COLUMBUS — Not many residents would list West Central Ohio as a seat of power in state government, but at the moment, with Keith Faber newly sworn in as Ohio Senate President and Matt Huffman as Ohio House speaker pro tem, it is.
Faber, a Celina Republican, is a respected legislator who’s gained more power from his new job, and it remains to be seen what he’ll do with it. Huffman, a Lima Republican, was a strong and respected legislator the day he walked in the Statehouse, with or without a leadership title. He’s chosen to exercise his power in atypical ways.
Having people from West Central Ohio in leadership in Columbus ultimately helps the region, Huffman said.
“This is without question a state dominated by Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland. That’s how a lot of decisions get made. What often happens is the rest of the state bands together,” Huffman said. “I further define that, what I call the flatlands, between Dayton and Toledo, and west of Mansfield. We’re a pretty common group of people. I’m proud to be where I’m from.”
Tradition of the Senate
As Faber, 46, ascended the steps to the president’s well in the Senate chambers, he carried with him the massive gavel made for him. He set it on the lectern and it took a clunky turn, knocking a bit near the microphone.
“Mercer County walnut’s tough,” Faber said, almost to himself, before taking over the 130th General Assembly. The gavel, and the one who wields it, will need to be, as much of the senate president’s job is balancing priorities and managing personalities.
Over and Over this week, media asked Faber about his approach to the job. If he said it once, he said it 100 times: He could compromise on policy but wouldn’t compromise on principle. That would seem to a be a tight rope to walk.
“My general approach to things is more collaborative. I think that’s from 16 years of being a mediator. I know you can find better results if you can find those win-win scenarios for everybody. The way to get there is to understand the difference between, ‘I can’t live with that,’ and, ‘That makes some sense.’ That’s something I’ve honed as skills as a mediator,” Faber said. “This job isn’t so much where I stand. It’s much more important where the caucus stands, and where the Senate stands. As a leader, I may have to put my own personal beliefs aside and form what’s good for the majority of the Senate. But that doesn’t mean you compromise on principle. I firmly believe you can stand firm on principle and find policies you can find agreement on.”
However, Ben Rose, who served in the House minority leadership before Faber served, said Faber “did not have a very good record of supporting leaders when they were straining to govern and come up with compromise. Now he’s going to learn the value of having subordinates who are loyal to the leader.”
While many in the Republican Senate caucus have experience in the House, very few senators have any Senate seniority at all. Only two other Republicans have been in the Senate as long as Faber, since 2007. Only five of the 23 have served longer than two years.
“The stars were aligned for Keith Faber. He had an easy election to president,” said Rose, a longtime attorney and political observer who previously served in the Ohio House. “They’ve had exceptional turnover. A vast majority of the caucus hasn’t been around for even two years. The numbers are just incredible.”
But with the tradition of the Senate, senators develop egos quickly, Rose said. The personalities and the smaller numbers make the challenge of leadership more difficult in the Senate than the House, Rose believes.
“You’re a leader among equals. They can be talking about the Browns at a bar, and they’ll call each other 'senator.' It’s incredible. The egos are just huge over there,” Rose said. “In the House, the speaker can afford to lose a few people and still get done what he or she wants to get done. In the Senate, it’s very hard to lose anybody. So you’re constantly massaging people and working for consensus within your caucus.”
Leading through consensus
Faber served in the Ohio House from 2001 until 2007 when he was appointed to fill the 12th Senate district seat when Jim Jordan won election to the U.S. House of Representatives.
The president’s post comes with a $34,000 pay raise: Senate and House members make $60,584, according to the Legislative Service Commission. The Senate president makes $94,437 a year.
Faber is an attorney who specializes in mediating cases before they go to trial. He said those skills and experience will serve him well in his new job. After he was sworn in, Faber said he has been working with Senate Minority Leader Eric Kearney and that he wants a handful of the Senate’s legislative priorities to be joint priorities with Democrats. Faber invoked President Abraham Lincoln in his speech Monday.
“As Lincoln said, shades of opinion may be sincerely entertained by honest and truthful people. So then, I say humbly and respectively to my colleagues and friends from the other side of the aisle. Today we are extending you the olive branch of cooperation. We look forward to working with you to do good things for Ohio. But remember, as Lincoln also said, ‘Only he who has the heart to help also has the right to criticize,’” Faber said. “No one here today would underestimate the work that lies ahead of us, to balance our state budget; to educate our children, to build up our economy; to create jobs; and to make Ohio the greatest place in the nation to live, work and raise a family. This is no small task. We should not forget the fact that the people who sent us here can send us home.”
It remains to be seen if the tradition of the chamber and culture of Columbus will sway Faber. Former Senate President Richard H. Finan began a self-imposed requirement for Republicans, Rose said, that for a bill to come to the floor for a vote, it need only Republican votes to pass.
