Saturday, October 14, 2000

Term limits add urgency to next legislative class

By Debra Jasper
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — Legislative candidate Tom Brinkman Jr. talks of enacting big tax cuts, “saving as many babies as possible” through stricter anti-abortion laws and giving Ohioans the right to carry concealed firearms.

        With term limits ousting nearly half of the Ohio House this year, Mr. Brinkman is part of a new breed of conservative Republican candidates expected to win election in November.

Tom Brinkman
Tom Brinkman
        Unlike politicians who once spent their entire careers in the House, these freshmen-to-be are keenly aware the new voter-approved rules limit their terms to eight years.

        And with the clock ticking, many have little patience for those who believe avoiding controversy is the best way for Republicans to retain their majority and control over the legislative agenda.

        “I hear from the old-timers who say being in the majority is more important than your convictions, more important than being pro-life or pro-conceal and carry,” said Mr. Brinkman, a Mount Lookout resident running for the 37th Dis trict seat being vacated by Republican Jackie O'Brien.

        “But in a Republican Party with too many you-gotta-go-along-to-get-along types, I say, "What good is having the majority if we never use it?'”

        Mr. Brinkman said legislators in this new era of term limits must recognize they no longer have decades to build coalitions and coddle the cautious.

        “I'm going to be on the offensive, I'm not going to go slow. I'm going to do something other than warm a seat.”

        With term limits causing massive turnovers this year, experts say first-time legislators like Mr. Brinkman will indeed have a much stronger voice in the Ohio House come January.

        In fact, with lawmakers leaving in droves, many before their terms are up, voters could send as many as 50 new lawmakers to the 99-member Ohio House - meaning freshmen could actually outnumber returning members.

        In the Cincinnati area alone, term limits will push out so many current legislators that voters must choose from among new candidates in nine of 14 House races.

        The way the candidates see it, such numbers give them unprecedented power.

        “There are so many new kids on the block that I expect bold changes,” said Jean Schmidt, a Republican Miami Township trustee from Loveland. “When there is only one or two freshmen, you can be silenced pretty doggone quickly. But when you are half the membership and you are out there screaming for new, bold ideas, you are listened to.”

        Ms. Schmidt, who is running in the heavily Republican 71st District, said under the new system, Republican leaders can no longer put off controversial bills indefinitely.

        “We don't have time for that,” she said. “We've got to get it done and get it done now. We've only got eight years.”

        Herb Asher, political science professor at the Ohio State University, said the legislature will not only become more conservative in January, he predicts it will also be more unstable.

        “There will be a lot of restlessness, intraparty conflict and a lot of jockeying for leadership positions,” Mr. Asher said.

        Some Democrats welcome such a portrait of the Ohio House.

        “Quite honestly, part of me is chuckling a little,” said Jim Ruvolo, former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. “There is an old expression, "Be careful what you wish for because you might get it,' and that describes the Republican Party right now. They wanted term limits and now they are hitting them right in the face with a two-by-four."

        Mr. Ruvolo believes a strong move to the right by Republican lawmakers could help Democrats take the middle ground and win back a House majority.

        “Ideologues are not welcome in Ohio,” he said. “Ohioans are raging moderates.”

        Mr. Ruvolo said ramifications of term limits could go far beyond the House or even the Senate.

        “I think (Gov.) Bob Taft's greatest nightmare is going to be the Tom Brinkmans of the world because the governor is going to get a lot of bills on his desk he'd rather not touch,” he said.

        Even Gov. Taft admits he's “been spoiled” by the leadership of House Speaker Jo Ann Davidson, a moderate, consensus-building Republican who also leaves because of term limits.

        “With her, we've gotten our agenda accomplished without a lot of arm twisting,” he said. “I expect now to have to do a lot more retail work, you know, talking to legislators one on one.”

        Mr. Taft said he understands incoming legislators have their own priorities, but they will soon learn that complex issues such as budgeting and school funding reform must come first.

        Conservative candidates say they will work on all key issues, but will strongly push a conservative agenda.

        “I'd save 1,000 babies this year and 2,000 the next if that's what I have to do,” Mr. Brinkman said, talking of his plan to push anti-abortion measures. “If we don't totally get our way, that doesn't mean we don't do anything.”

        Tony Condia, a Price Hill Republican running a close race in the 33rd District that Democrat Jerry Luebbers is giving up, understands that some change will come slowly.

        But he adds he will continue to push his pro-business, pro-tax cut, anti-abortion agenda regardless of who opposes it.

        “I have to do what's best for folks in my district and that may mean voting against what leadership wants,” he said. “With term limits comes autonomy. This is not a career.”

        Despite such passion, more moderate Republican leaders are clearly concerned that incoming freshmen might let their zeal for change blind them to political realities.

        Speaker Davidson, R-Reynoldsburg, has repeatedly reminded candidates about the days when Democrats held a majority of House seats and Republicans were powerless to accomplish their goals.

        “One thing that worries me about new members is that none of them ever served in minority. We (incumbents) know what that means but trying to explain it is like is like telling people you used to walk through snow two miles to go to school,” Ms. Davidson said. "You come in with your head up and with all this ambition and enthusiasm and ideas but if you end up in the minority it won't be of much use.”

        Legislators on both sides of the aisle are also concerned not just about those who are arriving at the Statehouse but about those who are leaving.

        “On the House side, if you start at the Ohio river and go up to the Dayton airport, only three Republican veterans are coming back,” said Rep. Gary Cates, R-West Chester, who is one of those three. “Southwest Ohio really gets hit hard with term limits. We lose a great deal of experience.”

        Supporters of term limits say they allow fresh people with new ideas to have a turn in office.

        “I've talked to a lot of people and they see this as a way to bring in some new blood,” said Steve Driehaus, a Price Hill Democrat who is running against Mr. Condia.

        But even they acknowledge that new legislators will lack the experience and knowledge to immediately deal with such complex issues as school funding or electric utility deregulation.

        “I've been (a state representative) five years and I'm still on a learning curve for a great degree,” said Mr. Cates. “The learning process is mind-boggling.”

        Mr. Cates is also concerned that bureaucrats in agriculture, commerce and other governmental departments will try push their own agendas through by taking advantage of legislators' lack of knowledge.

        “They can try to pull the wool over our eyes and there won't be people experienced enough to catch them,” he said. “People who have been there 40 years know where the bones are buried in these departments. Without that kind of expertise, we have empowered career government people.”

        Mr. Brinkman said legislative turnover is exactly what voters wanted.

        “Term limits will help cleanse out the system.”

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