The following article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal and published on News5Cleveland.com under a content-sharing agreement.
COLUMBUS, Ohio — This week, the Ohio House will reconvene to begin the 135th general assembly session. When they do, they’ll hold a formal vote to elect the next House speaker. Because Republicans hold a 67-32 majority, the winner of the caucus race, Rep. Derek Merrin, R-Monclova Township, is expected to take the gavel unless further challenges to his speakership emerge.
Merrin is relatively young, and noticeably more conservative than his predecessor Speaker Bob Cupp. But because Merrin has been in office since 2017, his tenure as speaker would only last two years. Some in his caucus worry another leadership race on the horizon will only drive the wedge deeper between existing factions in the party. Others suggest those fractures are deep enough already that Merrin might not win the gavel.
How he got here
Merrin jumped into politics early. At just 19, he ran for city council in Waterville, Ohio. Two years later voters in the Toledo suburb elected him mayor. After that, Merrin joined the office of then-auditor Dave Yost. In 2016, state lawmakers tapped Merrin to fill a vacancy in the general assembly.
In the House, Merrin backed Larry Householder’s bid for speaker. He also cashed about $10,000 in contributions from Householder’s dark money Growth & Opportunity PAC as well as another $7,700 from Householder’s official committee.
In 2020 federal prosecutors indicted Householder in a scheme to funnel undisclosed cash from utilities through dark money groups — including Growth & Opportunity PAC — to fund Householder’s speaker bid and the subsequent passage of the House Bill 6 energy bailout. Merrin was one of the lawmakers who voted against ousting the disgraced former speaker after that indictment.
With a handful of notable exceptions, Merrin’s legislative record has been fairly understated. His work has centered on the kind of arcane, under-the-hood policy tweaks that impact resident’s lives, but in ways many likely won’t notice.
Reappropriate unspent funds for capital projects? Change how levies appear on ballots? Rejigger property assessment challenges? That’s right in Merrin’s wheelhouse.
“As a freshman legislator, I was looking for something that I could do that no one else was working on,” Merrin told a Senate committee in March as he introduced his unclaimed funds bill — again.
“That was, to be honest with you, that was a mistake of mine,” he joked. “I have now spent four or five years tackling this and I believe, I think, we’ve got it sorted out.”
They hadn’t. Merrin’s measure to reunite residents with missed reimbursements, old bank accounts, and the like died last year just as previous versions did.
Still, it says something about his approach. He’s happy to keep advancing and incrementally improving legislation even when few outside the Statehouse are really paying attention to the issue.
But while Merrin will labor under the radar to, say, reduce BMV visits for residents, he’s helped himself as well. Outside the Statehouse, Merrin owns rental properties and he’s proposed measures friendly to landlords like himself.
In 2018, he got provisions into an unrelated bill that would shorten the timeline for evictions by including weekends and holidays. That language was later removed. A year earlier, Merrin added an amendment to the operating budget aimed at kneecapping a Toledo lead ordinance. That measure ordered landlords who own properties built prior to 1978 remove lead paint or face a fine. The city passed another version of that legislation in 2020. The deadline for compliance was June of last year, and some landlords were still dragging their feet.
Conservative bona fides
Those notable exceptions where Merrin has strayed from the mundane offer clues about his leadership as well.
For many conservative lawmakers, COVID-19 served as a provocation — an inciting incident to react against. Merrin was no exception. But again, his tendency toward process is hard to miss. His proposals included shortening the length of an emergency declaration from 120 days to 10. Another would vacate and expunge fines businesses received for failing to follow health guidelines.
Merrin signed on as co-sponsor for some of the most conservative legislation to come forward in recent years. Right-to-work, anti-trans bills, life at conception and permitless concealed carry legislation — Merrin has added his name to each. But he’s rarely the one leading the charge on big-ticket, conservative legislation. The obvious departure is abortion.
In 2019, as chair of the House Health committee, Merrin shepherded the six-week abortion ban through the House. On the floor, Merrin insisted he and other lawmakers were not “injecting our personal faith into this bill.” This despite challenging a reverend in committee about a verse from Jeremiah, and then recounting testimony on the floor from two women who turned to their Christian faith after regretting their abortions. Instead, Merrin argued, it was the bill’s opponents who were injecting “secular humanism” into public debate.
Merrin went a step further, too, accusing opponents of arguing more abortion restrictions would lead to higher Medicaid costs.
“What they’re saying is we need to have abortion so we can weed out the babies that are weak,” Merrin argued on the House floor, calling the arguments “despicable” and “beyond utterly offensive.”
How Merrin arrived at that interpretation is unclear. In committee and on the floor Rep. Beth Liston, D-Dublin, pointed out that Medicaid pays for about half of pregnancies in the state. If more pregnancies are carried to term, she reasoned, more money will be needed. On the floor, she offered an amendment expanding Medicaid coverage to all children and all mothers for five years postpartum. That amendment failed.
What does the House look like with Merrin as speaker?
Rep. Merrin himself declined to speak for this story, but a handful of his colleagues were willing to weigh in.
Both on the record and off, Republican lawmakers spoke highly of Merrin’s intelligence and policy chops. Reps. Phil Plummer, R-Dayton, and Brian Stewart, R-Ashville, both members of the incoming leadership team, promised a successful term under his leadership.
“We’re going to be more proactive and really work on bills. Instead of one person having an idea, having a whole team, maybe six people really vet ideas and bring good legislation for the citizens of Ohio,” Plummer described. He added that Merrin wants to increase professionalism and improve technology.
Stewart spoke about how prepared Merrin is for the job.
“He’s somebody who is coming into this because he has big ideas and wants to get big things done,” Stewart said. “He’s not coming into this about, you know, having his portrait on the wall here at the Statehouse, and I think that’s a good dynamic to have.”
Still, Merrin’s support isn’t universal. One Republican member refused outright to presume Merrin will be the next speaker. The lawmaker argued the caucus is riven with factions and if Democrats decided as a block to back someone else, it’s easy to imagine someone else cobbling together a majority. They were mum, however, on who that dark horse candidate might be.
Another Republican acknowledged Merrin is likely to get the job, but warned he’ll have his work cut out for him — again, citing internal GOP divisions. The lawmaker noted it would be a challenge for anyone to wrangle the various contingents. Their biggest concern was lack of consistency in leadership for the caucus. Because Merrin is term limited in 2024 the caucus will be fighting for the gavel again almost immediately.
Across the aisle, that short tenure is a silver lining. During the lame duck session, Minority Leader Allison Russo said she had already begun conversations with Merrin, and her caucus was moving forward under the assumption he’ll be the next speaker. She said Democrats had concerns about all three contenders for speaker — Reps. Merrin and Plummer as well as Rep. Jason Stephens, R-Kitts Hill. Although Russo said working with Merrin will be challenging, she noted because of term limits, it’s a short-term arrangement.
Follow OCJ Reporter Nick Evans on Twitter.