Ohio Statehouse redistricting stalls as commission can’t come up with co-chairs

By: - September 14, 2023 5:00 am

The members of the Ohio Redistricting Commission are sworn in by Gov. Mike DeWine on Wednesday. Left to right: State Rep. Jeff LaRe, Secretary of State Frank LaRose, Auditor of State Keith Faber, DeWine, Senate Majority Floor Leader Rob McColley, House Minority Leader Allison Russo and Senate Minority Leader Nickie Antonio. (Photo by Susan Tebben, OCJ.)

In a move that was somehow both shocking and unsurprising to many, the Ohio Redistricting Commission wasn’t quite organized enough yet to hold an organizational meeting on Wednesday.

The meeting was supposed to be fairly simple: a swearing-in of members, a roll call of attendees, and the presentation of co-chairs to take over the commission’s business.

The co-chairs turned out to be the sticky bit.

About an hour after the meeting was supposed to begin in the Rhodes State Office Tower across from the Ohio Statehouse, Gov. Mike DeWine told reporters there was indecision within the Republican House and Senate members as to who they wanted to co-chair the commission.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine speaks to media before Wednesday’s Ohio Redistricting Commission meeting. The meeting was shortened due to internal disagreement within the Republican party as to who should co-chair the commission. (Photo by Susan Tebben, OCJ)

As he understood it, the co-chair had to be a current member of the commission, but no conclusion had been made as to who that should be.

“We just don’t have an agreement between the two camps,” he said.

He said the Democrats also hadn’t chosen a co-chair, though he suspected they would once the GOP had announced its pick.

The two Democrats on the ORC, House Minority Leader Allison Russo and Senate Minority Leader Nickie Antonio, said that they had a decision, they were just waiting on the GOP.

“We have no issues, the issue is not on our side,” Russo said.

Antonio said they were choosing to wait on their official decision until the GOP decided from which chamber their co-chair would come.

“We want balance in the co-chair position,” Antonio said.

So, about five minutes after the start of the meeting, it recessed without even talking redistricting, and without co-chairs.

“I would hope that we would get co-chairs appointed very, very soon,” DeWine said.

The governor set a new meeting date for 8 a.m. Friday, but if GOP leaders have not come to an agreement by 5 p.m. Thursday, he said he’d cancel that meeting. It’s not clear what would happen then.

Who leads?

The argument, according to Senate President Matt Huffman, is protocol on joint committees, where the majority leadership rotates between the Senate and the House. While Huffman said the selection of chair of the commission is much less important than the mapmaking process, he said he talked with House Speaker Jason Stephens about the issue two weeks ago.

“My suggestion, or my argument I guess, to him was the House Republicans were the Republican chair last time … so my suggestion is it’s the Senate Republicans turn to be the co-chair,” Huffman told reporters after a Wednesday meeting of the Senate Rules and Reference Committee.

But Huffman pointed to Senate Majority Floor Leader and ORC member Rob McColley as the “lead in the negotiation.”

McColley, R-Napoleon, had a different point of view when he spoke after the commission recessed on Wednesday.

“I don’t have the appointing authority, it would be the (Senate) president and the (House) speaker who have the appointing authority, and I don’t want to speak for them too much,” McColley said.

He expressed the same opinion as Huffman, that the rotation of leadership should be on the Senate side this time around, but still wouldn’t say what the appointment should be.

“You’d have to talk to the speaker and the president,” he said.

Getting to the maps

The Senate President said he’s talked with members on both sides of the aisle about redistricting this time around, and he’s still optimistic the commission can meet Secretary of State Frank LaRose’s urgent deadline of Sept. 22 for the November election to continue as planned.

For his part, LaRose said he will continue to push the urgency, whenever the commission meets next.

“The 22nd of September is the date that we need to get this done, and I want the House and the Senate to get this work done,” LaRose told the OCJ after the commission meeting ended.

Huffman said he’s “optimistic we’ll get something done by the deadline the secretary suggested.”

“I would say this is going much better than it did two years ago,” Huffman said. “And I will also say, in my opinion, the reason is each of the legislative leaders seem to be … exercising their own discretion on what’s good for their caucus and people aren’t taking instruction from folks in Washington or some outside interest group.”

Members of Fair Districts Ohio gather in front of the Rhodes State Office Tower on Wednesday, before the Ohio Redistricting Commission meeting. (Photo by Susan Tebben, OCJ)

Representatives from anti-gerrymandering and voting rights groups, who filled the seats of the hearing room, don’t see it that way.

“I didn’t know that the Ohio Redistricting Commission could be even more dysfunctional than it has been for the last few years,” said Jen Miller, head of the League of Women Voters.

“So this reminds me of student council government,” said Common Cause Ohio executive director Catherine Turcer. “These kind of power plays are not productive, it shows a dysfunction that I didn’t actually think they had.”

But to fit the timeline LaRose wants, and that McColley and Huffman say they can still meet, Miller said it could actually be very easy.

“There are lots of maps out there that have been vetted, that are compact and fair, and so if they want to stick to this timeline, we encourage them to use those,” Miller said.

The maps she sees as plausible are those created by independent mapmakers, who were brought in by order of the Ohio Supreme Court after a previous rejection of unconstitutional maps. Maps created through a Fair Districts Map Contest or by the Citizens Redistricting Commission would also be allowable starting points, Miller argued.

But if the commission plans to start from scratch, she said “they need to have robust public input and transparency into the process to make sure that what is adopted truly and fairly represents the people.”

McColley told reporters map discussions have started, but that the “internal” discussions haven’t amounted to full-fledged products.

“To my knowledge, there have been some ideas exchanged, there may have been some maps that have been at least shown in concept, but there’s no final version of anything,” McColley.

A spokesperson for Stephens did not return a request for comment.



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Susan Tebben
Susan Tebben

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow (KY) Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.