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High cost for failing to follow up

David Skolnick

State Rep. Derek Merrin was a shoo-in as next Ohio House speaker, but according to a legislator from the Mahoning Valley, his refusal to reach out to fellow Republicans after the GOP House caucus selected him and efforts to punish some cost him one of the most important positions in state government.

When the Republican House Caucus met in November to vote on a new speaker, Merrin, R-Monclova, was the winner with state Rep. Jason Stephens, R-Kitts Hill, in second place.

After the vote, agreement among the Republican caucus was that GOP state House members would support Merrin when the legislative body opened its new session Tuesday, said state Rep. Al Cutrona, R-Canfield, a Stephens supporter.

But when the vote was held, 22 Republicans and all 32 Democratic House members voted for Stephens, giving him the win 54-43. All 43 of Merrin’s votes came from Republicans so he had almost twice as many of his party members support him than Stephens. But with the 32 House Democrats backing Stephens, Merrin lacked the votes to become speaker.

It didn’t have to be that way, Cutrona said, but the fault lies with Merrin.

“There’s been a lot of chaos in the short time Merrin was the so-called speaker-elect,” Cutrona said. “We’ve had much division in our caucus in the last seven weeks with Merrin and how he’s conducted himself.”

Specifically, Cutrona said Merrin didn’t call any of Stephens’ supporters after the vote.

“You don’t tar and feather the other side,” Cutrona said. “You don’t prevent people by pushing them off to the side. It gave the conclusion it would be a bumpy two years. People had threats of being primaried” for not supporting Merrin. “The other side used heavy-handed tactics.”

Cutrona added: “Many people who were on Stephens’ team were thrown to the wolves. I wish we didn’t have to go in this direction. It was all very avoidable. If the reach out occurred and people weren’t getting the feeling of exclusion — which is problematic — this wouldn’t have happened.”

Other Mahoning Valley House members who also voted for Stephens were Mike Loychik, R-Bazetta; Monica Robb Blasdel, R-Columbiana; and Lauren McNally, D-Youngstown.

The only Valley legislator to side with Merrin was state Rep. Nick Santucci, R-Howland.

Santucci said: “I voted for Derek Merrin because he was the choice of our Republican caucus to be speaker. The House at large voted to give the gavel to Jason Stephens, and I’m looking forward to working with him and his team to deliver results for working families in Trumbull County.”

The speaker decision was the first vote ever cast by Santucci, Blasdel and McNally, who are serving their first terms in the state House.

For House Democrats, it was a victory.

Stephens is far from being a moderate, but Merrin is considerably more conservative.

The House speaker along with the Senate majority leader are the two most powerful positions in state government, besides governor. The speaker and majority leader set the agenda for the state Legislature and control which bills get put up for vote and which ones languish.

Merrin is a supporter of a near-total abortion ban, the anti-union right-to-work bill and an expansion of school vouchers, according to Cleveland.com.

He also backed the plan introduced last month to require state constitutional amendments to get at least 60 percent of the vote rather than a simple majority.

Democrats oppose all of these proposals, so supporting Stephens may have killed all of them.

House Minority Leader Allison Russo, D-Upper Arlington, said no major deal was made with Stephens, and Democrats “voted for a speaker of the House we all believed was willing to be a reliable partner on issues that are important to working families of Ohio.”

This wasn’t the first time Democrats voted with a minority of Republicans to elevate a GOP member to speaker.

In 2019, 26 Democrats joined 26 Republicans to elect Larry Householder, R-Glenford, as speaker after he failed to gain enough support from his own party for the post.

Householder agreed to a number of Democratic demands for their votes.

Householder was expelled from the House in June 2021 because of his federal indictment related to an alleged bribery scheme in the $1 billion bailout of Ohio’s two nuclear power plants.

Skolnick covers politics for The Vindicator and Tribune Chronicle.

dskolnick@vindy.com

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