Political Shrewdness, Down-Home Charm Put Householder in Speaker's Seat a Second Time
It’s been a long road back to the head of the Ohio House for Larry Householder. The former speaker became the new speaker in a controversial vote, and he’s the first person in almost sixty years to become speaker a second time. He’s being described as a masterful politician with a combination of a down-home charm and calculating shrewdness.
“I’m deeply honored to be the leader of this house, the People’s House.”
That’s from the speech Larry Householder gave on January 3, 2001 – just after he was unanimously elected speaker.
The conservative Perry County Republican with the folksy demeanor and a touch of southern Ohio twang took over for Speaker Jo Ann Davidson, who had planned to turn the gavel over to the late Bill Harris of Ashland. But Householder lobbied Republicans in contested primaries and got enough support to beat Harris, who ended up being appointed to the Senate and eventually became its president.
That line is just one thing that’s echoed in Householder’s return to the dais a little over 14 years later, after a vote in a sharply divided House.
“This truly is the people's house. We want this place to be accessible. It is our tool to use. We're going to use it the very best way that we can,” he said after winning 52 votes for Speaker on January 7, 2019.
Householder, who’s in his second term, ousted Ryan Smith (R-Bidwell), who’d been speaker for seven months.
Smith had been the likely choice to succeed term limited Speaker Cliff Rosenberger. But reports of an FBI investigation into bribery and extortion involving payday lending lobbyists led to Rosenberger’s resignation in April, and Smith’s early election as Speaker in June. Householder didn’t run then, but used both the Rosenberger scandal and, once again, contested primaries to boost his campaign for speaker.
Term limits had forced Householder out in 2004. Longtime Republican lawmaker Bill Seitz of Cincinnati said he encouraged Householder to come back to the Statehouse, saying he passed big legislation such as the first concealed-carry weapons law and the Defense of Marriage statute – and even a hike in the gas tax.
“That’s a controversial thing but it got done,” Seitz said. “He's an excellent judge of talent; personally very charming; very, very keen political instincts. And you know, a lot got done in that period from ‘01 to ‘04 under rather trying circumstances.”
Seitz voted for Ryan Smith for Speaker, saying that traditionally, whoever won the informal caucus vote would be supported in the official vote on the floor. And Smith did win a majority of Republican votes. But Householder won overall with an even tally of votes from Republicans and Democrats – though he left no doubt in a primary campaign ad in May where he stands on certain issues. In a voiceover, Householder says in the ad that he’s a “pro-gun, pro-life, Christian conservative” and that he has “the highest NRA rating in Ohio’s history.”
One of the 26 Democrats who voted for Householder is veteran lawmaker Rep. David Leland (D-Columbus).
“Speaker Householder did a better job of reaching out to Democrats. I don't think there was much of an attempt by the other side to reach out to Democrats, which I think bodes well for the future of the House because he realizes there are two parties and that we need to have a bipartisan solution to Ohio's problems,” Leland said.
Householder pledged in his first remarks as speaker that Democrats would co-chair some subcommittees and that he was open to more discussion of amendments. And union groups had pushed Democrats to support Householder, who they say has promised to halt anti-union measures - though some Republicans who voted for him are strong supporters of so-called right to work legislation.
Householder will have a new Democratic leadership team to work with – now that Minority Leader Rep. Fred Strahorn (D-Dayton) and whip Rep. Brigid Kelly (D-Cincinnati), who both supported Smith, have resigned those positions.
As he was building his support, Householder also had to return thousands of dollars in improper county Republican party donations. But there have been no charges. In 2006, there were also no charges from an FBI investigation into allegations of bribery and corruption against Householder and some aides.
Republican Rep. Nino Vitale (R-Urbana) wasn’t around for Householder’s first speakership, but he was an early supporter, calling Householder honest and efficient. And Vitale said the Rosenberger probe is a lot more concerning to him than what happened a decade ago.
“We still have an open investigation going on with previous leaders in the Statehouse, including some people who may still be sitting in their chairs that were part of certain dealings. And I think we all need to be very careful of that,” Vitale said.
Householder won his seat in 2018 with nearly 70 percent of his district’s vote, so it’s possible he could end up serving as speaker for the next six years – till term limits oust him again.