William Hershey

COLUMBUS: President Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the rest of the Washington wonders have until mid-January to figure out how to avoid another government shutdown.

So far they’ve been slow learners when it comes to stopping disruptions that threaten the still feeble economic recovery.

Chris Matthews, the MSNBC mouth that roars, offered a nostalgic solution in his new book, Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked, a personal look at how Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill put aside political differences in the 1980s to not only keep government running but also to achieve historical tax reform and, for a while at least, a fix for Social Security.

Sadly, Obama and Boehner, from West Chester in southwest Ohio, don’t have the personal chemistry to make history repeat itself.

Obama seems stuck on soaring rhetoric that flies over the people he needs to impress. Boehner has handcuffed himself to an ideologically driven minority more intent on destroying than governing.

Reid, from Nevada, just comes across as mean and uncompromising, although he and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican, were able to put aside their usual bickering to lead the way out of the most recent Washington cliffhanger.

We’re about half way between presidential elections, so Washington’s deep thinkers pay little attention to Ohio, but maybe we rubes and hayseeds can offer them an example of how to get things done.

It’s been nearly 20 years since Democrat Vern Riffe stepped down after serving two decades as speaker of the Ohio House, longer than any other speaker in state history.

As speaker from 1975 to 1994, Riffe led just half of the legislative branch of state government. Yet he often seemed to exert as much authority as the three governors he served with — Republicans Jim Rhodes and George Voinovich and Democrat Dick Celeste.

When I came to work for the Beacon Journal Columbus Bureau in the early 1980s, Riffe, who died in 1997 at 72, was at the height of his influence. He even made time stand still. At least he seemed to when he covered up a clock in the House chamber to avoid the appearance of missing a deadline for passing a budget.

Neither magic nor good government textbooks explained how Riffe worked. Rather, he mastered a political balancing act that represented not just the diversity of his Democratic caucus but of the state as a whole.

Riffe’s leadership team showcased a diversity that cut across political, regional, racial and gender divides.

Such diversity is hard to imagine in the homogenized makeup of both Congress and the Ohio General Assembly that high-tech gerrymandering has stuck us with.

Riffe and his good friend Myrl Shoemaker from Bourneville in Ross County, chairman of the House Finance Committee until elected lieutenant governor in 1982, represented southern Ohio and the state’s Appalachian region. They provided a moderate, small-town and rural perspective on how Ohio should be governed.

The number two person in the House was Speaker Pro Tem Barney Quilter of Toledo, a white, urban Democrat who made sure the voice of Ohio’s big cities was heard.

Next in line was Majority Floor Leader William Mallory of Cincinnati, a black Democrat whose high-profile presence assured minorities a place at state government’s table.

State Rep. C.J. McLin, Jr., of Dayton had no formal title on Riffe’s leadership rooster and sat in the rear of the House chamber. One of McLin’s eyes didn’t focus, making him appear disinterested. As founder of Black Elected Democrats of Ohio — predecessor to the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus — McLin was always in the room when decisions were made.

The suburbs were represented, too. Vernon Cook of Cuyahoga Falls was the assistant majority leader and Mary Boyle of suburban Cleveland was majority whip. Boyle gave the leadership team a feminine dimension.

State Rep. Vernon Sykes, an Akron Democrat, is one of the few remaining legislators in Columbus who also served when Riffe was Speaker. Sykes first came to Columbus in 1983.

There were trade-offs and compromises, Sykes recalled.

Nobody got everything he or she wanted, Sykes said.

But everybody got something.

Hershey is a former Washington correspondent and Columbus bureau chief for the Beacon Journal. He also was the Columbus bureau chief of the Dayton Daily News. He can be reached at hershey_william@hotmail.com.