Commentary

Ohio Rep. Stewart gives amendment game away on extremist abortion bans and illegal gerrymandering

In letter to fellow Republicans, Stewart lists abortion and redistricting as No. 1 and No. 2 for setting higher bar for voters

December 15, 2022 4:20 am

Rep. Brian Stewart, R-Ashland. Photo from the Ohio House.

There’s an old saying that a journalist’s job is to always search for the truth, and a politician’s job is to never give the game away.

Ashville Republican state Rep. Brian Stewart made every Ohio journalist’s job a little easier Wednesday after giving the game away regarding his attack on Ohio voters’ power to amend our state constitution.

In league with Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose on a proposal to raise the threshold for amendments from 50% to 60%, they’ve postured since Nov. 17 that this attack on voters has nothing to do with things like abortion care rights or gerrymandering reform, as has been proposed for future ballots.

They’ve said instead that this is ostensibly about protecting the Ohio Constitution long-term from “out-of-state special interests.”

Stewart claimed in testimony that setting this standard was about “looking ahead decades,” not to 2023, and that this is about “curtailing the ability of special interests to buy amendments to benefit themselves first, and the public a distant second.”

Asked by reporters if the effort was tied to abortion and redistricting, Stewart said, “I can’t control suspicion in this building,” and, “We’re not going to be able to control conspiracy theory or folks that want to imply impure motives.”

Stewart told fellow House Republicans something quite different in a letter obtained by Cleveland.com’s Andrew J. Tobias:

“1. After decades of Republicans’ work to make Ohio a pro-life state, the Left intends to write abortion on demand into Ohio’s Constitution. If they succeed, all the work we accomplished by multiple Republican majorities will be undone…” Stewart wrote, and later notes that HJR 6 has the full support of Ohio Right to Life and the Center for Christian Virtue.

As his second numbered bullet point, he writes:

“2. Despite enduring a year-long circus in the Ohio Supreme Court, Republicans won a 67 seat majority in the House in 2022. Unable to win a statewide election, Democrats now intend to rewrite Ohio’s Constitution to put (retiring Republican Chief Justice) Maureen O’Connor and other unelected liberals in charge of drawing legislative districts, affecting not only the Ohio legislature, but control of the United States House of Representatives as well. That’s just in 2023.”

Stewart’s own two bullet points are precisely abortion and gerrymandering. There is no third.

Giving testimony, Stewart derided special interests benefiting themselves first and the public a distant second.

In private, Stewart is exhorting his fellow Republicans explicitly to benefit themselves and their special interest lobbyist friends first, and the public a distant second.

In fact, Stewart provides an intricate break-down of his own special interest supporters:

“HJR6 is supported by Ohio Right to Life, the Center for Christian Virtue (CCV), the Ohio Chamber of Commerce and the Ohio Business Roundtable. We anticipate that once they work through their internal processes that The Buckeye Institute and NFIB will be proponents as well. I spoke to (Affiliated Construction Trades Ohio Executive Director) Matt Szollosi with the building trades union last week, and he confirmed they are neutral on the resolution. The handful of public sector unions that oppose HJR6 have aligned themselves with the Left…”

It’s worth noting the Ohio Business Roundtable said the same day in a tweet, “The Ohio Business Roundtable has not taken a position with HRJ6. This memo does not accurately convey our organization’s position on this legislation.”

Stewart concludes the letter by saying, “If we cannot pass HJR6 now, I hope you will seriously consider the consequences of inaction, and support this resolution in January as we begin the 135th General Assembly.”

Why is January important? The new legislature has to pass it before February in order to get it on the ballot in a “sleepy May primary,” as Stewart calls them.

Even though LaRose specifically denied that abortion or any other specific proposal is motivating him, these targets of protecting extremist abortion bans and gerrymandering were obvious from the beginning.

Republicans including LaRose have spent the last year lawlessly defying the state’s highest court, the rule of law, the voters, and the Ohio Constitution, to give themselves a fresh 67-32 unconstitutionally gerrymandered supermajority in the Ohio House, and a 26-7 supermajority in the Ohio Senate.

In September, redistricting reform advocates said they are looking to bring a new citizen-initiative to the ballot.

On Nov. 8, citizens protected access to abortion health care with 59% in Kansas, 52% in Kentucky, 56% in Michigan, and 52% in Montana.

On Nov. 10, abortion rights advocates said they are planning a ballot initiative to protect reproductive health care.

On Nov. 17, LaRose and Stewart announced their plan to make Ohio’s threshold 60%.

On Nov. 30, more than 140 groups representing voters, teachers, the faith community, and good government voiced their opposition.

On Dec. 8, one organization — a Florida-based special interest group with ties to ALEC that’s promoted this same amendment change in Arkansas previously, as well as election restrictions in PennsylvaniaFloridaIowa, and Kansas — had an in-state visiting fellow testify in support. He warned against “out-of-state special interests.”

On Dec. 13, hundreds of Ohioans demonstrated at the Ohio Statehouse by symbolically casting ballots against HJR 6.

In his Dec. 14 letter to fellow Republicans, Stewart called the demonstration a “temper tantrum.”

It seems, whether it’s warning about “out-of-state special interests” or exploiting “sleepy May primaries” for low turnout to pass fundamental changes to the constitution, or benefitting yourself first and “putting the public a distant second,” every accusation from Stewart is an admission.

Nevertheless, I salute Stewart. I salute him for falling ass-backwards into confirming that extremist minority viewpoints on abortion care access, and illegal Republican gerrymandering, really are what this is all about.

This is why he wants to push Ohioans to relinquish our majority voter power and submit to minority constitutional rule.

It’s good for us to know that truth.

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David DeWitt
David DeWitt

OCJ Editor-in-Chief David DeWitt has more than 15 years experience covering Ohio government, politics and policy, including education, health care, crime and courts, poverty, state and local government, business, labor, energy, environment, and social issues. He has worked for the National Journal, The New York Observer, The Athens NEWS, and Plunderbund.com. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism and is a board member of the E.W. Scripps Society of Alumni and Friends. He can be found on Twitter @DC_DeWitt.

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