COLUMBUS, Ohio—Effective lawmakers have to master two different – and, sometimes, contradictory – skill sets: politics and policymaking. Bob Cupp, the new Ohio House speaker, is inclined toward the latter.
Cupp, though hardly a household name, has been a part of Ohio government longer than other lawmakers have been alive. Quiet and deliberative, he’s a former Ohio Senate majority leader and Ohio Supreme Court justice.
But now the lawyer from Lima faces the biggest challenge of his career: putting back in order a discombobulated House reeling from not only two speakers resigning amid scandal in two years, but also internal division both between parties and within Cupp’s own House Republican caucus (which chose Cupp as speaker by a margin of one vote).
In spite of all this, Cupp has his sights set on some big-ticket agenda items – from dealing with the scandal-drenched House Bill 6 nuclear bailout law (exactly how is up in the air) to fixing Ohio’s perennially unconstitutional school-funding system.
Oh, and he only has three months left in the middle of election season to get his agenda done before he’ll have to convince his colleagues to elect him speaker for a full term.
Even two months ago, no one, Cupp included, imagined that he would be in this position. But that was before then-Speaker Larry Householder was federally indicted and accused of overseeing a $60 million bribery scheme to get HB6 passed. Nine days later, the GOP-led House voted Cupp in as speaker.
“It’s not anything I wanted to do,” Cupp said in an interview. “My focus was just going to work on public policy. But with this situation occurring as it did, I thought that I could offer something to solve the problem with the House and restore it to credibility.”
Cupp is widely considered an ethical politician whose leadership is unlikely to run afoul of the law.
State Rep. Jason Stephens, a Lawrence County Republican who nominated Cupp for speaker on the House floor, said he pictures Cupp as “just a big oak tree standing out in the field.
“When the winds blow, the limbs may blow a little bit, but that tree isn’t moving as far as, you know, principles and that sort of thing,” Stephens said.
“I would never be concerned about Bob Cupp’s ethics. Ever,” said Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, who served alongside Cupp on the Ohio Supreme Court for six years.
But Cupp is no longer a justice (he was unseated in 2012 by Democrat Bill O’Neill, who won despite spending just $4,000 on his campaign).
“All of the qualities we like in a judge can sometimes be a weakness in a leader of a legislative branch,” said Mark Weaver, a longtime Republican political consultant who managed Cupp’s 2012 Supreme Court campaign.
“Meaning, if you’re not the first person that gets noticed in a room, some people take that as a sign of weakness,” Weaver continued. “Bob Cupp is more of an introvert than an extrovert. In a rowdy group of 98 other representatives, his patience and personality will be tested.”
But, Weaver added, while Cupp’s style is more laid back, “people who try to take advantage of that style will find themselves outmaneuvered.”
Cupp, for his part, asserted that he can hold his own.
“I don’t like to get pushed around, either,” he said. “So being quiet and deliberative doesn’t mean somebody can let somebody push you around.”
The Ohio House speaker has enormous power over which bills pass the House and which are doomed to fail. So what does Bob Cupp want to do with this power?
First, there’s the matter of what he needs to do: figure out what to do about HB6, which offers a $1.3 billion ratepayer bailout to two Ohio nuclear power plants, kills the state’s green-energy mandates for utilities, and gives subsidies to some coal and solar plants.
While House Democrats have pushed for an immediate repeal of HB6, Cupp — who voted for HB6 – has instead formed a special committee to study the bill and recommend what to do about it.
“There’s a lot of complications, a lot of unwinding,” Cupp told reporters earlier this week. “To do something in a hasty or reckless manner is totally inappropriate.”
But then there’s what Cupp wants to do: reform Ohio’s school-funding formula, which was ruled unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court 23 years ago.
Cupp is co-sponsoring bipartisan legislation, House Bill 305, to address the problem. Householder let the bill languish for more than a year. But now that Cupp’s in the speaker’s chair, he said he’s aiming to have the measure head to Republican Gov. Mike DeWine’s desk by the end of the year.
One issue that Cupp does not expect the House to pass by the end of the year is DeWine’s gun-reform package, which the governor unveiled following last year’s mass shooting in Dayton.
The governor has repeatedly pushed lawmakers to adopt the plan, which among other things would create a voluntary state-level background check process for gun sales between private sellers and allow authorities to send people with drug or alcohol problems to a psychiatric hospital, where they cannot legally have access to guns.
But Cupp said the governor’s plan will not pass the House by the end of this session, as many House Republicans are opposed to it.
“Anything that erodes Second Amendment rights is not likely to happen,” Cupp said. When asked if he personally believed the governor’s gun plan eroded constitutional rights, Cupp replied, “I personally have not had a chance to delve into details.”
Overall, Cupp has a solidly conservative voting record, though Weaver says, “No one would call Bob Cupp doctrinaire.”
The debate over House Bill 6 has widened an already growing partisan divide in the House to a degree not seen in many years. But while Cupp and House Democrats traded criticisms earlier this week, Cupp said he expects relations will improve after the Nov. 3 general election.
“I think I’ve been most successful when I have worked collaboratively with other people,” Cupp said. “And I think it’s particularly suited to this period of time when there’s been a lot of division and contention between, you know the (legislative) houses and the (DeWine) administration. And so, that’s my approach.”
House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes, an Akron Democrat, told reporters earlier this week that she’s asked to have weekly conversations with the new speaker to “clear the air” and help the two leaders work with each other.
But when Sykes was asked whether she trusted Cupp, she said no.
“Quite frankly, they (House Republicans) have left us no ability to trust them any longer,” she said. “We have tried to work with them, and it doesn’t look like we can move forward until they figure (things) out and get their house in order.”
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