Should anyone be surprised by Householder’s downfall?

August 11, 2020 12:20 am

Former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, at podium. Photo from Ohio House website.

Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder’s dramatic tumble from power last month shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone who has followed his career since 1996 when he was first elected to represent southeast Ohio’s 78th House District.

As editor of The Athens NEWS, an alternative/community newsweekly in Athens, Ohio, I was uniquely situated to not only observe Householder’s early legislative career but to cover it and occasionally editorialize about it. During his first three terms in the Ohio General Assembly, the 78th District included much of Athens County, including the city of Athens.

A conspicuous theme runs through that news coverage, especially in the 2000-2004 period examined in this column — Householder’s willingness to do almost anything to attain, maintain and expand his power. Some version of the term “sell-out” often would pop up in the words of critics (myself included), including in the context of the main statewide issue of that era, court-ordered school-funding reform.

Looking at those times, one shouldn’t be too surprised at Householder’s current predicament — facing a federal indictment for racketeering, for what investigators say was a $61 million bribery scheme.

Rather than a one-off, the current controversy — billed as one of the biggest political scandals in Ohio history — represents the explosive culmination of a sleazy pattern that Householder established early in his legislative career.

Following are the greatest hits of Rep. Larry Householder, Version 1.0, as gleaned from The Athens NEWS of 2000 to 2004. Please feel free to check out the provided links for the grisly details.

Wheeling and Dealing

In early 2000, Householder, R-Perry County, in his second term representing the 78nd District, struck a deal with state Rep. Bill Harris, R-Ashland, under which Harris would become House speaker in 2001, and Householder would serve as speaker pro tempore (assistant speaker), putting the latter in control of campaign funds for House Republicans. Under this unprecedented deal, which outgoing House Speaker Jo Ann Davidson, R-Reynoldsburg, helped engineer, Householder, if re-elected to a third term, would succeed Harris as House speaker in 2002 and continue as speaker through 2004 when he’d have to leave office due to term limits. At the time, the deal drew negative coverage as an example of back-room wheeling and dealing.

Householder’s opponent in the 2000 election, Democrat Lisa Eliason, an Athens city prosecutor, slammed the deal to split the House speakership between Householder and Harris, pointing out that the pre-fab arrangement would disallow any new representatives elected in November 2000 from providing input into selecting the powerful House speaker for the next term. “I think that the people are disappointed in the deal-making,” Eliason told The Athens NEWS at the time.

Eliason also raised questions about when and where the House leadership deal was made, citing a Jan. 16, 2000, article in the Akron Beacon Journal reporting allegations that Householder, Harris and Davidson had hammered out the deal in the office of a powerful Statehouse lobbyist. This pointed to the outsize influence of lobbyists in brokering power in the Ohio Statehouse, Eliason argued. (For some reason, Householder ended up serving as House speaker from 2001-2004, so the deal with Harris apparently fell apart.)

Householder Raises Big Bucks

On Jan. 31, 2000, The Athens NEWS reported on Athens County Democratic Chair Susan Gwinn’s criticism of Rep. Householder for how he was raising campaign funds for his race that year against Lisa Eliason.

Early campaign finance reports at the time showed that Householder had raised nearly $300,000 for his election bid. At the time, he defended the high-octane fundraising, noting that as a leading Republican in the state, he had a duty to raise a lot of money and help other Republicans with their campaigns.

However, Gwinn noted that Householder’s campaign finance reports showed that 98.2 percent of the money he raised came from outside of the 78th District. “The campaign report filed by Larry Householder on Friday shows that in his quest to cut a backroom deal to be speaker of the Ohio House, he sold out to special interests…”

Householder and $$ From King Coal

A few weeks after the aforementioned article, this is how The Athens NEWS led another story about Householder’s fundraising: “Coal may not be king in Ohio’s 78th House District anymore, but it sure is throwing around money like a king, at least in contributions to state Rep. Larry Householder, the heir apparent of the House Speakership in 2002.

“Householder, R-Perry County, reported that his campaign raised $285,378 in contributions last year, and more than $67,000 worth of the contributions came from people affiliated with coal companies. The rest of the money came from lobbyists, individuals and organizations around Ohio and the country.”

Householder’s opponent Lisa Eliason, by comparison, reported that she raised $100 for her campaign in 1999. Once again, Householder defended the big money fundraising, noting that as speaker pro tempore in 2001, he had the responsibility to raise money to help other Republicans running for office in Ohio. And once again, Householder’s critics, including Athens County Dem Chair Gwinn, charged that the massive amount of donations from lobbyists and people outside of the district show that Householder is representing special interests, rather than the people of his district.

