Sunday, September 17, 2000

Ohio speaker-to-be wily, tough

Householder 'ran against the wind' and won

By Debra Jasper
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — Two years ago, a little-known Republican legislator from a poor rural district in Ohio's coal country set his sights on becoming the next speaker of the Ohio House.

        Such raw ambition was classic Larry Householder, a 41-year-old insurance salesman who expected to climb to the top by outfoxing and outworking everybody.

        Never mind that his fellow Republicans, if they thought of him at all, dismissed him as a quixotic crusader. He didn't care that they put their money on Bill Harris, an Ashland Republican who faithfully served the party elite and had been tapped to be the current speaker's heir-apparent.

        “I sort of ran against the wind,” Mr. Householder says now with a grin. “It seems I have a habit of doing that.”

        Assuming Mr. Householder wins re-election in November, as is expected, his fellow Republicans will elect him House Speaker.

        The way Mr. Householder turned traditional House politics upside down and raked in overwhelming support to become speaker reveals much about the Appalachian legislator expected to take the helm next year.

        Unlike many Republican leaders who hold posh fund-raisers in downtown Columbus hotels, Mr. Householder has a penchant for raising money at clay shoots — where he dons a camouflage ball cap that reads “Team Householder” and heads into the woods with his five sons and a rifle.

        A blunt-spoken native of one of the state's poorest regions, he grew up on a sprawling Perry County farm where he hunted rabbits, raised corn and drank hard.

        After this month's revelations that he'd been arrested three times for DUI and a fourth time for being drunk outside an Athens bar in the last 16 years, Mr. Householder responded with customary down-home frankness: He apologized and said he no longer even “sniffs the cap” on a bottle of liquor.

        But while he can turn a country phrase and knows all the words to George Jones songs, those who know Mr. Householder say his “good-ol'-boy” exterior is deceptive.

        They describe him as a shrewd, resourceful politician who moves as smoothly among legislators, high-powered lobbyists and rich political donors as he does among the coal miners and farmers in his hometown.

        “When he first talked about running for leadership, I thought, "Oh my God, this guy is new,'” said State Rep. Jeff Jacobson, a suburban Dayton Republican. “The next thing I know, he's done 15 things I never thought of, gotten himself a ton of extra votes, and set himself up to be one of the most powerful politicians in the state.”

        Mr. Householder outmaneuvered his opponents in the Statehouse by being the first to exploit term limits. He figured out that under the new rules, which limit representatives to four two-year terms, his connections to big donors and campaign consultants would reap bigger rewards than traditional alliances to party leadership.

        With term limits pushing 40 of the 99 members, including Speaker Jo Ann Davidson, out of their seats this fall, he honed in on the legislators who will take their place.

        Mr. Householder screened potential candidates put forth by party chairmen, Right to Life organizations, and other conservative groups with two major questions in mind: Could they win the Republican primary in March? And, if elected, would they vote for him for speaker?

        “He recruited people, got them money, walked door to door with them, and to nobody's surprise, got their loyalty,” said State Rep. Lynn Olman, a Maumee Republican who had supported Mr. Harris. “As with any good salesman, he just assumed the sale was made. He assumed that he would be the next speaker and nothing would deter him.”

Blowing the lid off
               Mr. Householder's masterful campaign skills first drew attention during a 1998 run for assistant majority whip. To win the speaker's seat, he knew he first had to convince Republicans to vote him into the sixth spot in the GOP leadership.

        So he and his wife loaded up their minivan with “Vote for Householder” signs and drove across Ohio trying to win over legislators. If they weren't home, Mr. Householder pounded a sign in their yard and left a sorry-we-missed-you note on their door.

        In the end, Mr. Householder surprised the insiders by beating both Reps. Olman and Kevin Caughlin, of Cuyahoga Falls.

        “Most people hadn't thought about the legislators who were disenfranchised, but Larry spoke their language,” said Brett Buerck, a consultant who works for him. “It was the first of many times he'd be underestimated.”

        The 1998 win was gratifying. But the bigger battle, the one for House speaker, would soon turn ugly.

        Speaker Davidson and her allies threw their support behind Mr. Harris, a retired Marine Corps major and three-term legislator. Mr. Harris would not comment on the race, but his backers described him as an all-around nice guy who attended caucus meetings, worked on bills and generally expected things to go smoothly.

