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Conservative lawmakers have spent the pandemic targeting DeWine. Now they want to impeach him.

Tyler Buchanan, Ohio Capital Journal

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From left: State Reps. Paul Zeltwanger (R-Mason), Candice Keller (R-Middletown), Nino Vitale (R-Urbana), John Becker (R-Clermont County)

Bill Bader Jr. was fed up.

A health order signed by Gov. Mike DeWine had forced his race track to close. Bader threatened to reopen without the state’s permission, which got him in some hot water. He felt frustrated and that nobody would listen.

Enter state Rep. Paul Zeltwanger. The Republican lawmaker from Mason serving as chairman of the Economic Recovery Task Force offered Bader a platform to air his grievances.

Ohio’s response to COVID-19 was “politically motivated,” Bader complained to the bipartisan group of legislators over a Zoom call. The business owner claimed DeWine only shut down schools and businesses in order to hurt President Donald Trump. He questioned if the reported death toll from the coronavirus was accurate.

“I think that’s up to everybody to do their own homework on that,” Zeltwanger said, allowing the theories against DeWine to go unchallenged.

Around this time, Rep. Nino Vitale, R-Urbana, had also started to turn on the governor. A task force member who characterized state health data as guesswork, Vitale sent the governor a letter on April 16 urging DeWine to reverse course.

“No government can stop death,” Vitale wrote, “no matter how hard we try.”

Other legislators like Rep. Candice Keller, R-Middletown, and John Becker, R-Union Twp., grew critical of the state’s virus response. Becker, R-Union Twp., would become the first state legislator to turn this dissatisfaction into legislation.

Now, months later, this quartet of Becker, Vitale, Keller and Zeltwanger have joined together to seek the removal of DeWine from office. Becker announced Monday he had drafted 10 articles of impeachment, with the Republican colleagues signing on as cosponsors.

Though Becker has asked fellow House members of both parties to join, no one else has yet to come forward in support of DeWine’s removal.

They allege that DeWine violated the separation of powers; erred in postponing the primary election in March; inflicted “irreversible economic hardship on a growing number of Ohioans” through his COVID-19 mitigation efforts; provided “wildly inaccurate forecasts and repeatedly misleading COVID-19 data”; and violated civil liberties by requiring face masks.

New Speaker of the House Bob Cupp, R-Lima, released a statement early Monday evening opposing the impeachment effort.

The impeachment attempt comes as the Ohio Republican Party hopes to stave off Democratic efforts to flip the legislative body in the wake of the Larry Householder-House Bill 6 scandal.

It also comes as Republicans focus on handing Trump an Ohio victory over Democratic challenger Joe Biden; polls show the two are neck-and-neck in the presidential race here.

While an impeachment effort from within the Republican Party is unusual, the drafting of articles follows months of widespread condemnation from Republican legislators throughout the state.

A spring and summer of discontent has led to a political climate in which one poll showed DeWine had a better approval rating among Democratic voters than Republican voters.

DeWine now faces a call for impeachment from his own party that, while being a longshot attempt, offers yet another challenge for a governor working to retain public trust amid a comprehensive pandemic response.

When it all started

DeWine received near universal praise for his initial handling of the coronavirus. In tandem with a popular state health director in Dr. Amy Acton, DeWine earned respect for his early decisions to cancel most of the Arnold Classic festival and close the K-12 schools.

An early sign of discord involved the primary election, originally scheduled for March 17. DeWine’s administration contended it would be unsafe to allow the traditional wave of in-person voting. After an unsuccessful attempt at postponing the election through the courts, Acton signed a health order the evening before Election Day closing the polls.

The Ohio Revised Code gives wide latitude to the health director to enact sweeping orders to combat a pandemic. However, state law allows only the legislature to set an election date. With voting postponed, lawmakers eventually settled on a mail-only primary election to conclude in late April.

Legislators still grumbled at DeWine and Acton’s last-second interference.

DeWine and Acton had also shuttered restaurant dining rooms, hair salons and gyms, among other businesses deemed not essential. As the calendar flipped to April, the deep economic impacts became evident. DeWine’s supporters viewed this as an unfortunate, but justified result of the need to keep Ohioans safe from the deadly virus.

Over time, his critics viewed these as unnecessary consequences of an executive branch overstepping its bounds. With legislators stuck working from home, several grew impatient and began to make their criticism heard.

