Hushed conversations are swallowed entirely by the din outside of the legislative chambers at the Ohio Statehouse, making an already warm October afternoon a bit stifling. Freed from their classrooms for a day, school children on a field trip file their way up to a balcony overlooking the Ohio House of Representatives. Women’s rights advocates and “Stand Your Ground” protestors, sweaty and hoarse from chanting slogans on the Statehouse lawn all morning, clog the peach-colored hallways outside of the Ohio Senate. In the middle of it all is celebrity zookeeper Jack Hanna, who will be honored by both bodies, obliging legislative aides’ requests for a quick picture with their iPhones.
Not far away, William G. Batchelder ’67 wraps up a quick meet-and-greet with constituents in the office reserved for the Speaker of the House. Flanked by his scheduler and advisors, Batchelder makes his way down the hall toward the House chambers in his Barry Goldwater-like spectacles. A group of protestors recognize him instantaneously. He greets them with a smile, shakes their hands, and accepts their pamphlets and buttons as he makes his way to the House floor. A loud bell clangs. Batchelder ascends the steps to the dais, and a new legislative session begins.
On the opposite side of the Statehouse, Senate President Keith Faber ’91 looks down from his lectern to inquire about upcoming committee meetings. His demeanor is business-like, but not unfriendly. He values an economy of words and staying on schedule. Once the session is over, he steps down and fields questions from statehouse beat reporters gathered on the Senate floor.
Although at different stages in their political careers, Batchelder and Faber share a lot of similarities. They are Republicans recognized for their conservative approaches to governing, and term limits will require both to step away from the Legislature when their current terms end. And, as leaders of the state’s two lawmaking bodies, they marveled at how bitter partisanship brought the federal government to a standstill for 16 days in October.
”I’m very concerned about the country right now,” Batchelder said in an interview at his downtown office. “I think what’s going on in Washington right now is inappropriate. When you read the history of the early republic, you see a deference that’s shown by (political opponents). These things don’t happen by chance.”
The dysfunction in Congress maddens Faber. He would urge members of both houses to think about the goals they want to achieve. If those cannot be accomplished, he said, then the states should be “set free.”
”Allow us the independence that federalism requires, and block things like the Medicaid (funding expansion) to the states,” Faber said. “We are the laboratories of democracy. Let us continue our experiments, and you’ll find solutions in the things you can’t work through.”
Ohio’s two legislative leaders sat down with All Rise to discuss how political rivals in Columbus work together without the gridlock, their leadership philosophies, and the work for which they are most proud to this point.
The House Historian
At 70, Batchelder has achieved an elder statesman’s status around the capital. He is the second-longest-serving member in the history of the Ohio House of Representatives, which means in the course of a conversation, he easily rattles off the details and players involved with legislative victories and failures that most Ohioans forgot decades ago.
Sharing stories and insights accumulated over a 38-year career in the Ohio Legislature appeals to Batchelder, who studied history and Latin as an undergraduate student at Ohio Wesleyan University. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Batchelder is at the stage of his career where he wishes to simply reminisce about past glories and wax poetic about his legacy. He is the same tenacious conservative he’s always been, which sometimes puts him at odds with members of his own party, including Ohio Gov. John R. Kasich.
Such was the case in October when the Legislature and governor squared off over a $2.5 billion expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. When both houses blocked the expansion, Kasich took the decision to a seven-member board that oversees minor adjustments to the state budget. Batchelder was among dozens of GOP representatives who signed a letter stating the bypass maneuver violated Ohio law, though he was not among the plaintiffs listed on a lawsuit filed soon after.
“I’m scared to death that if we take on the process and the federal government fails in its duties, we will be in serious trouble,” Batchelder said a couple of weeks prior to the showdown. “But the governor and I have never made a secret of what we believe and think. We are very candid. You have to be very straightforward with each other and, in that relationship, value what’s going on contemporaneously in society.”
Candor is a currency Batchelder believes in using when working across the aisle in the Ohio House of Representatives, too. He complimented House Minority Leader Tracy Maxwell Heard for her skill at communicating the frustrations of members from her party and “working at” finding resolutions for problems that could hinder the business of lawmaking. For his part, Batchelder says he tries not to surprise fellow lawmakers with political gamesmanship, such as bringing items to the floor under suspension.
“It’s important to have people who want things to go smoothly in the sense that we all know we’re working on things together. To be frank, I don’t know how much we could accomplish if we had to deal with the things they have going on in Washington,” Batchelder said. “It’s really weird. I wouldn’t be very comfortable in that situation.”
Instead, Batchelder is comfortable with Ohio politics. He’s as familiar with the transcripts of constitutional conventions from the last two centuries as he is with modern-day legislators not meeting the ethical standards he wants members to achieve. And as the second-longest-serving member in the history of the Ohio House of Representatives, he has influenced serious issues faced by the Buckeye State.
During the savings-and-loan crisis in 1985, Democratic Gov. Richard Celeste tapped Batchelder to help salvage depositors’ savings. The two had served in the Ohio House together, which Batchelder refers to as a “fraternity.” Celeste shut down the state’s 71 privately insured S&Ls, and thousands of protestors filled the Ohio Statehouse rotunda and lawn. Batchelder drafted bill after bill, one of his true joys as a legislator, and Celeste thanked Batchelder for his work in a speech after the crisis passed.