        Mr. Householder formed a small team of consultants and legislators, including Reps. Gary Cates of Hamilton and Patty Clancy of Cincinnati.

        Dubbed “Team Householder,” the group focused most intensely on Southwest Ohio, where primary races would unfold for 11 open, Republican-held seats. For candidates like Tom Raga, a Deerfield Township trustee in Warren County, the team's support proved invaluable.

        Mr. Raga said he was so green starting out he turned to Mr. Householder for advice on where to buy yard signs. Reps. Cates and Clancy walked door to door with him and helped develop his campaign strategy. And perhaps most importantly, Mr. Householder steered campaign contributions his way.

        “He would tell me, "Go see these five people (for contributions),'” Mr. Raga said, adding, “He told me the only way to run a campaign is to be relentless. You can't take a day off.”

        It's a philosophy Mr. Householder expected all the candidates on his team to follow.

        “One candidate had all these big plans but didn't carry them out so I got frustrated and laid it out for him,” Mr. Householder recalled. “I said, "You are on the Householder program. You will make fund-raising calls from 7 to 11 each day and from 11 to 3 you will meet with those people. From 3 to 9 you will knock on doors. And the next time I see you, if you are not 10 pounds lighter and tan I will know that you did not do the work.'”

        His team estimates he raised $1.2 million for the primary races. But while he was deep into fund-raising and strategy, his opponents began to worry about the political costs of a free-for-all fight over the speaker's chair.

        “There was so much tension and nastiness. There were confrontations in hallways. It looked like the lid was going to blow off this thing,” Mr. Householder said.

        As 1999 came to a close, Republican leaders put a deal on the table. They said Mr. Harris should become speaker in 2001 and Mr. Householder should take over in 2002. Both sides agreed and the deal was publicly announced last January.

        He gained even more momentum when candidates like Mr. Raga produced win after win in the March 2000 primary. “Literally, on primary night, it was "Larry, I love you, I was with you all along,'” recalled Mr. Buerck.

        Last month, the deal to share power crumbled when the GOP engineered to move Mr. Harris to the Senate. On the day when Mr. Harris agreed to leave, Mr. Householder expressed no surprise.

        “When he goes,” he said with a chuckle, “he'll be taking one of his three votes with him.”

The ghost
               Spend time with Mr. Householder in the hills of his home district and slowly the reasons behind his intense focus become more clear.

        He can roll off the names of his constituents as he drives by their houses and wax with wonkish excitement about the renovation of the 1829 Perry County courthouse.

        And once he starts talking about Appalachia, pull up a chair because that's when his passion truly unfolds. At a Community Action meeting of Appalachian counties last month, Mr. Householder preached with a tent-revival fervor about the wrongs done to the people of southern Ohio.

        “The ghost of Appalachia, I envision that ghost with an ache in its back from hauling our timber resources, wearing the perfume of oil and gas while it built Ohio,” he told the crowd.

        “We said we would build this state, not for the best wages but because we're the original Ohio and it's our job. But there was a promise, that we'd get taken care of back ... that we'd be able to educate our children,” he said. “That promise was not fulfilled. And that's the ghost that is in every one of our souls.”

        Heads nodded in agreement as he blasted critics of a Perry County judge who first found Ohio's school-funding formula unconstitutional. And he said he'd never forget the cartoon a Cleveland newspaper ran the day after the Supreme Court upheld the decision.

        It depicted a drunken hillbilly leaning against a trailer, a bottle of moonshine in his lap.

        People in the region strongly resent such prejudice, said Joy Padgett, the director of the Governor's Office on Appalachia. She said Mr. Householder understands all too well how deeply it hurts.

        “People do have stereotypes of Appalachians and they look at Larry and think, "How did this hog farmer get this far?'” Ms. Padgett said.

        Riding in his SUV down the twisting roads of Perry County, Mr. Householder agreed that his region is misunderstood.

        “If I were from Cincinnati or Columbus or Cleveland that would be one thing,” he said. “But people see me as a guy from a place where you're not supposed to be from and be in power.”

