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Red State Prepares to Legalize Abortion

Currently, abortion is legal in Ohio until 22 weeks. Meanwhile Michigan Democrats' have a fragile majority, other election action and the death of a trailblazer.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose. (TNS)
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Ohio legislators have been fighting a rear-guard action to block an effort to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution. As push comes to shove, it’s not going so well for them.

The Ohio Legislature put a question on the Aug. 8 ballot, known as Issue One, asking voters to raise the threshold for future ballot initiatives to win approval. Rather than passing by a simple majority, they would need 60 percent of the vote. Initiatives would also face a steeper road to qualify for the ballot in the first place, with organizers having to collect signatures from at least 5 percent of eligible voters in each of the state’s 88 counties.

It's not unusual for legislators, jealous of their lawmaking power, to try to make it more difficult to pass citizen initiatives. Just last year, legislators in both Arizona and Arkansas asked voters to put new limits on ballot initiatives. Arizona voters approved a single-subject requirement for future initiatives, while Arkansas voters rejected an attempt, similar to the one in Ohio, to require 60 percent supermajority votes for passage.

Frank LaRose, Ohio’s secretary of state, has repeatedly insisted that Issue One is not meant to make it more difficult for voters to address any particular policy. But it’s been clear that the effort was designed to stave off passage of a constitutional amendment to explicitly protect abortion rights, as happened last year thanks to ballot measures in California, Michigan and Vermont. LaRose admitted as much at a GOP function in May. “It’s 100 percent about keeping a radical pro-abortion amendment out of our constitution,” LaRose said.

Currently, abortion is legal in Ohio until 22 weeks, with a 2019 fetal heartbeat law held up in court. Last week, proponents filed nearly a half-million signatures with LaRose’s office, which, if valid, will be more than enough to qualify an abortion rights measure for the ballot this November. (A lawsuit has been filed seeking to block it.) A recent poll showed 58 percent of Ohioans support the proposed amendment – a clear majority, but a share that would be just short of the 60 percent required under Issue One. One cartoon about Issue One that’s been making the rounds reads, “Ohio State 59, Michigan 41 – Michigan wins.”

Most polls have Issue One losing handily. One recent poll, from Ohio Northern University, showed what was essentially a tie, but the measure still fell well below the 50 percent mark needed for passage. Issue One opponents have derided it as fundamentally anti-democratic. “It’s important to understand that this is entirely a top-down affair,” says Mia Lewis, associate director of Common Cause Ohio. “There’s been no groundswell of Ohioans clamoring for fewer rights.”

It appears that Ohio voters, as they have for more than a century, will be able to continue generating and approving laws via ballot initiative. The first thing they’re likely to do is create a constitutional right to abortion in the state.
Michigan state Rep. Kevin Coleman. (Facebook)
Democrats’ Fragile Majority: Speaking of Michigan, Democrats took control of the state government last fall for the first time in 40 years. They’ve been having a high old time, passing an ambitious slate of bills including new protections enacted just in the past few weeks for teachers unions, LGBTQ individuals and voting rights. Their ability to go much further could be under threat, depending on how a couple of mayoral races play out this fall.

Democrats hold a two-seat majority in the state House. Two of their members, Kevin Coleman and Lori Stone, are now running for mayor. They face primaries next Tuesday. If they both qualify for general elections in the fall and go on to win, the state House would be tied, at least until special elections could be held to replace them. That would likely take about six months. “It’d be an easy thing to stay at the state and continue the great track record that we have, but I’m not willing to let my hometown suffer because I didn't step up and do the right thing,” Coleman told the Detroit Free Press.

Matt Hall, the House GOP leader, said in April that he certainly supports their mayoral ambitions. No wonder. In a tied chamber, Democrats would still control the speakership and set the agenda, but actually passing anything would require at least some Republican support. Democrats have been able to ramrod through a notably progressive set of bills, something the GOP has no interest in seeing continue. Especially with next year being an election year.

Other Election Action: The Justins are about to win re-election. Justin Pearson and Justin Jones were expelled from the Tennessee House in April due to their participation in a raucous gun control protest. The Democrats were each promptly restored to office by their respective local parties, but still had to face special elections today. There’s no doubt about the outcome in their races …

Nashville Mayor John Cooper opted not to seek a second term. A dozen candidates are hoping to replace him, making a runoff next month almost certain. The leading contenders on today’s ballot include Freddie O’Connell, a Democratic member of the Metro Council; former GOP strategist Alice Rolli; business-backed Mike Wiltshire, a former city housing and development official; and Heidi Campbell and Jeff Yarbro, both Democratic state senators …

Seattle held its city council primaries on Tuesday. Kshama Sawant, a socialist who became well-known for her pioneering effort to increase the local minimum wage to $15 per hour, as well as her attacks on corporations and millionaires, opted against seeking a fourth term. She will be succeeded by Joy Hollingsworth or Alex Hudson.

Republican Semi Bird was motivated to run for governor in Washington next year out of anger about government restrictions during the pandemic. His stance has now cost him his current job. Bird and two other members of the Richland School Board appear to have been recalled on Tuesday due to their opposition to mask mandates.
Sheila Oliver
New Jersey Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver (David Kidd)
Death of a Trailblazer: Sheila Oliver, the Democratic lieutenant governor of New Jersey, died on Tuesday due to an undisclosed illness. She had been serving as the acting governor while Phil Murphy was on vacation in Italy. He’s now expected to return to the state within days. Murphy said his decision to pick Oliver as his running mate “was the best decision I ever made.”

Oliver was the first Black politician to hold statewide office in New Jersey. The Newark native had previously served as the state Assembly’s first Black woman speaker. Her father had picketed companies that discriminated against African Americans, while her uncle had run an anti-poverty program – actions she said inspired her to enter civic life and fight for ordinary people. She frequently commented that women were too often dismissed in public life, but let her own leadership serve as a rejoinder. “You have to learn to swim upstream when the current is going in the other direction,” Oliver told Governing in 2019. “You also have to have an alligator hide.”

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Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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