Retherford reflects on challenges, successes in 6 years at the Statehouse

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Former Ohio lawmaker Wes Retherford said he will miss the constituent work and helping people “get through the red tape” of government bureaucracy as he exited office after six years.

The Hamilton Republican, who wrapped up his tenure representing the 51st Ohio House District on Dec. 31, reflected on his time in office during a recent interview with the Journal-News. He discussed his possible missed opportunities in failing to win reelection and the advice he has for this year’s statehouse newcomers.

“The job has always been about serving people to me,” he said.

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Over his six years in Columbus, Retherford pushed for two dozen pieces of legislation, about half of which eventually became law either as standalone bills or attached to other bills signed into law. Some aspects of his bills not enacted were adopted as rules by state departments, such as the Ohio Department of Transportation.

He also helped secure nearly $3 million of state funding for the area, including $1 million each for road improvements around the Spooky Nook and the Champion Mill Conference and Events Center development, $100,000 for the Fitton Center for Creative Arts renovations and The Mill business incubator.

Several years into his tenure, Retherford faced criticism for a liquor cabinet he kept in his Columbus office, and an anonymous 2016 Columbus Magazine survey dubbed him as being "lazy" and "least engaged" — labels Retherford say are disproved by his legislative legacy.

The three-term lawmaker lost his re-election bid in the May primary to Sara Carruthers. Carruthers was elected to represent the district that includes Hamilton, Fairfield and Ross Twp. in November over Susan Vaughn, another political rookie.

Two things that hurt Retherford were Carruthers’ spending of $200,000 on her campaign, which included television ads against Retherford and her other opponent, former lawmaker Greg Jolivette, and Retherford’s March 12, 2017, arrest for operating a vehicle while impaired.

Retherford didn’t publicly speak about his arrest until months later, likely to his determent, he said.

“I wish I’d got out and started speaking about it sooner than I did,” he said. “I think that if I had more time to show my honest sincerity and my regrets for that night, and the honest changes I’ve made to improve myself, I think the May election would have been a little easier on me.”

Retherford said another of his regrets is not pushing harder to help Ohio Rep. Jim Butler, R-Oakwood, be elected speaker of the Ohio House. Instead, former speaker Cliff Rosenberger was elected, and he resigned last spring amid an FBI investigation.

“Maybe this could have been avoided if Jim Butler would have been speaker,” Retherford said.

Retherford, 34, was the second-youngest member of the Ohio House at the time of his election six years ago, and he said he likely spent too much time trying to prove himself and wishes he had spent more time listening than talking. That’s one piece of advice he said he would have for Carruthers: “Spend 90 percent of your time listening, and about 10 percent talking.”

Retherford, who works as a mortician’s assistant, hasn’t ruled out running for elected office in the future.

“I’ve learned in life that you can’t plan these things out,” he said. “If the opportunity presents itself, and I have a lot of people come up to me like the first time I ran … but I want to be a parent, a dad, a husband right now. And quite frankly be on the constituent side verses the public official side, and lodge my complaints with my elected officials.”

Some called Retherford lucky when he was elected to the statehouse in 2012 because of a mistake in the petition by former lawmaker Greg Jolivette.

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However, Retherford argues he was the party favorite, disputing a claim made in a 2017 Columbus Magazine article. Though no endorsement was made in that 2012 race, Retherford received the most votes in two rounds of endorsement voting, according to party officials.

“You can make the argument I was the favorite candidate, at least by the party at the time,” he said. “At the same time Greg had a lot better name ID than me, so it would have been a tough election. But I would have put in the hard work needed to win.”

The Ohio statehouse is “rich with history,” Retherford said, and “its significance and impact on lives of everyday individual is astronomical.”

“Anybody who walks into the statehouse as an elected official, or anybody who walks into one of the chambers as an elected official … if you walk into that building and you don’t consider yourself lucky, then you don’t belong there,” he said.

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