When Bill Batchelder learned he was to become speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives— in a General Assembly career that touches six decades — he called his father, former Medina County Prosecutor William G. Batchelder Jr., to tell him the news.
“First of all, he said: ‘That is wonderful!’ ” recalled Medina’s longtime 69th District representative.
“Then he said: ‘It’s about time!’ I probably should’ve apologized to him at that point for making him wait all these years,” Batchelder said with a laugh.
The Republican speaker-elect comes by his stick-to-itiveness honestly. The elder Batchelder, now 96, was until recently still trying jury cases in his Medina law practice.
It was a reaction likely shared by many supporters. Batchelder, 67, has represented most of Medina County since 1968— minus a stint on the bench of the 9th District Court of Appeals. When the GOP majority officially makes him the House’s 101st speaker in January, it will be the start of his 35th year in the legislature.
Receiving the speaker’s gavel does give Batchelder a sense of completion after serving so long and in so many other House leadership roles. But it’s a little like being handed the controls of an airplane that’s low on gas and flying into a storm.
Ohio faces at least an $8 billion deficit and what may be the most contentious state budget in a generation.
Challenges and opportunity tend to go hand-in-hand that way.
“All you have to do is have the backbone and/or foolhardiness to start changing things,” Batchelder said with ever-present self-deprecating humor.
He’s already setting the tone for the new session by cutting the number of House committees from 27 to 17. He wants the legislative body to respond faster to immediate concerns. Stretching members out among four or five committee assignments didn’t lend itself to that, he said.
“We’re going to focus people on committees where they have expertise. Most of our freshmen, on both sides of the aisle, have expertise they bring to the contest of trying to solve things.… That’s going to be a big factor in having fewer committees, but having them working much more diligently.”
Committees will be required to take their meetings on the road, as well as hold night sessions, to make House discussions more accessible to working people and local communities.
The GOP enjoyed solid majority power in state government in recent years, yet failed to make institutional changes that might have put Ohio on better financial footing today. Why should skeptics believe this Republican majority will do better?
Batchelder helped recruit many of the members of the last two freshman classes — with an eye toward those unafraid to take political risks, he said, even if it means not getting re-elected. He believes Republican Gov.-elect John Kasich is of the same mind.
“I’m not looking for people who want to get along to go along,” Batchelder said.
“There’s just going to be a change there.”
He wants to streamline government requirements for the small businesses that drive much of job creation but whose owners get discouraged by red tape. Other states are actively recruiting Ohio companies, so the Buckeye State has to be at least as nimble as its competitors to grow, he said.
Stories about Batchelder from outside Medina County inevitably call him “a throwback.” They may be referring to his trademark black-rimmed glasses, but in many ways, the label is accurate, he said.
Batchelder has authored bills for Democratic colleagues as well as for members of his own party. In today’s highly partisan world, that sort of collegiality often seems like a thing of the past.
“There’s no question my view of government is a throwback,” he said. “I don’t think government creates many jobs. It either gets in the way or stays out of the way. It’s just a more Jeffersonian view of things.
There are people in both caucuses who understand that and believe it.
“The unfortunate thing is a lot of people who are in state and federal government want to be important in some individual sense and therefore they’re not willing to do what has to be done to encourage growth, education and so forth. They want to be in charge of it, as it were, and it probably doesn’t work so well.”
Agree or disagree with Batchelder’s views, you can at least say this about the next speaker: He still mows his own grass.
“A lot people generally don’t think that’s a good investment of time,” he said with a laugh. “On the other hand, they’re perfectly willing to pay someone so they can walk on their grass and hit golf balls. I say no, I’m not going to pay somebody to walk on their grass and then pay somebody else to walk on mine. That sounds like bad economic activity.”
Ohio could use a little more of that Medina County practicality, if you ask me.
“I’ve been very blessed to represent Medina County,” Batchelder said. “As you look around the state, it’s one of the best counties when you look at schools, when you look how people treat each other, when you look at the opportunities young people are given here and the care that our people have for senior citizens. It’s just a wonderful place.
“I’m confident that an awful lot of people who have voted for me over the years didn’t agree with me on every issue, to put it mildly. But I think they have had a sense that I did try to do the right thing and I think people appreciate that. Now it comes to a situation where a majority of members of the caucus believe that as well. I hope to live up to the faith Medina County voters have put in me over all these years.”
Contact John Gladden at firstname.lastname@example.org.