COLUMBUS — Larry Householder’s election as speaker of the Ohio House links the Perry County lawmaker to one of the most popular and successful Republican politicians in modern Ohio political history, William B. Saxbe.
Householder won the job this month by unseating the incumbent, fellow Republican Ryan Smith of Gallia County in southeast Ohio.
He is the first Republican to pull off such a feat since Saxbe of Mechanicsburg in Champaign County, dumped incumbent Speaker Gordon Renner in 1953.
The political backdrop of the two coups, however, couldn’t be more different.
Householder’s win was a victory for the candidate-centered campaigns that dominate American politics and have left political parties as service organizations that do the bidding of a single, high-ranking officeholder.
These days the Republican National Committee and the Ohio Republican Party both appear to be under the strong control of President Donald J. Trump.
Saxbe’s win came with the quiet but important backing of Ohio Republican Chairman Ray C. Bliss of Akron. It was part of Bliss’ successful effort to make the state party the centerpiece of GOP politics in Ohio.
Householder, a charming, persuasive and forceful (substitute ruthless if you’re not a Householder fan) political entrepreneur, had previously been speaker from 2001-2004. He won the job that time by defeating Bill Harris, who had been favored by the GOP political establishment to replace outgoing Republican Speaker Jo Ann Davidson.
Householder left office under the cloud of an FBI investigation into alleged ethical transgressions, but that ended with no charges being filed.
He returned to the House by winning a seat in 2014. Another FBI investigation indirectly paved the way for him to regain the speaker’s gavel.
Republican Speaker Cliff Rosenberger had resigned last May 1 in the wake of an FBI investigation into his overseas travel.
Smith, who had been chairman of the powerful Finance Committee, took over as speaker, but Householder was busy building support for himself.
After last November’s elections, Republicans held leadership votes in December, but just 34 members showed up to favor Smith as speaker. Another 26, including Householder, stayed away, making Smith’s win questionable.
In the official Jan. 7 House vote, Householder was elected 52-46 over Smith.
Half of Householder’s supporters were Democrats. To get their support, he reportedly pledged to stay away from anti-union legislation such as a right-to-work bill.
Smith actually defeated Householder among Republicans, 34-26. He got support from 12 Democrats.
Such an outcome would have been unthinkable for Bliss, who respected Democrats and unions but didn’t want them interfering in Republican family business.
Bliss, who had been Summit County Republican chairman, was persuaded to run and win the state chairman’s job in the wake of the 1948 elections that saw Democratic President Harry Truman defeat heavily favored Republican Thomas Dewey and Democrats score important victories both nationwide and in Ohio.
The Ohio House was a holdout in Bliss’ effort to exert control over state Republican politics. The speaker was Republican Gordon Renner, related by marriage to Ed Schoor, a former state chairman. Schoor had become a lobbyist with an agenda that Renner supported. Republicans controlled the legislature but ineffective leadership permitted Democratic Gov. Frank Lausche to gain the upper hand.
Saxbe decided to seek the speakership and traveled across the state wooing every GOP House member.
Back in Columbus, Bliss worked for Saxbe.
“Bliss was chairman and he wanted me to beat Renner,” Saxbe told me. Bliss “played his cards close to the belly” and operated behind the scenes, Saxbe said.
Saxbe won by about a 2-to-1 vote in the Republican caucus and became speaker.
Bliss began meeting regularly with Republican legislative leadership to set a GOP agenda, just as he had met with the mayor and city council in Akron.
“It wasn’t what we discussed there,” Saxbe said of the meetings. “It was the fact that we were working together and we had a good relationship.”
The speakership became a springboard for Saxbe who went on to win elections as Ohio attorney general and U.S. senator and appointments as U.S. attorney general and American ambassador to India. He died at 94 in 2010.
Bliss, who died at 73 in 1981, remained state GOP chairman until 1965 when he became Republican national chairman, a job he held until 1969.
Back to the present, Householder has emerged as an independent source of Ohio political power who likes to do things his way.
If Republican Gov. Mike DeWine wants to succeed, he’ll have to figure out how to work with him.
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 is the coauthor, with John C. Green, of "Mr. Chairman: The Life and Times of Ray C. Bliss." He can be reached at email@example.com.