COLUMBUS, Ohio — Maneuvering has begun among Ohio House Republicans to pick a new leader following this week’s arrest of House Speaker Larry Householder in what federal officials have described as the largest corruption case in state history.
At least two candidates have emerged as possible replacements for Householder as speaker. One is Bob Cupp, a former Ohio Supreme justice from Lima who has served in the Ohio House since 2015. He has the backing of state Reps. Gary Scherer, of Pickaway County and Phil Plummer, of Montgomery County, who say they are seeking to “draft” him for the position.
His backers say Cupp is a well-respected figure within the caucus who is above reproach and not regarded as a political operator.
In an interview, Scherer said fair or not, there is a “taint” associated with current leadership following Householder’s arrest.
“We’ve got good people that are in leadership now, but with a fresh look, a fresh leader, I think the quicker we do that the better.”
Another potential candidate is state Rep. Rick Carfagna, a Delaware County Republican. Carfagna, in office since 2017, said in a Thursday interview he’s giving “serious consideration” to seeking the job, and said he has heard from people who have encouraged him to run.
“I think most of my colleagues agree that the first thing we have to do is restore integrity to House leadership and do what we can to restore public confidence,” he said. “Not only in the House, but in government service overall.”
Other members have been said to express interest privately in the seat, including state Reps. Scott Lipps, of Franklin, and Craig Riedel, of Defiance.
Gov. Mike DeWine repeated a call Thursday for House members to act quickly to replace Householder. He’s previously called for Householder to resign, saying Householder cannot serve in the position effectively as he’s facing up to 20 years in prison over what federal prosecutors have described as a $60 million bribery scheme to pass House Bill 6, the $1 billion nuclear bailout bill.
As a condition of this release from jail this week, Householder was ordered to not have contact with any potential witnesses in his case, which conceivably could apply to any member of the legislature.
“The people’s business must be done and so I urge my friends in the legislature to very vigorously look at that and try to move as quickly as they can,” DeWine, a Republican, said Thursday.
The House is not scheduled to meet again for months. But DeWine could call a special session under the Ohio Constitution, according to state Attorney General Dave Yost.
House Republicans initially had considered meeting Friday to informally discuss picking a new leader. But House members say they’re now looking at next week, as soon as Tuesday.
The chamber has been paralyzed following the Tuesday arrest of Householder, one of the state’s most powerful politicians who had seemed firmly entrenched in his position. The night of the arrest, Householder’s leadership team issued a statement saying they were reviewing the allegations against him. Since then, some of them have joined the mounting calls for Householder to step down.
Discomfort has set in among Republicans, as concern has mounted about the state of the House GOP caucus’ campaign funds for the upcoming legislative races this November. Householder closely controlled fundraising and the distribution of campaign funds, which were depleted following a primary earlier this year that was extended an additional six weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s unclear what funds are available, what might be frozen and what might be associated with allegations contained within the investigation. Householder’s top political aide who saw legislative campaigns, Jeff Longstreth, also was arrested this week.
After a court appearance Tuesday, Householder told reporters he would not resign. But he can be expelled through a provision in the Ohio Constitution with a two-thirds vote. They could also simply remove him from his leadership position with a majority vote.
Even before news broke this week of the FBI investigation, the House had been harshly divided along party lines in recent weeks amid the coronavirus pandemic and an increased national focus on racial inequality amid a widespread protest movement.
A letter from Scherer and Plummer distributed Thursday floating Cupp’s candidacy said there will be a change in leadership soon, one way or another.
“As we do that, we need to be honest with ourselves and recognize that all has not been well inside the Republican Caucus for some time,” reads the letter, obtained by cleveland.com. “Householder was not the only recent Speaker to misuse the office or to disrespect, bully or even threaten members who in good conscience dissented from one or another policy decision or leadership vote.”
Scherer said he doesn’t expect Republicans will need to reach out to Democrats to break a tie, as they did during the bitterly contested battle that saw Householder ascend to the position in January 2019.
He said he and Plummer have spoken with around a dozen members each, and believe the reception for Cupp has been positive.
“I’m term limited myself, but I want to see the future of our House come together,” he said. “We’ve been fractured not only left to right, party wise. But within our own caucus.”
Here is the letter from Scherer and Plummer: