‘Our voice just got louder’

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 7, 2023

Local officials celebrate Stephens’ win as speaker

COLUMBUS — Ohio has a new speaker of the House and it’s a name well known to Lawrence County.

State Rep. Jason Stephens, R-93, of Kitts Hill, was elected to the leadership position on Tuesday, winning over Derrick Merrin, R-42, of Monclova Township, who had been chosen in an unofficial vote by the Republican caucus in November 2022.

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Stephens, who had announced his intention to run for speaker in March 2022 to The Ironton Tribune, was in the running for that vote, but was defeated.

Jason Stephens speaks at the 2019 Lawrence County Republican Party dinner. (The Ironton Tribune | Heath Harrison)

Normally, the formal floor vote for speaker at the beginning of the legislative session, which includes both parties, is a formality, with a party line vote matching those of the caucuses, but, on Tuesday, an upset occurred.

Stephens, who was nominated for the position by Rep. Brett Hillery, R-51, of the Canton area, was able to emerge as a consensus candidate and earned the support of all 32 of the chamber’s Democrats, and pulled 22 of 67 Republicans away from Merrin, enabling him to win the speakership, 54-43.

“I pledge to respect and to work with each and every one of you to address the many concerns of our state… to recognize both challenges and opportunities, to develop real solutions, and to improve the lives of the people of Ohio,” Stephens said upon winning the gavel. “I pledge to always have an open door and listen. I encourage all to do the same.”

Major media covering the statehouse framed Stephens’ victory as a win for moderate leadership in the statehouse.

Stephens, who was appointed as representative when his predecessor, Ryan Smith, resigned in 2019, represents a district that covers all of Lawrence, Jackson and Gallia counties. He won election to the seat in 2020 and was unopposed for the seat last year.

Prior to becoming representative, Stephens was Lawrence County commissioner from 2001-2011, leaving that office to become county auditor upon the retirement of Ray “Moose” Dutey in 2011 and serving multiple terms until 2019.

The chair of the Lawrence County Republican Party, Stephens has been a licensed insurance agent since 1999 and is co-owner of Stephens & Son Insurance in Chesapeake.

His tenure leading the party has seen it sweep most countywide races and, in the 2022 elections, faced no opposition for any countywide office, as no Democrats filed for those races.

Mary Cogan, a South Point council member who is active in county Republican politics, described Stephens’ win of the speakership as “just great thing for the state and an amazing for the county.”

“Jason comes from humble roots,” she said. “He understands the financial end of the county and has a good picture. He’s got it all.”

Cogan said she was “not surprised” with Stephens’ accomplishments.

“He’s come as far as he has and I’ve been impressed with all he’s done,” she said.

Stephens’ win comes as another battle continued to rage in Washington D.C., with Republican Kevin McCarthy failing to win a majority and the position of speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, with a few dozen holdouts of his party refusing to back him in multiple votes.

The contrast in outcomes is something South Point Mayor Jeff Gaskin, a Republican, noted.

Of Stephens’ win, he said, “I think it’s wonderful news.”

Gaskin said “people are tired” of parties dominated by “zealots.”

“It shows it’s time somebody decided to reach across the aisle and work with the other party,” Gaskin said. “It seems Jason is trying to work with everyone. It’s impressive he got every Democrat to vote for him. I think Jason can do well to bring the two parties together to get things done for Ohio.

Lawrence County Commission President DeAnna Holliday, a Republican who began her political career as a Democrat, also celebrated Stephens’ win, stating it was “important” for the county to have a local in such a position of leadership in the state.

“He will deliver our unique, rural perspective,” she said. “And have to appreciate all the hard work he has done, not just as a representative, but in county offices.”

Stephens will be only the second speaker from the region in the past quarter century.

Republican Ryan Smith, whose district covered part of Lawrence County, served as briefly speaker for half a year from June 2018 to January 2019. Prior to him, the last speaker from southern Ohio was Democrat Vern Riffe, of Scioto County, who held the position from 1967-1994 and was the longest-serving speaker in Ohio history.

Holliday said Stephens has been “instrumental” in getting funding from the state for constructing a new Lawrence County Jail and said the commissioners hope to continue to work with him on needs for the county, such as infrastructure, including roads and rural broadband service.

“We are incredibly blessed and excited by the opportunities,” she said.

Holliday said, as commissioner, she has sought to give the county a loud voice in the state capitol when working with officials.

“And our voice just got louder,” she said of Stephens taking the helm.