issues harder than his erstwhile rivals. He also pledged to be more conservative than Davidson, and quickly found a friendly voting bloc in the Caveman Caucus.

 

Householder was re-elected to The Ohio House by a wider margin than in 1996, still in a Democratic leaning district.  The incoming House GOP would vote on the leadership positions in late November after the election. The word on the street was that Davidson supported re-electing her leadership team, and was comfortable with Olman or Coughlin in leadership, but not Householder. It would be a rivalry that exists to this day, the Reynoldsburg grandmother and the Glenford insurance man.

 

One of Householder’s approaches was to put together a team of lieutenants who could help him to do his work.  While Olman and Coughlin certainly had their supporters, Householder’s team was a more sophisticated and loyal group.  Their work paid off, Householder was elected to JoAnn Davidson’s Leadership Team, and immediately put himself in place to challenge her preferred successor, Representative Bill Harris (R-Ashland) the affable automobile dealer and retired U.S. Marine officer who had served his country in Korea and Vietnam.

 

Former Representative Jaime Callender, shared with 3rd Rail, "It (Householder's election to leadership) set up the leadership battle between Representative Bill Harris and Representative Larry Householder. It put him (Householder) on even footing with Bill Harris."

 

Harris vs. Householder was supposed to be a walk in the park for the well liked Harris, but like many, he learned not to underestimate the brash upstart from Glenford. Davidson wanted to show off Harris’ leadership and legislative skills. She handed him big picture issues like the merger of two of Ohio’s largest departments into what would become The Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services. The task was a herculean one, and Harris spent much of 1999 on the issue. Time that could have been spent politicking was spent putting together the largest bureaucracy in state government. It did not help Harris with the conservative forces in the GOP Caucus.

 

Householder was not given much to do as a leader, so he used his time wisely and set out to cultivate the Class of 1998 and establish a Class of 2000 that would change the Caucus’ reliance on Davidson and elect him as House Speaker.  His strategy was bold and stunningly effective.

 

Taking Members to lunches, and keeping in constant contact with them, Householder charmed incoming Members and would create relationships with them while Harris was working budget amendments, doing the heavy lifting of the Davidson team.  He relied on Members like State Representative Jeff Jacobson (R-Brookville), the Montgomery County GOP Chairman who decided to run for the State Senate in 2000. Jacobson was friends with the Cuyahoga County Republican Chairman, Jim Trakas, a freshman from Independence.  Householder knew that party chairs controlled candidate recruitment and fundraising in their counties, and built these natural allies into his coalition.

 

Householder made alliances with other key county chairmen and influencers. Among the most important was Franklin County’s Doug Preisse, who would go on to be a critical advisor to many top Republicans, including Governor John R. Kasich. Franklin County represented many key Republican retirements, and through candidate recruitment, Householder allies could be candidates for retiring legislative seats, right under the nose of Executive Committee Chair JoAnn Davidson. In addition, Householder worked with the Hamilton County GOP to recruit candidates for open House seats of retiring Members, all loyal to Davidson, and presumably Harris.

 

Householder then spent some political capital on a natural ally, the Ohio investor owned utilities.  At the time, Senator Bruce Johnson (R-Columbus) had introduced S.B. 3, the electric restructuring legislation, that had breezed through the Senate and found its way in the House.  The investor owned utilities; Akron’s First Energy, Dayton Power & Light, Cincinnati’s Cinergy, and the nation’s largest, American Electric Power found themselves in a tough position. The reception that they had gotten in The Senate, and then in the House Committee was not interested in hearing much of their concerns. Houston’s Enron was pushing a “free market” approach to energy policy, and that was backed by large industrial users like Canton’s Timken Manufacturing, and other large users of electricity with the hope that the bill would lower electricity costs.

 

Up to the plate stepped Householder.  Three legislators that would become important allies; Representative Gary Cates (R-West Chester), Representative Steve Buehrer (R-Delta), and Representative Trakas (R-Independence) sat on the committee.  Householder asked those members to consider the importance of domestic coal and nuclear energy, hearkening back to his days when the closing of the coal industry for environmental concerns had devastated the economy of Appalachia.  They worked closely with the utilities and were able to change the course of S.B. 3 to make it a more balanced piece of legislation from the industrial energy users’ victories in the Senate. The resulting policy changes made Ohio a more stable and predictable marketplace that never succumbed to the rolling brownouts and cost spikes that Enron’s lobbying in other states had wrought.

 

Former State Representative Jim Trakas shared his thoughts on Speaker Householder, "Larry Householder had an uncanny ability to be able to put dissimilar people together under the same banner. He found similarities and united people. Whether it was industry or politics he found similarities in their backgrounds to solve problems. He was always looking for ways to bring people together."

 

Up next in our Series, the Assistant House Majority Whip schools the Speaker on candidate recruitment.