Lawmakers from northeast dominate Ohio leadership positions

COLUMBUS – Northeast Ohio has a rare grip on all levers of power in the new state Legislature, a potential boon for the region in terms of the money and projects that lawmakers often dole out to their constituents.

Senate President Bill Harris and House Speaker Armond Budish – as well as Senate Minority Leader Capri Cafaro and House Minority Leader Bill Batchelder – all come from the northeastern quadrant of Ohio.

The sphere of influence runs from Cafaro’s home of Hubbard, near Youngstown, to Harris’ home of Ashland, up to Batchelder’s district in Medina and to Budish’s home in Beachwood.

Regions of the state, notably the Cincinnati area in the 1990s and early part of this decade, have had a succession of lawmakers in the most powerful positions. But political observers can’t remember a time when one region controlled the top four positions simultaneously.

Former Senate President Richard Finan, a Cincinnati lawmaker who served in the chamber’s top spot from 1997-2003, said residents of northeast Ohio are in position to benefit greatly from the twist of circumstance that created the current geographic concentration of power.

Democrats took control of the House this month for the first time in 14 years, replacing a GOP speaker from the Dayton area with Budish, who dominated caucus fundraising. Harris maintained his post.

“It bodes very well for northeast Ohio and it bodes very poorly for southwestern Ohio,” Finan said. “That’s the way it works. You try to be sensitive to the whole state and what’s going on there but you respond probably more quickly to your constituency.”

Vern Riffe, who served as House speaker for a record 20 years from 1974 to 1994, ruled the House with a firm hand while doling out benefits to southern Ohio. Those included Shawnee State University, whose creation he backed despite claims by opponents that the state didn’t need another college.

When Stanley Aronoff of Cincinnati was Senate president before Finan, a $40 million performing arts center planned for Columbus ended up in Cincinnati when Columbus dragged its feet, Finan said. The Aronoff Center for the Arts bears his name.

“Regions of the state love to have leaders coming from those regions,” said Herb Asher, a political science professor at Ohio State University. “They would hope that somehow those leaders would in fact have more benefits going back to their own regions.”

In his address to open the legislative session, Budish proposed a “compact” with Ohio cities in which the state would waive income taxes on newly created jobs if the cities would do the same.

This type of program would benefit the more densely populated areas of northeast Ohio as opposed to rural areas. Expanding gambling, which lawmakers will consider in an effort to help plug a projected $7 billion budget deficit over the next two years, has more support in northeast Ohio than other regions of the state. Budish has said he’s willing to expand gambling to increase revenue.

Budish also pledged, in a gesture meant for rural areas, that Ohio would continue to focus on its strong agricultural opportunities.

“Speaker Budish approaches the job like he’s speaker of the Ohio House, which means he has a responsibility to the entire state of Ohio,” said spokesman Phil Saken. “The work he will do will be predicated on the idea that it needs to benefit all of Ohio.”

There are other pressures besides hometown interests that influence which bills are heard, and which projects are funded. There is not a perfect correlation between the hometowns of political leaders and the dollars those places receive, Asher said.

Republicans also have an interest in maintaining control in the Senate, while Democrats want to keep control of the House. That means the leaders must keep members of the party happy by giving them projects for their constituents, especially the lawmakers who make up the rest of the leadership teams.

“In terms of their political support, their financial support, they probably have a much broader based team so that they really do have to be sensitive to all areas of the state,” Asher said.

And Gov. Ted Strickland, with the ability to wield the veto pen to keep lawmakers in check, comes from Appalachia – a region many say is consistently overlooked and has no representation in the top legislative leadership positions.