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Statehouse ‘coup’ — Ohio GOP members bitterly divided by deal with Democrats to elect 'moderate' House Speaker

Opening day ceremonies of the 135th General Assembly of the State of Ohio
Posted at 6:18 PM, Jan 06, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-06 18:47:57-05

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Late-night phone calls, behind-closed-door bargaining and a deal with the Democrats led to a remarkable upset in the race for the Speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives. Now, the state Republican party has censured the 22 GOP members who voted against the originally-chosen candidate.

In an exclusive News 5 TV interview, Ohio House Minority Leader Allison Russo goes into depth about why her party helped Speaker-elect Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill) snatch the position over state Rep. Derek Merrin (R-Monclova Township). State Rep. Ron Ferguson (R-Wintersville) also spoke exclusively to News 5 about what he calls the betrayal he and 44 other Republicans faced Tuesday.

Choosing Stephens

More than one month of meetings, constant vote counting and emergency caucusing led Russo to feel comfortable enough to have her party vote for Stephens.

"This was a very risky thing that we did," she said. "And if it had failed, there would have been big consequences for that as well."

If Stephens had lost, but the Democrats had supported him — Russo would likely not have had her leadership role. GOP lawmakers previously told News 5 there would be consequences if the Dems voted for Stephens — such as choosing all freshmen members to be in the executive positions. Luckily, Russo said, they had the votes for Stephens and thus for their own party leaders.

The lobbying started immediately after Thanksgiving, she said.

"It is beneficial to us at times that they are divided," the leader said.

Democrats in Ohio typically, but not always, stay out of the house speaker vote when Republicans have control, but the 32 members helped Stephens win over the lawmaker the majority of the GOP caucus internally elected — Merrin.

"There were just some clear distinctions," she added.

The entire party evaluated each of the candidate's characters, willingness to compromise on Democratic wants and culture war issues.

Stephens is still conservative on many issues, but is not nearly as right-wing as Merrin. Now, the speaker is seemingly pledging to stop far-right policies and act as a full moderate.

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

The deal

Some of the provisions of the deal Stephens offered Russo aren't as solid as others, the leader said. Nothing is in writing, but rather agreements, compromises and known Democratic wants.

Russo gained a confirmed goal of getting bipartisan and constitutional district maps, which is a head in the right direction to actually getting fair maps.

"I think Stephens and I had some really good conversations about... some of the concerns within his caucus as well about how that process played out the last time," the leader said. "Both he and Merrin felt pretty strongly that they wanted to get to bipartisan maps."

A major concern of hers is the state's lack of constitutional funding for public education, and she was able to lock down the Fair School Funding Plan.

"[Stephens] is a strong supporter of public schools and was pretty clear that he wants to see that Fair School Funding Plan put be put in place," Russo added.

She prevents school choice voucher expansions, with a major one looming labeled the 'Backpack Bill'; anti-union bills, with specific consideration to the 'Right to Work' law; House Joint Resolution 6, the controversial proposal to make it much more difficult to amend the constitution and extensive culture war bill hearings.

"His and, I think many people who supported him in his caucus, their concern about how some of these culture war issues can really be a distraction in committees and take away from the work that needs to be done by the Legislature to get things done for the people," she said about her faith that controversial bills will not be as apparent in Stephens' House.

Although she says she didn't explicitly ask for specific committee chairs, she knows that his picks will be more moderate than Merrin's would have been.

Merrin was not as receptive to bargaining, Russo said. That is, until the 48 hours before the vote.

"[Merrin's team was] pretty insistent that they didn't need Democratic votes, that they had enough votes going on to the floor. And really, I don't think that that became evident to them until the last couple of days"

The aftermath

Merrin declined to interview, but Rep. Ferguson was handling much of the team. He said the election was "a coup" – and the desire for personal gain, mixed with spite, led to more than 20 Republicans to side with Stephens.

"Friendships were absolutely lost," he said. "I can't trust them anymore, and I'm not going to be able to work with them anymore."

Of the 22 Stephens voters, six of them lied about who they were voting for, numerous GOP lawmakers told News 5. It is one thing for someone to be upfront about breaking from the party, it is significantly worse when it messes up the vote count, two lawmakers said.

"These people that I have donated to their campaigns, that I have gone to doors in their district that I have backed their bills on the floor, that I've been behind them 100% — throw it all away," Ferguson said.

The caucus split has actually brought the 40-some who voted for Merrin together and they are now backing a resolution to censure the 22, which could hurt the lawmakers' chances of reelection, funding or support.

"Those that don't have integrity have no part in the Republican Party," the lawmaker said. "Make no mistake about that."

When asked if this vote would hurt them in the long term, he said "absolutely, unequivocally, yes."

"My focus as a representative is always going to be to get good, solid, principled Republicans elected," he added. "If that's a general election against a Democrat, so be it. And if it's in a primary against a person that has no honor, so be it."

The Bible

In a rare move, Russo held the Bible for Stephens as he was being sworn in — but the look on her face revealed it was definitely unplanned.

"When I got down to the well, there was no one standing there to hold the Bible," she said. "As I was standing there, I was aware that there were many people who were upset."

It was solemn for some and all-around tense, she added.

"I tried to be respectful of that and understanding that there were a lot of emotions and feelings about it at the time, but also... wanted to make sure that I supported the person that I voted for to be speaker, and that was Speaker Stephens," she said.

Ferguson confirmed her story but added that having a Democrat hold the Bible was a symbolic move.

"Some of us were asked to escort the man who was voted in as speaker, and that was something we were unwilling to do because of the bond that had been broken," Ferguson said. "It was Democrats that got the job done, so allow the Democrats to walk down the aisle."

What next?

Stephens' backers say they voted for him because he can bring stability and integrity back to the House. Russo, agreeing that the elected speaker is known for being genuine, also notes that she isn't expecting a “miracle.”

When asked if the speaker doesn't actually follow through with the deal, she said she isn't naive and knew that was a possibility.

"Well, you know, I always say the proof is in the pudding," the leader said with a smile. "I think that's why you will see we're not taking a big victory lap on this."

Stephens "of course" thanked the Democrats profusely for supporting him, she said.

Learn more about Stephens by clicking or tapping here.

She would have rather deal with Stephens not fulfilling everything the Democrats discussed than have Merrin as speaker, she added.

Both Russo and Ferguson acknowledge that the biggest task Stephens will face is uniting his own caucus — but the Republican says nothing could ever mend the betrayal.

When asked how the GOP was going to heal from this, Ferguson said "the party is quite fine." The party, now, consists of the 45 Merrin voters.

"It's the fact that those people have separated themselves from the party — we didn't separate from them, they separated from us," he said. "They're the ones that made the choice."

Follow WEWS statehouse reporter Morgan Trau on Twitter and Facebook.