The scandal surrounding House Bill 6 took out the speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives. It has dominated the newspages and airwaves for months. It was the subject of countless campaign attack ads.
In the end, voters didn’t seem to care.
The scandal implicating former Speaker Larry Householder and his effort to get a nuclear bailout enacted into law emerged as a major theme in the 2020 Statehouse elections, but seemingly had little impact on the results.
In total, there were 46 lawmakers who voted for House Bill 6 and were on the ballot this November for a seat in the Ohio House or Ohio Senate. The unofficial results show that every single one of them won their election: 46-for-46. That includes Householder himself, who won reelection to his 72nd District over a slate of write-in opponents.
In contrast, there were 35 “no” votes who were up for election. Four of them have been voted out, and a fifth lawmaker’s race is too close to call.
That’s a striking result considering the extent to which the scandal has enveloped Ohio politics since the July arrests of Householder and four political operatives. In recent months, news outlets have extensively covered an 81-page affidavit outlining the years of alleged corruption and bribery that went into HB 6 being enacted to benefit the former FirstEnergy Solutions of Akron. So too did news stories highlight the vote to remove Householder as the House leader; the ensuing trials; and the ongoing effort to get HB 6 repealed.
Voters got one last reminder last week, when two people charged in the alleged scheme pleaded guilty.
The years-long plot, as alleged by federal investigators, involved FirstEnergy Solutions funneling “dark money” toward a group controlled by Householder. These resources were used to get Householder and a number of other Republican allies elected to the Ohio House of Representatives. These allies joined with more than two-dozen Democrats to elevate Householder as House speaker in 2019.
Within months, Republicans introduced the nuclear bailout bill and quickly pushed it through both chambers. It was signed into law by Gov. Mike DeWine in July 2019.
The controversy surrounding the bill did not translate to any electoral trouble for its supporters and top backers. Both HB 6 sponsors were easily reelected: Rep. Shane Wilkin, R-Lynchburg, won another term in the 91st District by an unofficial margin of 77% to 23%, and Rep. Jamie Callender, R-Concord, won by an unofficial margin of 61% to 39% in the 61st District.
Ten other bill cosponsors were up for election this year. All 10 won their contests. Four were unopposed, and the remaining six won comfortably — by an average margin of 35%.
The remaining rank-and-file members who voted in favor of HB 6 and were up for election all were victorious as well. In the wake of Householder’s arrest, lawmakers sought to distance themselves from the scandal, claiming to be unaware of the alleged behind-the-scenes collusion between Householder and FirstEnergy Solutions to get the bill passed. The law was controversial, several conceded in retrospect, but their “yes” votes were matter of policy, not corruption.
This election season, both political parties went out of their way to place blame on each other in attacking candidates with dubious connections to the plot. Republicans attacked one opposing Democratic candidate with a reference to “disgraced Larry Householder,” despite the fact the candidate wasn’t even in office last year to have been involved.
Democrats likewise attacked Republican candidates who, in some cases, didn’t vote for Householder as speaker and did not vote for HB 6. The most suspect example involved an ad against Republican Rep. Dave Greenspan, R-Westlake, which stated: “Greenspan wants Ohio voters to think he is a moderate and had nothing to do with ex-Speaker Householder or (Householder’s) public corruption scandal.”
In fact, the criminal complaint against Householder mentions an unnamed lawmaker who gave incriminating texts from Householder to the FBI. The lawmaker was later identified by Cleveland.com as being Greenspan. He also voted against HB 6.
Nevertheless, the initial vote count has Greenspan being voted out of office. He trails his Democratic opponent by more than 1,000 votes with additional absentee and provisional ballots still yet to be counted.
Other “no” votes on HB 6 who appear to have lost their reelection bids include Rep. Randi Clites, D-Ravenna; Rep. Gil Blair, D-Weathersfield; and Sen. Sean O’Brien, D-Bazetta.
Sen. Stephanie Kunze, R-Hilliard, is near-deadlocked with her opponent as the candidates await more votes to get counted.
“I have never seen so much awareness about a state political issue before,” the Capital Journal quoted Micah Derry as saying prior to Election Day. Derry is the state director for Americans for Prosperty’s Ohio chapter and his organization campaigned door-to-door for candidates who had opposed HB 6 in 2019.
One reason why the anti-corruption message may not have broken through to voters? As Derry said in October, “No one’s blameless in this (scandal). Everyone’s hands are dirty in this whole process.”
Many Democrats had joined with Republicans to elect Householder as House speaker. HB 6 passed with support from eight Democrats in the House and three in the Senate.
Two of those Senate Democrats are part of the caucus leadership: Minority Leader Kenny Yuko of Richmond Heights and Assistant Minority Whip Sandra Williams of Cleveland. Williams co-sponsored the bill.
Over the years, money has flowed from FirstEnergy’s political action committee to Ohio politicians of both parties. In total, 32 of the 33 state senators and the majority of state representatives have received campaign contributions from FirstEnergy.
As the chambers return for their lame-duck sessions, the battle over what to do with the tainted law continues. Some believe it should be fully repealed. Others want it replaced through a cleaner, more transparent process. Others still believe it’s good policy, regardless of the alleged corruption it took to get it passed.
Lawmakers survived their 2020 elections. How they proceed with a response to HB6 the rest of this term and in the next may or may not matter to voters the next time around.