Thomas Suddes: Balance of power in legislature’s favor, Ohioans bear the results

In a struggle that dates back 200-plus years, Statehouse clout runs in cycles, and at the moment, the legislative branch — Ohio’s Senate and House — is riding high.

That’s one reason why Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, head of the executive branch, has been buffaloed by a legislature that, sure as the next school shooting, will ignore real gun-safety proposals.

That’s also a reason why Ohio’s House and Senate, in so many words, told Ohio’s Supreme Court to get lost when a 4-3 court majority tried to kill Ohio Redistricting Commission gerrymandering.

Sure, personality plays a role in these triangular moves. The two Lima Republicans who run the General Assembly, Senate President Matt Huffman and House Speaker Robert Cupp, didn’t get where they are by playing pat-a-cake. (And though Cupp is a lame duck, Huffman is likely to land back in the House when term limits remove him from the Senate.)

Institutionally, there’s a history behind Statehouse power plays among the state government’s three branches. When a bunch of white males gathered in Chillicothe in 1802 to write Ohio’s first constitution, among their key aims was to limit the power of future governors.

The Ohio Constitution’s framers had had it with federally appointed territorial Gov. Arthur St. Clair, who thought the executive branch should be on top in Ohio’s politics. Though the governorship was reshaped by a later constitution (in 1851), Ohio’s governors didn’t win veto power over General Assembly legislation until 1903, a hundred years after Ohio had become a state.

The judicial branch of state government was likewise, if unofficially, supine as to the legislature. For one thing, until 1851, the General Assembly elected the state’s judges. Although the 1851 constitution let voters elect judges, Ohio’s judiciary tended to be Statehouse bystanders. When Chief Justice Frank Celebrezze, a Cleveland Democrat, tried to change that in the 1980s, you’d think Russian submarines had surfaced in Buckeye Lake, so swift and brutal was the conservative reaction to the high court’s bid for a seat at the Statehouse’s head table.

For much of the last century, the executive branch was on top, partly because the legislature was part-time and partly because gerrymandering gave rural counties outsize clout only if a governor didn’t tend to the gripes of the Cornstalk Club or Cornstalk Brigade of rural legislators. After all, governors and the other statewide elected executives (the attorney general, auditor, etc.) were the only people at the Statehouse for 52 weeks a year; Rep. Goodfellow was back home, baling hay.

But then a force of nature named James A. Rhodes became governor, a dealmaker who made that office more powerful than ever. The legislature, under Republican House Speaker Charles Kurfess, from Northwest Ohio, and especially under Democratic Speaker Vern Riffe, pushed back, reclaiming the legislative branch’s primacy in the (theoretical) trinity of Statehouse power.

No way Appalachia’s Riffe, especially, would play second fiddle to anybody. So, in effect, the speakership (and Senate presidency, under Republicans Paul Gillmor and Stanley Aronoff, and Democrat Harry Meshel) became governors’ partners, not go-fers.

That’s pretty much the status quo. The twist in DeWine’s circumstances may be his perceived political weakness — emphasis on “perceived” — in the eyes of the legislature’s Republicans.

In last month’s Republican gubernatorial primary election, the governor drew 48.1% of the votes — that is, less than half the Republicans voting in the primary supported him as opposed to three challengers. In 2018, DeWine drew 59.8% of the vote in a one-challenger primary.

In effect, in any bout with legislative Republicans, DeWine is almost certainly seen as less formidable than he was before COVID-19 engulfed Ohio, and the governor was forced by circumstance to make a number of unpopular decisions. The merits and demerits of those decisions are debatable. But given that nothing similar had sickened Ohio since the so-called Spanish influenza, 100 years ago, it’s not as if DeWine or anyone else had a handy template for responding to COVID-19.

There are templates to address the gun plague, though. Still, don’t expect the legislature to act.

Starting with prickly executive-legislativ­e relations, Ohio’s House and Senate have all kinds of lame excuses for not acting, except one they won’t mention: The gun lobbies’ power.