In addition to coal companies, Householder received money in 1999 from PACs representing dentists, eye doctors, soft-drink companies, insurance companies, funeral home directors, lawyers, paper companies, truckers, beer and wine distributors, hospitals, people in education, farmers, manufacturing companies, gas companies and the National Rifle Association. The vast majority of the money came from outside the mainly rural district that Householder represented.

Among the coal company donations were 11 separate contributions of $2,500 each — the maximum individual donation at the time — from people affiliated with one company, Waterloo Coal in Jackson, Ohio.

Householder Stumbles

In late August 2000, the news broke statewide that Rep. Householder has been convicted of four alcohol-related offenses in the previous 16 years. For some unexplained reason, the three earlier convictions did not appear on his driving record. The story received front-page coverage in Ohio’s major dailies, mainly because the representative was in line to take over the powerful Ohio House speakership post in 2002.

In a Cincinnati Enquirer article then, Householder acknowledged that he had been arrested and found guilty four times of alcohol-related charges. When he faced his last charge of DUI in 1997, though, the previous charges did not appear on his record with the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles. Householder could not explain why the previous arrests did not appear on his record.

At the time, Householder told reporters that he had made mistakes in his life, and that some of them involved alcohol. He stated that he has learned from his mistakes and stopped drinking after the 1997 drunk-driving arrest.

The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that Householder’s first alcohol-related charge occurred in 1984 in Perry County (DUI); the second was an amended charge of reckless operation (1988 in Athens County); and the third was for being drunk and disorderly outside an Athens bar in 1989. In 1997, Householder pleaded guilty to DUI and failure to control after driving his car into a ditch in Perry County. That arrest occurred in his first term as state representative.

The Athens NEWS, in a Sept. 5, 2000 article, explored how the news might impact Householder’s election race against Lisa Eliason (he ended up winning easily).

Athens County Dem Party Chair Susan Gwinn, not surprisingly, slammed Householder not only for the several alcohol arrests, but also for benefiting from a “cover-up” of the three earlier cases.

In a column in the Sept. 5, 2000 The Athens NEWS, I took Householder and the state GOP to task for their efforts to “turn this bad thing – four alcohol-related offenses in 13 years is a bad thing, isn’t it? – into a good thing.”

“In the long run,” I concluded, “voters in the 78th House District will probably judge Householder by what he’s done in office, rather than his past problems with alcohol and the law. The thing is, some of the things that Householder has been doing in pursuit of the House Speakership are much more alarming than the fact that he’s been arrested four times for alcohol-related offenses.

Combine Householder’s ruthless maneuvering to gain power, his past recklessness, and his current efforts to transform that political lodestone into gold, and I believe Ohioans may have something to worry about.” (And how!)

No Debates, No Forums

In a story in the Oct. 9, 2000 Athens NEWS, we reported on Householder’s refusal to debate his Democratic opponent Eliason prior to the November election. At the time, Householder argued that four “meet the candidates” events in four different counties in the district would serve the purpose of debates.

In a column a week before the election, I reported that Householder wound up not attending ANY of seven “meet the candidates” events that the representative previously had cited as being the same as debates.

Householder’s excuse for not attending the community-sponsored candidates forums? He asserted that his opponent Eliason was not “a legitimate candidate,” and as a result, he would refuse to appear at election forums with her. (At the time, we empathized with Eliason; months earlier Householder had stopped talking to The Athens NEWS, maintaining that we were not a legitimate newspaper.)

Sabotaging School Funding Reform

In an Oct. 22, 2000 column, I slammed Householder for more back-room machinations, this time in pursuit of a course that would hurt continuing efforts to reform Ohio’s school funding system. I cited a Columbus Dispatch report from the previous week recounting how Householder and Ohio Gov. Bob Taft helped raise money for a secret fund to help defeat then Ohio Supreme Court Justice Alice Robie Resnick. The Democrat was among the four justices who made up the majority in the landmark school-funding decision in the high court in 1997 (and again in 2000).

“Her defeat in November would cripple prospects for reforming a system that puts schools in Ohio’s Appalachian region including Householder’s 78th District, at a severe economic disadvantage…,” I wrote at the time. “Business interests and the Ohio GOP are desperately trying to defeat Justice Resnick based on her votes in the school-funding case, and various other cases that run counter to the interests of corporate Ohio.”

My column concluded: “During his rapid rise to power, Householder apparently made a lot of promises to the sort of powerful people who could help him become House speaker. They’re already getting a return on their efforts. Too bad it comes at the expense of the children of southeast Ohio.” (Resnick won reelection to her second term in 2000.)

In another Householder whack at education in Ohio, in April 2002 The Athens NEWS revealed the fact that Householder was raising campaign funds by redirecting income taxes from public schools, higher education and other needy state services right into his own campaign coffers.