They argued the virus was not harmful or contagious enough to warrant such widespread orders. Besides the health considerations, they asserted the mitigation actions taken constituted a violation of Ohioans’ liberties.

During virtual meetings of the Economic Recovery Task Force, Chairman Zeltwanger and Vitale insisted the data was not severe enough to justify keeping the economic shutdown in place. Vitale characterized the state health department data as guesswork.

Vitale penned a letter to DeWine encouraging him to reopen the state. He then attended a protest at the Ohio Statehouse on April 18 and told a fellow protester the issue at hand was about liberty, not health.

“The question that we have to ask ourselves is maybe, ‘what’s the role of government?’” he said. “Is the role of government to protect us from death, which is inevitable, or is the role of government to radically protect our freedom and our liberty? For me, I stand for your freedom and your liberty, so that’s what I’m always fighting for over here.”

The most noteworthy legislative criticism against DeWine to that point came from the Speaker of the House Larry Householder on April 27. On that date, DeWine announced both a statewide mask mandate for Ohio workers and customers as well as plans to keep stores not deemed “essential” closed for several more weeks.

In a statement, Householder said the Republican majority had a “tremendous amount of frustration” regarding DeWine’s economic decisions.

“The House has asked to work with the Administration to come up with common sense solutions to revolve this, but have been met with deaf ears … Our members feel disrespected that their opinions have been largely disregarded by the Administration,” the statement read.

That week, House Republicans circulated their own COVID-19 plan called the “Responsible Open Ohio Framework.” It included a number of “guiding principles” for how Ohio should proceed, with the conclusion being that DeWine should leave virus mitigation up to individual choice.

“Many people will choose to continue to shelter in place. We respect their choices and right to make those decisions,” one principle read.

“We believe it is time to trust Ohioans,” another stated.

In total, 35 House Republicans — a majority of the caucus — signed the plan. Zeltwanger, Vitale, Keller and Becker all signed.

Taking legislative action

Householder called legislators back to work at the state capitol on May 4.

Becker wasted no time in sponsoring the first bill to target the authority of DeWine and Acton.  His “Need Ohio Working NOW Act” called for reopening Ohio “without delay.” It also called for reforming Ohio law to make health orders subject to approval by the legislature.

Keller, Vitale, Zeltwanger and nine other Republicans all signed on as cosponsors of this bill.

Becker’s legislation was the first of this sort, but far from the only. Republican members have since proposed numerous other bills meant to limit the power of the DeWine administration in responding to the pandemic.

The impeachment quartet co-sponsored several, and Vitale even introduced one himself in late May. His bill would prohibit the governor or state health director from enacting a face mask mandate and give that authority solely to the legislature. It would only allow the state legislature to enact one. Becker, Zeltwanger and nine other Republicans joined Vitale as cosponsors.

As mentioned, several impeachment articles take issue with the postponement of primary election voting. One Republican-sponsored bill prohibits any public official from intervening in an election in the way DeWine and Acton did. All 61 members of the House Republican caucus voted in favor of the bill.

Perhaps no piece of legislation mirrors an impeachment complaint more closely than House Bill 624. The “Truth in COVID-19 Statistics Bill” was sponsored by Rep. Diane Grendell, R-Chesterland, in May, and counts Keller, Zeltwanger and 30 other Republicans as cosponsors. The bill requires the Ohio Department of Health to report specific pieces of data — many of which the department already reports.

During her testimony, Grendell said she introduced the bill because the ODH data “has been one-sided and woefully incomplete.”

“Only the data that promotes fear and despair — confirmed cases, hospitalizations, deaths — has been reported by the (ODH),” Grendell claimed.

One of the articles of impeachment claims that “DeWine has repeatedly proven his incompetence by providing wildly inaccurate forecasts and repeatedly misleading COVID-19 data.”

HB 624 passed the House on June 10. All 61 members of the Republican caucus voted in favor.

That same week, Vitale had seen enough. He posted that DeWine (along with Acton and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted) “should be removed from office for violation of untold misdemeanors and felonies.

Vitale added the hashtag #ImpeachDeWine and has included it within his near-daily posts since.

Conspiracy theories abound

Those leading the impeachment effort have gained notoriety in 2020 for promoting coronavirus conspiracy theories and making controversial and misleading statements about the virus.

