Jason Duff is a small business developer in Bellefontaine. David Waikem works for a family-owned car dealership in Massillon. Bob Hager is the president of a workers uniform supplier in Wapakoneta.
These Ohioans have several things in common: all three have donated to Ohio Republican candidates, and all three were recently invited to speak directly to lawmakers about how the economic shutdown is hurting their businesses.
They were among the initial slate of guests who testified before the Ohio House of Representatives’ Economic Recovery Task Force. The early group of 25 presenters has been strikingly homogeneous, a review from the Ohio Capital Journal shows.
All 25 are white males. A review of campaign finance data shows nearly all of them have financial ties to the Ohio Republican Party.
Following complaints about the lack of diversity from the Democrats, an agreement has been reached to allow for more women and people of color to offer their perspective to the task force.
The group is made up of two-dozen state legislators who meet via teleconference to discuss how best to get the state’s economy fully running again. At each meeting, lawmakers listen to a string of invited speakers talk of how the virus-related shutdown has affected them. Many speakers have advocated for an accelerated timeline for reopening, insisting the economic risks of staying closed outweighs the potential health risks of reopening too soon.
Three health care professionals presented on April 13, while the remaining 22 guests between April 8-17 come from the business and financial sectors.
Fifteen of those 22 have personally donated to Ohio Republicans in the past, including to some members of the task force. A handful of other speakers have not donated themselves, but the organizations they represented in speaking to lawmakers have donated to Republicans.
In total, 21 of the 22 have some demonstrable financial connection to the Ohio Republican Party.
In total, there have been 10 invited guests to date who lead a business in Ohio. They range from a craft brewer who once donated to a former Republican Speaker of the House to a radio operator whose station has received thousands of dollars in advertising money from Republican candidates.
Another 10 guests were invited to represent seven influential business interests, from the Ohio Restaurant Association to the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. All seven of these groups have donated to Republican candidates in recent years. Most have donated to current Speaker of the House Larry Householder, R-Glenford (who chose the 24 task force members), and two have donated to task force Chairman Paul Zeltwanger, R-Mason.
Besides the three health care professionals, the 10 entrepreneurs and the 10 organization members, that leaves two other early speakers: a pair of representatives of the Indiana/Kentucky/Ohio Regional Council of Carpenters trade union. The union’s political action committee has donated to numerous Republican candidates.
Zeltwanger did not respond to a request for an interview.
It is true the business organizations in question operate large-scale political action committees, which donate to a wide variety of candidates in both parties. It is also true that several individual entrepreneurs noted above have donated to Democrats as well.
However, it is the Republican Party which holds 17 of the 24 task force seats; likewise, it is Zeltwanger who has led the process of deciding which guest submissions are ultimately allowed to speak to lawmakers.
The April 15 meeting gives a sample of the type of guests who were chosen. The following organizations were represented:
- Indiana/Kentucky/Ohio Regional Council of Carpenters — its political action committee (PAC) has previously donated to the campaigns of eight task force members.
- Ohio Bankers League — its PAC has donated to 13 task force members; all three individual presenters from the group have personally donated to more than a half-dozen Republican candidates.
- Ohio Credit Union League — its PAC has donated to 20 task force members.
- Ohio Insurance Institute — its PAC has donated to six task force members; a presenter from the group has personally donated to six Republican candidates.
Jason Duff, from Bellefontaine, also spoke that day as the CEO of a business development group named Small Nation. Duff contributed to Mike DeWine’s gubernatorial campaign and donated $300 to task force member Jon Cross, a Republican state representative from Kenton.
Other organizations represented last week with PACs include the Ohio Hotel and Lodging Association (donations to two task force members); the Ohio Restaurant Association (donations to four members) and the Ohio Chamber of Commerce (donations to three members).
Vice Chairman Terrence Upchurch, D-Cleveland, aired some grievances about the process in a news release sent out last Thursday by the Ohio House Minority Caucus. Upchurch accused the chairman of suppressing Democrats’ guest proposals and stifling his own speech by requiring him to submit opening remarks in writing ahead of time.
He stated in that news release that the first week’s agenda showed the task force was “designed to gather one-sided testimony that only supported the idea of opening Ohio as soon as possible.”
Zeltwanger responded at the following day’s meeting, accusing the press release of taking “pot shots” at the task force.
“I’m not going to tolerate bipartisan gamesmanship. It’s done,” he said Friday. “This is a crisis, we all need to work together.”
Zeltwanger said there were more than 150 guest proposals to that point, but only three came from Democrats. One of those three, from Rep. David Leland of Columbus, was chosen to testify on Thursday. That man is Johnathan Smith, the operator of Lancaster Bingo charity parlor. Smith, though invited by a Democrat, has financially supported numerous Republican candidates: from Householder and DeWine to Republican task force member Rep. Jeff LaRe of Violet Twp.
In an interview with the Capital Journal, Upchurch said he and Zeltwanger spoke after Friday’s fractious meeting. The two are legislative friends, Upchurch said, with both serving together on the House’s Economic and Workforce Development Committee.
Upchurch was complimentary of Zeltwanger’s openness to allowing for a broader set of voices to testify in the weeks to come.
“I think going forward we’ll see a more diverse group of presenters,” the Democrat said.
These include entrepreneurs from women- and minority-owned businesses; education leaders; labor union heads; health experts; and workers themselves.
Asked about the number of Republican donors who have testified so far, Upchurch said he gives his colleagues “the benefit of the doubt” and believes they are “earnest in their intentions.”
“We’ve had differences of opinion thus far on who should get in front of (lawmakers),” Upchurch said, adding he hopes the task force will get back on track toward determining the best way to help Ohio businesses.
The next task force meeting is planned for Monday morning. A guest list was sent out to reporters an hour before the meeting.
Among the guests is Bill Bader Jr., owner of Summit Motorsports Park in Northern Ohio. The racetrack owner made state and national news last week for announcing he would reopen his track in defiance of the state’s shutdown order. “I’m not asking, I’m opening,” he said.
That defiance has been rewarded with an invite to speak with lawmakers. In 2018, Bader donated to $1,000 to Republican State Rep. Dick Stein (R-Norwalk), a member of the task force.
Criticism of state leaders
As last week’s task force meetings went on, lawmakers and presenters alike grew more and more comfortable in openly criticizing DeWine and Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton.
In one example on Friday, Republican Rep. Jon Cross of Kenton blamed DeWine and Acton for scaring Ohio workers away from wanting to return to work.
“Is it that we don’t need to have 2 o’clock press conferences and continue to scare everybody?” Cross asked.
Guests have piled on as well. Kevin Wieging, a Republican-supporting business owner from Northwest Ohio, quipped that DeWine might try to “take credit” for a recent snowstorm in his area. A few days before, a Cincinnati-area restaurant owner named Dale Hipsley accused DeWine and Acton of “scaring the dickens out of people” with their discussions about the virus.
Rep. Nino Vitale, R-Urbana, questioned the health department’s virus statistics as being guesswork. Vitale penned a letter to DeWine urging the governor to reopen the state and later attended a rally Saturday at the Ohio Statehouse condemning the orders made by DeWine and Acton.
Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent 6 1/2 years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism.