COLUMBUS, Ohio — In November 2018, State Rep. Stephanie Howse, a black Democrat from Cleveland, was gaveled down as she tried to speak against a “stand your ground” gun bill that she said would disproportionately put her constituents in danger.
That event now is seen as a watershed moment that led the speaker’s gavel to pass from one Republican, then-State Rep. Ryan Smith to another, current House Speaker Larry Householder, with the support of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus and other Democrats. The transition, and the early tenure of Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, prefaced a period of rare bipartisanship last year that stretched across party and racial lines.
But that era of good feelings is now in the past. And as the coronavirus pandemic, nationwide protests and the presidential election looms, relationships between the majority, nearly all-white Republicans and black Democratic lawmakers, particularly in the House, have cratered in recent weeks.
“I don’t think ‘toxic’ is too strong of a word,” said House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes, who is black.
A state of inaction
Black lawmakers have wanted the legislature to make a swift, strong statement in response to the aftermath of nationwide protests against racism and police brutality. But in interviews, they described frustrations with legislative leaders failing to hear their concerns.
“At this point, they’re not trying to have conversations about race or how things are affected by the sins of history,” said state Rep. Juanita Brent, a Cleveland Democrat who is black and sponsored an amendment last week that would ban the sale of Confederate flags at county fairs. Republicans voted the proposal down, saying it violated free speech protections.
Republicans, meanwhile, said they don’t take Democrats’ critiques at face value. They said they have been offended by the tone of the debate, including a speech from Sykes in which she said House Republicans’ opposition to the Confederate flag ban was a form of racism.
State Rep. Niraj Antani, one of a handful of non-white GOP state lawmakers, and the lone house Republican to vote for with Democrats on the Confederate flag amendment, said people on his side of the aisle are willing to have an honest conversation about how to address racial issues.
“I think the reason there’s a hesitation is that it’s just going to be used as a partisan political tool,” said Antani, who is Indian-American and represents the Dayton area. “Because I think there is a genuine willingness to act.”
But black Democrats say the debate over racial disparity isn’t happening in a vacuum. Consider:
• State Rep. Nino Vitale, an Urbana Republican, on June 2 responded to a racism resolution introduced by Democrats by posting a photo on his official Facebook page of the OLBC describing himself as “darker than MOST of the people in this picture.” Vitale also has angered Democrats by using his page to promote conspiracy theories about vaccines and the coronavirus. But he remains chairman of the House Energy and Natural Resources Commission, a prestigious designation that gives him extra pay.
• Black Democratic lawmakers long have pushed for racial bias and racism training to be incorporated into mandatory training for lawmakers and staff. Sykes, Howse and other black women lawmakers said in 2018 they had been profiled at Statehouse security checkpoints. In the aftermath of racist comments made by a white GOP state senator during a committee hearing last week, Senate President Larry Obhof, of Medina County, said he would incorporate racial sensitivity training. Householder has not.
• Following shooting deaths by police officers of John Crawford in Beavercreek, and Tamir Rice in Cleveland, and a finding by the U.S. Department of Justice that found Cleveland police routinely used excessive force against its citizens, a task force formed by then-Gov. John Kasich in 2015 issued a series of recommendations aimed at addressing concerns over racial disparities in policing. Most of those recommendations were shelved. Some of those ideas have resurfaced in a police-reform proposal from DeWine, announced this week.
“All of these things [DeWine] said he wants to do are things that the Black Caucus was talking about since I was the Black Caucus president way back in 2009,” said state Sen. Sandra Williams, a Cleveland Democrat. “And we’ve been talking and talking and talking to the administration and the party in control, and we’ve gotten absolutely nowhere.”
Black lawmakers are a minority in the state legislature, holding only 13 of 99 seats in the House, and 5 of 33 seats in the Senate. All are Democrats in a state government that’s largely been controlled by Republicans in recent decades, including since 2011.
But they played an outsized role in installing Householder as speaker last year, helping oust then-Speaker Ryan Smith, also a Republican.
Householder reached out to black House Democrats after Smith cut her mic during debate in December 2018 on the stand-your-ground bill. Howse, arguing white lawmakers didn’t understand how issues uniquely affect black Ohioans, had started reading off the percentages of black residents in the bill sponsors’ legislative districts. Smith angrily told reporters afterward she had implied its supporters, including himself, were racist. Black members felt that Howse had been disrespected and her concerns overlooked. Householder visited the Black Caucus’ kick-off party as a way of showing his appreciation.
“There was a calculated effort for Democrats who were in the super-minority to work in a legislative body in a way we could participate,” said Sykes, who ascended to lead House Democrats as part of the leadership shake-up.
Householder, a white rural Republican with an interest in children’s issues, kicked off the legislative session with a focus on poverty, introducing bipartisan bills that included those on infant mortality, domestic violence and drug addiction. Through the end of last December, Republicans and Democrats touted the year as an example of unprecedented bipartisanship.
