When long-suffering Republicans finally won control of the Ohio House in 1994, once-haughty Democratic colleagues anxiously awaited swift and terrible retribution. For two decades, Republicans had been gaveled down and shut out of power under the rule of strongman Democratic House Speaker Vern Riffe. Vengeance of biblical proportion seemed like a logical response from a minority party that likened its exile to, in the words of one senior GOP legislator, “the children of Israel, wandering in the wilderness for 22 years.”
So it came as some surprise when Riffe’s successor, Jo Ann Davidson, began her tenure as the state’s first female speaker not by seeking revenge, but by taking the opposite tack and rewriting legislative rules to guarantee more minority party participation. As part of her stated commitment to a more open and inclusive legislative process, Davidson gave members of both parties the right to offer amendments on the House floor for debate and a vote. She made it easier to discharge a bill out of committee and loosened the reins on committee chairs. Where Riffe despised and suppressed free-wheeling floor debate, Davidson welcomed it.
“A lot of people were surprised that there wasn’t some vindictiveness,” says John Green, director of the Ray Bliss Institute for Applied Politics at the University of Akron, “but Mrs. Davidson wants to have an open debate and to involve people as much as possible.”
Plenty of critics—both within and outside her party—wondered aloud whether Davidson’s consensus-building style could ever succeed in the chamber that Riffe had ruled with an iron fist for 20 years. More pointedly, they questioned whether she was tough enough to handle her own roiling, ideologically divided caucus, which expected nothing less than revolution but could agree on nothing more.
Davidson didn’t quite deliver revolution, but she produced something close to it: income tax cuts, welfare and campaign finance reform, a tough new crime package, and reductions in unemployment and workers’ compensation taxes. She bridged the sharp split between moderate and conservative Republican factions on a thorny abortion bill, and managed to craft an on-time budget. By the end of her first session in the speakership, no one was still wondering whether she was tough enough. “She offered the example that you can have an open process and still be productive,” says Green. “Her style puts a premium on leadership because in a more open process, leaders have to confront the full range of opinion and must be patient with the diversity of problems that develop with that.”
There are those who think Davidson listens a little too much and is perhaps a little too patient. During the state’s latest budget negotiations, for example, roughly 600 amendments surfaced—a figure that would have been unthinkable in the past. The final result, however, was equally as eye-catching: All but six of the 99 House members voted for the final product.
For Davidson, a casualty of term limits who is in her 10th and final term in the legislature, the latest budget ranked as just one more success in an undeniably productive valedictory session. Health care reform was another, followed by a complex and controversial electric utility deregulation measure that eventually passed by a lopsided 87-9 vote.
The consensus-oriented politics that enabled such a result may have been alien to an old-school, partisan strong-armer such as Vern Riffe, but even the longtime former speaker would have admired the outcome. Indeed, before Riffe passed away in 1997, he was asked to grade Davidson’s performance as speaker: She got an A.
— Charles Mahtesian
Photo by Ted Rice