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'Moderate' Republican Jason Stephens snatches Ohio House Speaker position in surprise upset

Opening day ceremonies of the 135th General Assembly of the State of Ohio
Posted at 7:29 PM, Jan 03, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-03 19:36:18-05

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Moderately conservative Republican Jason Stephens, with the help of the Democratic party, snatched the coveted Ohio House Speaker job Tuesday from a far-right lawmaker who was already elected speaker in a non-official party vote.

In the surprise upset, Stephens (R-Kitts Hill), who is allegedly pledging to stop far-right policies and act as a full moderate, is chosen as one of the most significant and influential leaders in the state.

A deal of a lifetime — or at least for the next few years.

"I pledge to respect and to work with each and every one of you," Stephens said in his acceptance speech.

But just a few weeks ago the GOP had another candidate in mind.

"Our caucus actually met three weeks ago and unanimously selected him," Rep. James Hoops (R-Napoleon) said.

Back in Nov., the GOP caucus voted for Derek Merrin to be speaker, a surprise to his two other challengers – one was Stephens.

Stephens decided to fight, and he fought in collaboration with the Democrats.

"They needed our votes and we took the opportunity to make sure that we were going to be working with the speaker who we felt at the end of the day would work with us on the issues we could agree on," Democratic Minority LeaderAllison Russo said.

Russo said her discussions with the Republican were productive and allowed her caucus to vote, all 32 of them, for Stephens. She mentioned they spoke about getting fair district maps — but most of the conversation was on priority bills, like education issues.

"The importance of our public schools and for them to be well-funded and well-resourced," she said.

The deal may also stop the "Backpack Bill," which would allow education funding to be awarded per child rather than to school districts for distribution, which Russo seemed to confirm. She is also in favor of pro-union type bills and discussed that with Stephens, which Merrin had been outspoken against.

The moment Derek Merrin lost the speaker vote

Opening day ceremonies of the 135th General Assembly of the State of Ohio
COLUMBUS, OH — JANUARY 03: Rep. Derek Merrin (R-Moclova Township) during the vote of Speaker of the House at the opening day ceremonies of the 135th General Assembly of the State of Ohio, January 3, 2023, at in House Chamber at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal)

When asked about what kind of deal was bartered, Stephens skirted the question.

"I think this particular vote speaks for itself, I think it's an issue of 'what do we want,' [what] 'brings us together," he told reporters. "And when we have common ground as a group of Ohioans, we can do a lot of good things."

Numerous Democratic lawmakers told News 5 that another item in the deal was the elimination of House Joint Resolution 6, the resolution to require a 60% supermajority vote in order for constitutional amendments to succeed. This bill failed in the 134th General Assembly after mass outrage.

"We'll have to look at that, we will have to look at all the different things," he answered, noting that the schedule is about to get really busy with the budget prep and he's "got a lot of things to do."

Stephens is considered the much more moderate option than Merrin.

"Speaker Stephens led a coalition of Moderate lawmakers from across the aisle, who will now focus on delivering the common sense solutions that Ohioans sent us here to deliver," state Rep. Casey Weinstein (D-Hudson) said. "Now we can work on investing in our communities, on public education and workforce development."

Weinstein added that he has worked with him, and finds him to be a constructive lawmaker focused on common-sense legislation, he said, adding that he will need to remain "moderate," since he needs the support from the Democrats.

"Ohioans want results and they want us to work together to deliver them," Weinstein said. "I’m confident we will be able to do that with Speaker Stephens in office."

Twenty-two Republicans joined the vote, with 54 votes for Stephens and 43 for Merrin.

"I think it's important for the House to be able to come together on issues we do agree on, and that's what I hope to be able to do," Stephens said. "And that outreach will help us to get, you know, the things we need to get done in Ohio."

As expected, the news was not taken well by Merrin and his supporters. He did not want to comment, but one of his biggest supporters and allies did.

"The reason why he won that initial vote was because when... the votes about issues and policies and doing what's right for religious freedom, doing what's right for family, doing what's right for life — Derek won that vote," Aaron Baer with the Center for Christian Virtue said. "Today something else came up that led votes another way."

Lawmakers on each side told News 5 the past 48 hours have been a whirlwind and the Ohio House Republican Caucus has never been more divided.

"You have a lot of folks who are hurt, who feel betrayed, and it's going to be a real test to say, are you really going to bring people together?" Baer asked. "Or did you just sell out everything you stand for in order to get a position of power?"

The Republicans still have a supermajority, so there isn't much need for panicking on the bills he cares about, Baer added.

Stephens said he wants to work on unifying the state, but some conservative Republicans told said there is no coming back from this. The speaker isn't phased.

"Working along beside each other after a tough vote and an emotional vote... the way you do that is through communication," he said. "I intend to try to do my best to communicate and to listen and to be there for all members of the House, regardless of party."

Who is Jason Stephens?

Stephens is an insurance agent from rural Southern Ohio, near the West Virginia border.

In the 134th General Assembly, he serves as the chairman of the Energy & Natural Resources Committee, as well as sat on the Finance, Insurance and Public Utilities committees.

He joined the 133rd Assembly as an appointee after former Speaker of the House Ryan Smith left to become president of University of Rio Grande.

He served in local government within Lawrence County for about two decades.

Ties to the past

Former Speaker of the House Ryan Smith resigned after a very similar turn of events.

Larry Householder, the disgraced Republican whose corruption and bribery trial is in January, struck a deal with the Democrats back in 2019 for his upset win against Smith.

Householder was arrested in connection with a $60 million dollar bribe from FirstEnergy to ensure the passage of House Bill 6, a controversial bill dubbed by environmental scientists and activists as the "worst energy bill of the 21st century."

Stephens voted against expelling Householder. Merrin did, as well, but the trajectory of Stephens' fight for speakership mirrors Householder's.

Follow WEWS statehouse reporter Morgan Trau on Twitter and Facebook.