But the relationship deteriorated rapidly after the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic in March. COVID-19 has been concentrated in urban areas, and disproportionately harmed black residents. Meanwhile, many rural, Republican lawmakers, including Householder, have seen the DeWine administration’s response as overblown.
Democrats were upset after Householder and other House Republicans focused on countering DeWine’s coronavirus health orders and attempts to weaken the state health department. The two parties also sparred over masks, with Householder and most House Republicans refusing to wear them, and Democrats making a point to do so.
A deepening divide
Things worsened when two weeks ago, as protests against police brutality intensified nationally, Black Caucus members introduced resolutions in the House and Senate that would declare racism a public health crisis. The resolution is modeled after one passed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 2019.
A House version of the resolution has yet to receive a committee hearing — offending black Democrats — although a House GOP spokeswoman said Thursday one is being arranged.
“Instead of saying it doesn’t matter … there are these excuses and stall tactics and minimizing the experience of black Ohioans,” Sykes said. “And it is a complete and utter lack of leadership for refusing to listen.”
Meanwhile, a Senate version of the resolution was derailed last week after State Sen. Steve Huffman, a Dayton-area Republican, during a Senate Health Committee hearing asked whether it could be that “the colored population” was more affected by COVID-19 because they didn’t wash their hands as frequently. After his comments drew public attention, Huffman was fired from his job as an emergency-room physician, and some prominent civil-rights groups called for his resignation. He remains vice-chair of the health committee.
Williams said she called Huffman and talked to him. She said Huffman, who represents a senate district that’s 25% black but lives in Tipp City, a rural village outside Dayton, told her he doesn’t have much regular, personal contact with black people.
“That’s how some of these people’s lives are,” said Williams, who publicly discussed instances when she’s felt doctors have taken her health concerns less seriously because she is black. “They’ve been in a bubble for most of their lives, and have never had to address this issue. I think they’re very sensitive, and don’t know how to deal with people who are bringing these issues forward.”
Williams said she thinks Obhof and other Senate leaders are serious about wanting to explore racial concerns. But not everyone.
“I think there are some people who really want to know and understand, and some people who don’t believe it exists,” she said.
The Ohio Senate Health Committee called off a planned hearing on the resolution planned for this week to let things cool off. But another hearing is planned for next week, according to state Sen. Dave Burke, a Marysville Republican who chairs the committee.
Burke, who is white, said he and others were personally moved by the testimony given last week. Black witnesses recounted their personal experiences dealing with various forms of racism, subtle and overt. He said it’s been easy for him to overlook racial disparities since he doesn’t confront them in his daily life. He said the conversation has inspired him to confront the issue more directly.
“I personally left that room a different person than I walked into it,” Burke said. “I think a lot of my colleagues went through that. But not all my colleagues were there.”
Burke also said he’s concerned white legislators will view the response to Huffman’s comment as a “chilling message.” Racism is a scary word to white people, he said, but another way to think about it is unconscious biases that everyone has.
“If you look for perfection, that pool is going to be very limited where people can converse,” he said.
He wouldn’t commit to passing the resolution, which has drawn support from a few other Republican senators. But he said it will continue to be discussed.
“I have six months left in the General Assembly, and shame on me if I don’t move this forward,” he said.
The House Republican response
Taylor Jach, a Householder spokeswoman, said the current legislative session has seen bipartisan legislation passed on education, infant mortality, drug addiction treatment and criminal-sentencing reform, all issues that disproportionately affect the black community.
“Now that an election is rolling around in a few months there are some who want to forget all of the good work we have done over the past 17 months,” Jach said. “We fully admit that there is much more to do, but let’s not tear apart the bipartisan triumphs of this session because a campaign is looming.”
House Republicans point to their police reform legislation, announced last week, as their vehicle to address racial equity issues. The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Phil Plummer, said in an interview he is arranging meetings around the state next week to seek input from law enforcement and civil-rights groups, including those representing African-Americans, as he develops placeholder legislation into a full-fledge plan.
The proposal includes mandatory standards and psychological testing, creating a disciplinary database for violent officers, and more money and training for law-enforcement. He said he aims to formally introduce something by September.
Plummer, a former Montgomery County sheriff, said he and other Republicans have been offended by things Democrats have said, which they view as implying they are racist. But he said white and black lawmakers will need to come together to address disparities in policing, which he said is a major problem.
“Everyone’s afraid to talk about racial issues because everyone’s afraid they’re going to say the wrong thing,” he said. “We have to give each other slack because we don’t understand each other.”
Brent, the state representative from Cleveland who sponsored the proposal to ban Confederate flag sales at county fairs, said during her floor speech the flags symbolize a government that viewed her as property, not a human being. She said the flags have made her and other minorities unwelcome when they’ve seen them.
She told cleveland.com the discomfort white lawmakers are feeling is nothing compared to what she and other black Ohioans have gone through.
“All my colleagues represent black people,” Brent said. “Even if it’s some small percentage, they all represent descendants of slaves. We have to have these conversations. We can’t hide it. As much as this is making them uncomfortable, I’ve had to deal with it my whole life.”