COLUMBUS, Ohio – A Republican-controlled legislature passed Ohio House Bill 6, the nuclear bailout law that’s now at the center of a federal corruption investigation, and a Republican governor signed it.
But some Democrats played supporting roles in the bill becoming law, too, while some Republicans aggressively opposed it.
Don’t expect any of that nuance to be captured in political attacks that are swirling in hotly contested state legislative races.
One audacious ad from the Ohio Republican Party attacks Alexis Miller, the Democratic nominee for House District 89 in Northern Ohio.
The ad attempts to tie Miller, a first-time candidate, to the HB6 scandal by noting – accurately – that House Democrats provided the votes for state Rep. Larry Householder to be elected speaker. Householder and four allies, including a former Ohio Republican Party chairman, were arrested in July for allegedly using more than $60 million in bribe money from FirstEnergy Corp. to secure the passage of the law, which gives a former subsidiary $1.3 billion in ratepayer money to support two nuclear power plants.
“If Alexis Miller’s campaign is supported by the same people who supported Larry Householder, how can we trust her?” the mailer asks.
What the ad doesn’t mention is that Miller’s GOP opponent, state Rep. D.J. Swearingen, was appointed to the legislature by Householder, a Republican. Swearingen also received donations from FirstEnergy, ex-FirstEnergy lobbyist Juan Cespedes, who was among those arrested, and the House GOP campaign committee, which was financially supported by Householder’s operation.
Another mailer from the Ohio Democratic Party ties state Rep. Dave Greenspan, a Westlake Republican, to the HB6 scandal. Greenspan, first elected in 2016, is running against Monique Smith, a Democrat and former Lakewood city councilwoman.
The ad, which references the federal investigation as the “largest bribery and money laundering scheme ever in Ohio, is a boilerplate attack Democrats are waging against Republicans across the state. It might give a voter the impression that Greenspan voted for the bill.
But Greenspan didn’t just vote against House Bill 6, he’s sponsored two separate bills to repeal it, and even went to the FBI, aiding the federal investigation against Householder while the bill was still being debated, court records show. His refusal to vote for it led Householder to ominously threaten him in a text message that made its way into an affidavit from an FBI agent laying out the case against Householder and his allies.
The common thread between Greenspan and Swearingen: both are Republicans holding seats that are expected to be competitive in this November’s election. Greenspan represents a district that includes Cleveland’s western suburbs that could be a top pickup opportunity for Democrats, while Swearingen represents Erie and Ottawa counties, a potential swing area– and as a recent political appointee, his name has never appeared on a ballot.
It’s not just the Greenspan/Smith and Miller/Swearingen races. The HB6 scandal has inspired numerous questionable attacks, as Democrats try to take advantage of a corruption scandal, even by attacking first-time candidates who played no role in its passage, while Republicans have tried to creatively distance themselves from legislation approved by a state government they controlled completely.
Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Turner’s campaign made perhaps the most nonsensical HB6-themed attack, linking the bill to his opponent, a Democrat who has never held elected office who is running for Congress, which had no involvement with passing state laws like House Bill 6.
“I don’t how turning that (argument) around would be very fair,” Miller, the Democrat running against Swearingen, said in an interview about the Ohio GOP’s attack against her.
When asked whether he thought the ad attacking Miller was misleading, Ohio GOP spokesman Evan Machan replied: “I think we are making the voters aware that (House Minority Leader) Emilia Sykes and the Democrats cut a deal with Householder to get him elected, and the very same Columbus folks are supporting that candidate (Miller) to get elected.”
Aryeh Alex, who’s leading House Democrats’ campaign arm, meanwhile defended the attack against Greenspan.
He said Greenspan, despite his role as an FBI informant into the HB6 investigation, shares responsibility for the bill’s passage. He said the Republican-controlled legislature has been embroiled in other scandals over the years, including 2018 FBI investigations into payday lending legislation and electronic charter school funding that haven’t resulted in charges.
“Look, there’s a Republican culture of corruption,” Alex said. “It’s not just about House Bill 6.”
In an interview, Greenspan pointed out the role Democrats played in getting HB6 passed. They shoulder more of the blame for the scandal than he does, Greenspan said.
“To sit there and say I’m in any way complicit in House Bill 6 is the height of hypocrisy,” he said.
Provocative attacks are also being made on issues other than HB6.
Another anti-Greenspan mailer from the ODP casts him as an “extremist,” overlaying an image of Greenspan with an image of the confederate battle flag on one side, and displaying an image of President Donald Trump on the other. The basis for the image: Greenspan along with other House Republicans did vote in June against a measure that would have banned the sale of the confederate battle flag at county fairs, which receive state funding.
Greenspan, who is Jewish, married to a South Korean immigrant and who sponsored resolutions condemning Neo-Nazis, white nationalism and anti-Semitism, said he is personally offended by the ad. He and other House Republicans said they opposed the Confederate-flag sale ban, which was proposed during the height of racial justice protests in June, on the argument that it would illegally violate free speech laws.
“That’s where I get passionate and frustrated about these attacks, because they’re completely against not only who I am but also what I’ve done,” Greenspan said.
Smith, Greenspan’s opponent, said the attacks on Greenspan are fair. She also said House Republicans have funded ads that misleadingly attack her record on Lakewood City Council.
“I really genuinely feel that there is so much in his record that was so disturbing to me and continues to be disturbing to me as one of his constituents, that has motivated me to run against him, there is no reason for us to lie on our side,” she said.
As for the Confederate flag ad, Alex said Greenspan is paying for his vote.
“This is the party of Trump,” he said. “By not standing up to white supremacists and symbols of hate, he failed to do that when he had the opportunity. I’m Jewish, and if I had the chance to say Confederate flags aren’t welcome, I absolutely would have done that.”
Ohio Republican Party Chairman Jane Timken issued a statement denouncing the confederate flag-themed attack, saying “Americans across the country have disavowed the Confederate flag for its ties to racism and white supremacy.” The statement does not acknowledge that Trump has defended the flag as a symbol of Southern pride for some.
“Are the Ohio Democrats insinuating something about elected officials of the Jewish faith? This attack doesn’t surprise me, but it does disgust me,” she said. “As the party that constantly touts how accepting they are of other beliefs, the Ohio Democrats should, once again, be ashamed of themselves.”
Greenspan represents the 16th Ohio House District, which includes Cleveland’s suburban west shore communities including Westlake, Bay Village, Fairview Park, North Olmsted and Rocky River. Greenspan was first elected in 2016, winning by 13 points even though Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, won the district by 5 points.
The district is likely to continue to trend Democratic given Trump’s weakness among suburban voters. A Sept. 17 poll by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic aligned firm, showed Smith leading Greenspan by 3 points, while former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat, led Trump by 12 points.
A poll conducted at the same time showed Swearingen leading Miller 37% to 33%, with 30% of voters undecided. House District 89 has long been considered a swing district, though Republicans have held the seat since ex-Ohio Democratic Party Chair Chris Redfern was unseated in 2014.
It’s not unusual for political parties to play fast and loose with their ads.
Republicans in 2016 ran pro-Greenspan mailers that attacked Tommy Greene, his then-Democratic opponent for the Cuyahoga County corruption probe. The scandal occurred a decade earlier, while Greene was in high school. Meanwhile, Democrats in that race attacked Greenspan for running up Cuyahoga County’s debt as a county councilman, even though Democrats have controlled county government for decades.
An ORP digital ad even recently attacked State Rep. Phil Robinson, a Solon Democrat, over something another person with the same name did. The state GOP quickly pulled the ad and blamed an outside vendor for bad research.