Vitale has been the most prominent in this regard. At an April protest against the state health orders, Vitale openly speculated about entrepreneur Bill Gates having created the coronavirus.

YouTube removed one of Vitale’s videos for spreading coronavirus misinformation and Facebook has flagged numerous Vitale posts as being “False Information.” One such post on May 14 from Vitale wrongly asserted that “Face Masks Force Virus into the Brain.”

The Urbana lawmaker has directed many of his most inflammatory posts at the governor. He has repeatedly referred to him as “Dictator DeWine” and regularly accuses the governor of being tyrannical.

In one conspiracy-laden screed on May 18, Vitale floated a theory that DeWine knew about COVID-19 all the way back in March 2019. (The virus was first detected eight months later in China.)

In reality, DeWine had sought to revamp the health department’s authority during the 2019 budget negotiations, The Columbus Dispatch reported. Vitate believes this was part of a secretive effort to prepare for the state’s coronavirus response a full year in advance.

Vitale posed this unfounded question to his thousands of Facebook followers: “Did (DeWine) anticipate coming a year later that would make it convenient for him to take total power and handle some ‘future health emergency’ that might be on the horizon?”

Vitale has also falsely claimed that DeWine will “force” contract tracing in Ohio (it is optional) and that DeWine banned religious gatherings (he didn’t).

On May 6, Zeltwanger’s official Facebook page shared a video titled “Plandemic: The Hidden Agenda Behind Covid-19,” which falsely alleges the virus was deliberately “manipulated” to infect humans in order to enrich those working to combat it. The video was widely condemned and debunked before being ultimately removed by most social media platforms.

Zeltwanger presided over a month’s worth of Economic Recovery Task Force meetings which, at times, featured conspiracy theories about the virus and DeWine’s handling of it. Besides the race track owner example, he said nothing as fellow GOP state Rep. Jon Cross, R-Kenton, asserted the virus was a product of China conducting “biological warfare on the United States.”

Earlier this month, Keller made a Facebook post comparing the COVID-19 statistics under President Donald Trump to the swine flu statistics under President Barack Obama a decade ago. The post was labeled by Facebook fact checkers as misleading and “Missing Context.” The earlier virus did infect many more people than the 2020 virus has, a USA Today fact check notes, but the coronavirus has proved to be far more deadly to Americans who have contracted it.

She too has been critical against DeWine, posting on Aug. 18: “We need the Governor dictating the private activities to Ohio’s families as much as a fish needs a bicycle. How arrogant. How inappropriate … He’s overstepping his boundaries of authority. Again.”

On Monday, Keller compared the virus to other activities she considers risky, such as driving and “eating fried foods” — all of which differ in that they do not involve a contagious virus that can affect others.

“When do we decide quality of life outweighs the risks?” she asked on Facebook. “I understand Covid can be deadly or very dangerous for SOME people, but so are strawberries and so is shellfish.”

Keller previously was kicked out of a Gettysburg museum for refusing to wear a face mask, and also refused to have her temperature checked at the Statehouse as was required for all workers.

Becker has joined Vitale in downplaying the effectiveness of masks and characterized the initial shutdown order as subjecting Ohioans to “24/7 house arrest.” A frequent DeWine critic, Becker has predicted the governor will not win re-election and has floated the idea of running for governor himself on his blog.

Under a header “Becker for Governor in 2022???,” he wrote in May: “I’m not giving it any serious consideration at this time. But, I’m a never say never kind of guy. Don’t expect any announcements anytime soon. I’m just as frustrated as my constituents and agree that a major change is necessary.”

Will any other lawmakers join in support?

Becker has conceded the group does not currently have enough votes to remove DeWine as governor.

Though Republican legislators have written numerous letters critical of DeWine and introduced pieces of legislation targeting his administration, it is unclear if any others would take the step of formally calling for his removal.

The process to remove DeWine would involve a majority vote in the Ohio House of Representatives to impeach him, then a two-thirds vote from the Ohio Senate to confirm it. With Republican supermajorities in both chambers, such votes would seem unlikely.

Becker is finishing out his fourth term in the Ohio House; he is term-limited from running again, and earlier this year lost a primary to serve as commissioner in his home Clermont County. Keller is not running for re-election to the Ohio House, and this year lost a primary bid for an Ohio Senate seat.

Vitale and Zeltwanger are both running for re-election to their fourth and final terms in the Ohio House. Vitale is unopposed.

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