A campaign letter from Householder suggested that Ohio taxpayers utilize a voluntary tax credit for contributions to candidates for statewide and state legislative offices. “You can either choose to give to my campaign OR give that money to the state of Ohio in the form of additional taxes,” Householder wrote. “I hope you feel that you pay too much in taxes already and you will send the $100 or $50 to my campaign instead.”

At the time, “higher taxes” was the only plausible way that poor schools in Southeast Ohio were going to get a leg up.

Householder Eats Pancake

An article that then Athens NEWS Associate Editor Jim Phillips wrote after the November 2002 election revealed how Householder promised to help an Athens County Democrat, Jim Pancake, in his planned legislative campaign for a newly drawn district in 2002 if Pancake would help Republican Householder win reelection in 2000.

Per that agreement, Pancake, then a York Township trustee in Athens County and a significant player in local Democratic politics, exerted his considerable influence among north-county “blue-dog” Democrats in support of Householder, who ended up defeating Democrat Lisa Eliason for the 78th District seat, after a late infusion of GOP cash in that campaign.

But then in 2002 Householder reneged on that deal, instead throwing his support behind Republican Jimmy Stewart of Athens, who defeated Pancake for the new 92nd House District seat.

“I literally cut my ass off to support him,” Pancake admitted in an interview for the Nov. 21, 2002 article, referring to Householder.

At the time of the backroom negotiations before the November 2000 election, Pancake alleged that Householder acted as if he were strongly in favor of seeing the Democrat get into the General Assembly. “He said, ‘I’ve had visions of you and me working together… I’m going to make you the most powerful Democrat in the Statehouse,'” Pancake recalled Householder telling him.

After Pancake lost the 2002 election, he alleged that Householder totally failed in delivering on his promises from 2000, including pledging that as House speaker with influence over the redistricting process after the 2000 Census, he would “draw him… a good Democrat district” that would ensure Pancake victory in 2002. Though Householder allegedly committed to keeping GOP financial involvement low in any House race involving Pancake, the winning Republican in the 92nd House District race, Jimmy Stewart, received generous cash and in-kind help from the state Republican Party, whose purse strings House Speaker Householder largely controlled at the time.

For The Athens NEWS story, Pancake produced an audio tape of the back-room meeting with Householder, in the summer of 2000, which appeared to confirm the gist of his allegations against Householder. Another local Democratic figure in that meeting, Paul “Smoke” Barrett, corroborated Pancake’s allegations.

Cutting deals to help defeat a Democrat, Barrett admitted at the time, “makes me feel like a real rat… We took the guy at his word, and never again. I don’t know what else to say other than we were duped.”

Intra-Party Dirty Tricks

In 2004, as recounted in a column I wrote in October 2006, Dwight Crum, then working on House Speaker Householder’s staff, took the fall for authoring a Machiavellian plan to destroy then Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell’s reputation and political standing. At that time, House Speaker Householder was a bitter rival of Blackwell (who ended up losing the race for governor in 2006). The secret plan called for Householder to chair a $8.5 million campaign to defeat Blackwell’s effort to repeal 2003’s one-cent sales tax hike. By chairing the effort, the plan proposed, Householder could ruin Blackwell’s statewide credibility, while co-opting and draining money away from various human-services interest groups, organized labor and Democrats.

“The idea is simple,” the report stated, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “A group funded by anonymous donors whose sole charge is to drive Ken Blackwell’s negatives through the roof… This issue-advocacy (group) will… take down Blackwell – hard. Such a group will allow us to say things Larry Householder either cannot or should not say.”

At the time, most political observers, including Blackwell’s campaign, doubted that Crum had the wherewithal or authority to script such a detailed and complex plan, and smart money wagered that Householder himself either drafted the plan or had a strong role in it.

According to my column, “Then Columbus Dispatch Senior Editor Joe Hallett summarized things pretty well when he wrote a column in May 2004 about the Blackwell-Householder feud: ‘Oh, sweet justice! For years, Householder and his band of nasty boys — Team Householder — have strong-armed Statehouse lobbyists and GOP corporate sugar daddies for campaign contributions to buy television ads to bury Democratic and Republican opponents alike…”

As usual, one could take what Hallett wrote right to the bank, and his words from 16 years ago eerily anticipated the crimes with which Householder is currently charged.

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Terry Smith
Terry Smith

Terry Smith in May 2020 left The Athens NEWS in Athens, Ohio, after editing that award-winning publication for 34 years. His columns and editorials have placed first in the Ohio News Media Association’s annual weekly newspaper awards in recent years. Before returning to Athens and his alma mater, Ohio University, in 1986, Smith reported for newspapers in Ohio, Arizona, Idaho, Colorado and West Virginia. He is currently freelance editing and writing from his home in Athens.