Batchelder’s writing skills were scrutinized more closely in 2002, when Zelman v. Simmons-Harris went before the United States Supreme Court. Ten years before, Batchelder had helped draft the legislation that served as the foundation for the Cleveland school voucher program.
“That’s a scary experience,” he recalled. “Your bill’s going to the Supreme Court, and for all you know Scalia says something like, ‘If this dummy hadn’t badly executed this particular paragraph, we could uphold this voucher bill.’ We were the first in the country to clear the Supreme Court, and that was exciting.”
When asked what he plans to do after leaving office at the end of 2014, he makes lighthearted jokes about tending to the fields of his 182-acre farm in Medina. The last time term limits forced him out of the House, Batchelder sat on the benches of the Medina County Common Pleas Court and the Ninth District Court of Appeals. Or perhaps he will return to the classroom. He has taught at The University of Akron and Cleveland State University, and he likens the relationship between students and professors to a caucus.
“My father lived to 96, and he tried cases until he was 93. He tried three jury trials that year,” Batchelder said. “We’re kind of hyper people.”
The jokes aside, Batchelder believes firmly in contributing where one can; it’s what brought him back to the House in 2007.
“When you see what can happen to free societies – take the case of the Roman Republic – you have to say: Jiminy Christmas! We’re really in a very special time and a special place, and it behooves people who are willing to work hard to go forward to do so – to see to it that the system is passed on.”
The Senate Mediator
It’s a little after 7 a.m. on Monday morning, and Faber is steering his car past the fields where soybeans and corn were just harvested. More than 100 miles lie between his home in Celina and his office in Columbus, and he makes the most of the two-hour drive by taking calls and thinking of the week ahead. He often jokes that serving as president of the Ohio Senate is the only part-time job he’s ever had that consumes 65 hours a week.
The Ohio Senate is part-time in the sense that it gathers for session a couple of times each week. But as the leader of the Senate, Faber maintains a jam-packed schedule behind the scenes, broken into 15-minute increments that start with breakfast meetings in the morning and end with evening caucus meetings that can stretch to 11 p.m.
There are clear differences between serving in the senate and as its leader. From a public policy perspective, Faber has to look at how issues will affect 11.4 million Ohioans instead of just his 360,000 constituents. He must interface regularly with Batchelder and Kasich on those issues. Meanwhile, he has an obligation to colleagues in the Senate.
“You have to help them achieve their legislative goals, and it can be tough keeping all the frogs in the wheelbarrow,” he said, “but I have the best job in politics right now.”
Faber explains that the benefit of being one of 99 house members or 33 senators – and he has experience as both – is that he is able to put his fingerprint on any piece of legislation. His influence can be found in bills supporting workforce training programs, making $2.7 billion in income tax cuts, and cutting through the regulatory requirements Ohio businesses must meet – what he calls “getting past the bureaucratic pinheads.”
While it may sound like Faber relishes the power of affecting legislation, he enjoys more the ability to use his position to serve constituents with unique problems. He recalled a tense situation one Ohio couple faced when a baby they intended to adopt from Florida arrived early. Faber said the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services refused to give the couple’s background check high priority.
”You’re going to have somebody sitting in a hotel room in Florida – their baby sitting away from its parents and not bonding with them – because why? We couldn’t get an answer,” Faber said. “My wife and I considered adopting at one time, and I just really felt for these parents and the situation they were in. I called the governor.”
The background check was completed weeks sooner than it would have been, and the Fabers sent a care package to the family when they returned from Florida.
”Constituent service is what I feel best about,” Faber said. “The No. 1 thing I do as a legislator – and to an extent, the No. 1 thing we do as a Senate – is serve constituents’ needs, particularly constituents having issues interacting with state government.”
Perhaps that is why Faber gets frustrated with the hyper-partisan climate in Washington, D.C. and with leaders taking inconsistent and hardline stances merely because it’s an adverse position. Certainly, fissures between Democrats and Republicans in the Ohio Senate can be found when it comes to budgets and elections bills, Faber acknowledged. But 85 percent of their bills have received bipartisan support in sponsorship and passage.
Faber has a private practice in Celina that focuses on mediation, and what he does for clients of Faber & Associates is not unlike what he practices in the Ohio Senate: Take a complex issue; look at it from all sides; and then work with others to find a solution that can be agreed upon, even if one side doesn’t win it all. Faber calls it “getting to yes,” and admits that lawyer-legislators tend to understand the art of negotiation and mediation better than most.
”Legislators who take this job seriously, whether they’re lawyers or not, understand that a floor debate is about public policy. It’s not about personality,” Faber said. “If you can separate that, you can have a very heated debate and later compliment someone on their oratorical skills, even if you disagreed with their policy.”
It’s Thursday night, and the sun set hours ago over those corn and soybean fields near Celina. Faber tries to tiptoe into the house and avoid waking up his wife and two children. He will take them to school in the morning, making the most of that drive by catching up on family business. Saturday and Sunday will be spent on the sidelines of soccer fields, attending events in his district, and squeezing in hours at the law office between it all.
The 47-year-old does not reveal what plans he has, if any, when his term expires in 2016, saying it’s a decision he will have to make with his wife, a college professor pursuing her own Ph.D.
“Life as a Faber is pretty busy. It’s a challenge trying to balance everything and keep it under control,” he said, “but I wouldn’t change it for a minute. I’ve got the best job I’ve ever had, and we’ll worry about the next thing when it comes time to worry about it.”
Tags: Keith Faber, William Batchelder