        If he does take the helm, Mr. Householder said he will push to spend more money on poor school districts and direct tax breaks to poor regions of Ohio. He also supports prevailing wages for unions and strong funding for food banks.

        “Philosophy is fun to talk about but government is about real things,” he said. “On any given issue I can be a moderate or a conservative.”

Beating the odds
               Mr. Householder ran his first political race in 1980 at Ohio University in nearby Athens, where he campaigned for student senate under the nickname “Bud” Householder. His slogan: “This Bud's for you.”

        He won.

        But though he majored in political science, when he returned home in 1983 he opened an insurance business.

        “I'd go down and meet folks at the mines and talk to them about auto insurance. All I've ever known is talking to people, giving them my message,” he said.

        In 1990, the Peabody Mining Company shut down. And one by one, businesses on Main Street closed, too.

        “We had tremendous unemployment. We hadn't built the infrastructure necessary for jobs. We had no way to train workers. And we didn't have good water or good roads,” Mr. Householder said.

        In 1994, Mr. Householder decided to run for county commission, promising to fight for safe drinking water. He beat a two-time incumbent and two years later decided to take on a popular four-term Democratic legislator, Mary Abel.

        Athens County Democratic Party Chairman Susan Gwinn said Republicans financed an advertising blitz for Mr. Householder that unfairly took Ms. Abel to task for voting for stadiums at the expense of schools. What they didn't bother to mention, she said, was that the stadium funding was part of a larger Republican-backed spending bill.

        “He is the most arrogant politician I've ever met,” she said. “He felt he was right on the issues and he would absolutely win.”

        Win he did. Mr. Householder was elected to the Ohio House in 1996, and less than a year later was fighting yet another battle — this time to convince his constituents that he was truly sorry for getting drunk and driving his car into a ditch in Perry County on July 4.

        He was convicted, served his sentence in a mandatory weekend alcohol treatment program and promised to stop drinking.

        At the time of his 1997 conviction, records on file at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles showed it was his first DUI. But early this month, The Cincinnati Enquirer revealed that Mr. Householder had been convicted of another DUI in 1986 and pleaded a third DUI arrest in 1987 down to a reckless driving charge.

        Democrats have yet to decide if his record will play a role in his current legislative race, but Mr. Househoulder, who has again apologized for his past, predicted it won't. “I am a survivor,” he said.

        While Mr. Householder has won some hard-fought political battles, he said the most difficult times of his life have been the emotional ones. The hardest was when his 4-year-old daughter, Kala, was killed in an accident near his Perry County farm in 1992.

        “The thing I recall the most about that day was that Kala wanted me to play with her and I said, "I don't have time to play with you now, I will later,'” Mr. Householder said. “I never got the opportunity to do that. That's something that lives with you forever.”

Survival skills
               Mr. Householder's supporters say his ability to recover from such difficult times shows he possesses a rare inner strength.

        “Larry is a guy who turned his fortunes around through nothing but raw willpower,” said Sam VanVorrhis, a Republican campaign consultant who worked with him on his first legislative race.

        Where he goes from here may well depend on how he handles the power that comes with the speaker's chair.

        Already, Mr. Householder has been hit hard by Democrats and others for being too cozy with special-interest groups. He insists that he makes no special promises to anyone, but plenty of legislators and others will be watching to see if he tries to repay the power brokers who helped put him in position to capture the speaker's seat.

        They will also be watching to see how people adjust to the 6-foot-4, plain-spoken Mr. Householder after working for years with the consensus-building, softer style of outgoing Speaker Jo Ann Davidson.

        “She rules with a feather, he does not,” said Rep. Olman. “His different management style has gotten some people's nose out of joint. But I think it's more that she is such a gentle lady and Larry is so imposing. He's big in stature, he's athletic, and if he says do something it comes across differently than if she says do it.”

        While Mr. Householder says it's too early to predict if he will rule with an iron fist, by all accounts it will be difficult for him to find the right balance in a House with 40 new, likely unruly members.

        “Directing all the new members coming in under term limits, with all their different philosophies, will be a tremendous test of his leadership skills,” said State Rep. Greg Jolivette, a Hamilton Republican.

        “Although if his success in campaigning for votes is any indication, he'll do a fabulous job.”

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