Frank LaRose explains that no one is really prepared for their first term as a legislator, not the longtime mayor, county official, city council member or small business owner. All face “a big learning curve.”
A former Green Beret in the U.S. Army, LaRose started his education as a lawmaker in the hothouse of Senate Bill 5, the high-stakes bid to rewrite the state’s collective-bargaining law. The Copley Township Republican, just weeks as part of the majority in the Ohio Senate, faced circumstances he describes as tougher in some ways than combat. He saw the need to make adjustments to a law three decades on the books. He also worried about partisan excess.
The story is well known, such excesses sinking the legislation, voters rejecting the bill via a referendum. LaRose recalls casting “a hesitant, very concerned yes vote.” And when the bill returned from the House, the Republican majority there turning the partisan knife? LaRose gave his assent again.
Worth rehashing is why. The moment reveals something refreshing, LaRose growing into a legislator interested first in governing, pragmatically, looking to address problems, understanding the value of bringing the other party into the process. His path diverges from those Republicans prone to harsh ideological clashes.
LaRose told Senate leaders he would vote for the bill if a handful of improvements were made, including safety equipment as part of contract negotiations and axing a provision that punished strikers with prison. They met his demands. He wasn’t going to respond: Sorry, not enough.
Why not bolt after the House delivered its egregious changes? The legislation narrowly cleared the Senate, 17-16. LaRose knows that his switch just would have put a Republican colleague on the spot to cover the loss. He preferred to make his own commitment to pursue legislation later to repair the law.
Before you scoff, know that Bill Clinton made the same deal in signing welfare reform, and he eventually did get the improvements.
Know, too, that as much as many of us would have liked LaRose to switch, the learning is what is telling. Where did he go from here?
LaRose admits he cast a sloppy vote on the Great Lakes Compact, at least the first version, which John Kasich vetoed. LaRose followed the lead of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce and the Ohio Manufacturers Association. Then, the governor’s action got his attention. He plunged into the matter, tapping both sides, becoming familiar with the science.
The governor signed an improved second version. LaRose voted against passage. He hardly joined troubling company. George Voinovich, Bob Taft and former members of their administrations argued the bill still didn’t strike the right balance. They voiced concern, for instance, about tributaries left inadequately protected, risking harm to Lake Erie. So did scientists and anglers.
In his opposition, LaRose echoed a Republican tradition, its most conspicuous adherent, Theodore Roosevelt, of preserving and protecting the country’s natural resources. It embraces the notion that environmental protection and economic development can be complementary, that generations have an obligation to those who follow.
Along with practically everyone else, LaRose grasps the economic promise of the shale boom. He wanted regulations that didn’t slight the public interest. He jumped into the details, weighing the competing views, focusing on disclosure of the chemicals in the drilling process and the impact on groundwater.
LaRose cast “a pragmatic yes vote” in the Senate, satisfied the give and take had yielded sufficient balance. When the oil and gas lobby prevailed in the House, gaining the “Halliburton amendment,” weakening the disclosure provisions? He became an opponent. A carefully brokered compromise had been broken.
Seek to govern in the middle, and you are exposed on both sides. LaRose insists he has had “more sleepless nights in the Senate than in 10 years in the Army.” He finds purpose in a “beautifully chaotic” legislative process, the messy business of turning the many grievances and ideas into the rules we live by. (He has been to places of chilling order.) He sees strength in changing your mind.
I have disagreed with LaRose, from smaller items involving public records to the larger, such as his vote on the state budget. Worth appreciating is his developing method, two years at the Statehouse.
With Tom Sawyer and others, LaRose has been a leading player in crafting a better way to draw legislative and congressional district lines. He has pressed for a telecommunications bill that is about modernizing the state, not neglecting the elderly.
LaRose likes the idea of the Senate cooling the heat of the House, as Tom Niehaus, the outgoing Senate president, has done skillfully, halting such items as the “heartbeat” bill and a photo ID voting requirement. LaRose knows that governing well isn’t a matter of all or nothing. It involves listening, learning, reaching sincerely across the aisle, working in the middle to make Ohio better.
Douglas is the Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514, or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.