“That makes it very difficult to get something passed and immediately poses a much tougher leadership challenge,” Rose said. “If you need 17 of 33, you can tell the crazies to take a walk. If you’re trying to get your 17 votes out of 23, a few guys can hold you up and make you do all sorts of things in order to get the bill passed. In my view every time you try to make things a Republican or Democrat only solution, you get poorer results. I would try to limit the things you’re trying to do with only Republican votes. I don’t think that’s the Senate’s tradition and I don’t think they’ll follow it.”
In the House
In the Ohio House, Huffman’s position as the No. 2 in leadership would hold more sway or intrigue if he were not term limited; with the limit, Huffman cannot pursue a promotion to House speaker. The speaker pro tem earns $86,165 a year.
That being said, Huffman’s influence in the House goes beyond his title, Rose said. Huffman often lends a hand in multiple ways with complicated, substantive legislation, and his mark is often left on laws.
“He’s one of most powerful, respected legislators in house; that carries over to people who don’t agree with him, and he’ll have every opportunity, and he’s already exercised it, to work on issues, some of which I disagree with, whether it’s vouchers, or his major contributions in state health care law,” Rose said. “He’s just a doggone good legislator.”
The families of Huffman and House Speaker William Batchelder have a long, close relationship that dates back over decades of shared politics and friendship, Rose said. Huffman could have chaired the House Finance Committee, but chose to lead Republican House campaigning efforts. He spanned the state recruiting candidates and his work resulted in Republicans gaining a majority in the House.
“Why anyone would want to do anything else [than finance chair] I don’t know, but Matt earned great gratitude and respect for the good job he did in leading campaigning and getting them into the majority,” Rose said. “Being speaker pro tem is an honor. It’s icing on the cake, which maybe highlights his power, but he’d have that power whether he was speaker pro tem or not.”
Ohio law will largely set the priority for most of this first year of the General Assembly session, because the state’s new two-year budget must be passed by June 30. Faber has set up new committees and subcommittees to deal with the budget’s biggest expenses, Medicaid and education, and other topics, especially those he believes Gov. John Kasich has an interest in.
Faber, known as one of the Legislature’s most conservative members, said he is prioritizing economic over social issues. The so-called “heartbeat bill” is something he personally supports, but isn’t pushing it. If members want it, he won’t block it.
Faber comes from one of the strongest right-to-life areas of the state, Rose said, and he will have to balance his personal feelings, and the feelings of his constituents, with a larger state view.
“We did a member retreat in early December, earlier than we ever have. Of all the things we discussed, that wasn’t on there. It’s not that people don’t care about that, but right now our focus in Ohio and in the Legislature is on jobs and the economy. Those things, while important, are not the driving issues,” Faber said.
The Senate will take up tax reform and additional regulatory reform, which has been Faber’s No. 1 legislative issue since he has been a legislator. The Senate will also take up a workforce development bill focused on the underemployed.
“It’s one of the bills we’ll pass in the first six months,” Faber said. “While we have programs for unemployed individuals, and we’re concerned about them, for people who need an extra level of skill to get to where the jobs are, that’s an area the state needs to do a better job on. That’s one of the things I can tell you my personal and the caucus’ priorities align on.”
The Senate will do a second retreat Jan. 22. and will come out of it with a list of 10 to 20 legislative priorities, some of which will be on the Democrats’ list.
Huffman said he will continue to pursue his own interests, such as school choice legislation, and things he’s asked to handle as part of leadership, such as Internet café regulation that would ultimately shut down the industry. Huffman said he wants school choice legislation folded into the school funding plan Kasich will introduce in early February, but that he is not privy to what the governor will offer.
Faber and Huffman both said a natural tension exists between the House and Senate that is designed and expected. However, the relationship between the leadership of both chambers grew frosty in recent months, and Faber and Huffman also both said they expected that to improve, partly because the two of them are personal friends, and partly because Faber and Batchelder have already increased communication and committed to improve relations between the members.
Most of the Senate members have served previously in the House, Faber said. Also, while Faber and Batchelder never served together, Faber said he stands on the man’s shoulders.
“He has been known as the de facto leader of conservatives in Ohio. I am one of those conservatives,” Faber said. “We looked to the things he and his other colleagues placed before us.”
Rose said Faber would do well to remind the governor and his staff that he leads a second, independent branch of government.
“He’s got to maintain some distance,” Rose said. “He’s got to make up his mind how far he sticks his neck out to support the governor, to craft sometimes controversial solutions that maybe go against some conservative views about what government ought to do, in order to govern.”
Faber said he has a good relationship with Kasich.
“I used to say I was a Kasich believer before it was popular,” Faber said. “I’ve worked with him, knew him before he was governor.”
Faber sees a streak in Kasich that those who know Faber would also attribute to him.
“He’s willing to lead. Sometimes you cause some consternation, because not everyone wants to go where you want to go, or there are short term hills and dips that make the ultimate goal go out of focus,” Faber said. “I think this governor, out of all the governors I’ve served with, has the best vision and focus to work for what’s best for Ohio, and that’s growing the state’s economy and helping Ohioans find and keep good jobs.”