The resignation of House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger left many GOP members stunned and somber, but now they have to figure out who should lead the chamber over the next few months — or the next few years.
A bitter fight to replace Rosenberger in 2019 already was well underway, with Reps. Ryan Smith, R-Bidwell, and Larry Householder, R-Glenford, battling in private and public to raise money and recruit current and future members to their teams.
Now the timetable of that fight has been thrown out of whack with Rosenberger’s unexpected resignation, which came after it was revealed that the FBI was asking questions about his activities, including a trip to England last summer.
Rosenberger, who did not attend Wednesday’s House voting session, is stepping down May 1, though some prominent Republicans want to see him leave right away.
Attorney General Mike DeWine, Auditor Dave Yost and Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor called on their fellow Republican to quit immediately. All three are running for other statewide offices.
"There’s a lot of important work that the legislature needs to get done," DeWine said. "The speaker has acknowledged that his presence is a distraction. It is best if he left now, so that the work of the people is not inhibited."
DeWine said he called Rosenberger on Friday to tell him he should resign, if he did anything wrong. The speaker has denied wrongdoing, but said he is leaving for the good of the institution.
Democrat Richard Cordray, who, like DeWine, is running for governor, suggested the FBI should investigate that call because it "raises serious questions if he used his role as Ohio’s top law enforcement official to protect himself politically."
Another Democratic governor hopeful, Sen. Joe Schiavoni of Boardman, wondered, "Why would Ohio’s attorney general just casually call the speaker of the House and tell him to leave? Would the AG be taking more action if he weren’t so closely tied to the speaker? We need to ask those questions."
DeWine said there was nothing wrong with the call.
"It’s not very complicated. This is not about politics. This was about what’s in the best interest of the people of the state of Ohio," he told The Dispatch.
The resignation, unprecedented in modern Ohio history, leaves House leadership in flux as Republicans head into what could be a rough election season. Rep. Kirk Schuring, R-Canton, the current No. 2 leader, will remain interim speaker until the House elects a new one.
"Shortly after May 1 we will have a game plan on how we are going to replace our speaker," Schuring said.
The caucus must decide if it wants a placeholder speaker to serve only until the end of the year, or pick Householder, Smith, or a wildcard candidate who would seek to continue as speaker next session.
It means uncertainty, for both members and lobbyists who already had to navigate a nasty speaker’s fight. One lobbyist compared the legislative process to a chess board. "But now, we don’t know who the king is."
If the caucus wants a fill-in speaker to run things through the end of year, Schuring seems like an obvious choice — a well-respected, thoughtful legislator with nearly 25 years experience. Rosenberger leaned heavily on him this session to handle big, often politically volatile issues.
But the Speaker Schuring scenario comes with one big drawback: He is currently running for the Senate and raising money for the Senate GOP caucus. And with this shaping up to be a good year for Democrats, he’ll likely have to pay some attention to his own race.
If the caucus wants to look longer term, those who back Smith for speaker have said for months that he has the support of a majority of returning members. If that remains true, he may have the advantage. B others wonder if Smith’s close relationship with Rosenberger will give members pause.
If anyone has the political skills to turn Rosenberger’s resignation to his advantage, it would be Householder, who served as speaker from 2001-2004 and would offer a distinct change in leadership style. However, with Rosenberger leaving under the cloud of an FBI investigation, some question whether members would want to immediately replace him with someone who last left office under the cloud of an FBI investigation, though Householder was never charged with a crime.
"I have 100 percent confidence in Rep. Schuring to keep us moving in the right direction in the interim, and the caucus will decide what it wants to do," Smith said.
Asked if more internal strife can be avoided, Smith said, "You avoid it by getting back to business as soon as possible, steadying the ship and creating as normalized an environment as we can get to."
In addition to planning for a new leader, "we need to plan a strategic, bold agenda for our remaining session days in May so we show we are all about the people’s business, regardless of who is in charge," said Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, a member of House leadership.
"I’m hoping people understand the importance of unity as a caucus, and I’m hoping that is the direction with which we’ll head."
Jim Siegel and Randy Ludlow are reporters with The Columbus Dispatch