COMMENTARY: Redistricting plan still has a way to go

Yes, the legislature’s approval of a proposed reform of congressional “redistricting” (Senate Joint Resolution 5) was a good thing. But make no mistake: Inside the General Assembly, good government takes a back seat to self-interest.

Ohioans will vote SJR 5 up or down on May 8. SJR5 is a good if not perfect plan. Every single state senator present for last week’s Senate vote on SJR 5, Republicans and Democrats alike, voted for SJR 5. The tally was 31-0. The House’s count was 83-10; among the “noes” were Republican Reps. Bill Dean, of Xenia; Candice Keller, of Middletown; Nino Vitale, of Urbana; and Paul Zeltwanger, of Mason.

As bystanders noted, the legislature likely wouldn’t have passed SJR 5 but for the extraordinary work of the non-partisan Fair Districts = Fair Elections coalition, paced by the League of Women Voters of Ohio. The coalition’s been gathering signatures to place its redistricting reform plan on November’s ballot – and aims to do just that if voters don’t ratify SJR 5 in May.

The Fair Districts campaign jolted General Assembly Republicans. The last thing they need is a ballot issue that’d draw Ohioans to vote in November. Voters usually are unkind to any president’s party halfway through his term, and Donald Trump … well …

Moreover, Democrats say that for the first time in eons, they’re fielding candidates in all 99 Ohio House districts. But the House Republican caucus is split over who should lead it beginning in January, when term-limits will force incumbent Speaker Clifford Rosenberger, of Clinton County’s Clarksville, to leave the House. The contenders: Former Speaker Larry Householder, of Perry County’s Glenford, and the chair of the House’s budget-writing Finance Committee, Rep. Ryan Smith of Gallia County’s Bidwell. Some days, the Householder-Smith contest seems like an episode of Mad magazine’s Spy vs. Spy feature; other days, the competition looks as deadly as something out of Machiavelli.

In 2009 and 2010, when Democrats controlled Ohio’s House under then-Speaker Armond Budish, they made a bad bet: They gambled they’d keep control of the House at 2010’s election and then-Gov. Ted Strickland would be re-elected. Those development would give Democrats horse-trading clout with Senate Republicans in shaping new congressional districts in 2011 (after the 2010 Census).

But 2010, like 2018, was a mid-presidential election (with Barack Obama in the White House). Voters gave Ohio’s House to Republicans, led by crafty Medina conservative William G. Batchelder, and replaced Strickland with Westerville Republican John R. Kasich.

Backstory: In September 2009, state Senate Republicans passed, 21-12, a redistricting reform proposed by then-Sen. Jon Husted, a Kettering Republican who’s now secretary of state. Senate Democrats voted “no” on Husted’s proposal, Senate Republicans, “yes.”

Budish’s Democratic House stalled action on Husted’s plan until December 2010, after Democrats had lost their House majority. In 2010’s post-election (lame-duck) session, Democrats, new converts to the cause of redistricting reform (because it could crimp the GOP when it redistricted congressional seats in 2011) finally let the House vote on Husted ‘s plan. The tally: 47 “yesses” to 49 “noes,” killing it. Democrats, with no power to lose in 2011, voted “yes.” But Republicans, who’d rule the House during 2011’s redistricting, voted no. Among the “noes”: Then-Rep. Matt Huffman, now a state senator and the lead sponsor of this year’s SJR 5.

This time, both sides of the aisle backed redistricting. That’s as good a barometer as there is that Ohioans inside the Statehouse recognize what Ohioans outside the Statehouse decided long ago: Rigging U.S. House districts, which guarantees congressional deadlock, is a curse that needs to end.

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