The Good, the Bad & the Irritating

The ones who really know -- lobbyists -- pick Northeast Ohio's smartest, dumbest, and most annoying state lawmakers.

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Ohio is run by southerners. The governor and the Senate president are from Cincinnati, a suburb of Kentucky. The House speaker wakes at 4:30 a.m. to feed the sheep and llamas on his Perry County farm. Sad but true, the motherlands of Bob Taft, Richard Finan, and Larry Householder are closer to Huntington, West Virginia, than to Cleveland.

It used to be the halls of power in Columbus were crowded with sons of Northeast Ohio: Frank Lausche, Oliver Ocasek, Dick Celeste, George Voinovich, assorted Celebrezzes and Sweeneys. Today? Well, Auditor Jim Petro is from Rocky River.

The paucity of influential North Coasters is troubling, considering the stakes. State lawmakers say who gets to carry a gun, what qualifies a teacher, when pregnancies can be terminated, and how many drinks make a driver drunk. If you paid college tuition, fished for walleye, visited a library, or breathed the air in the last year, the state shaped your experience. Alas, Statehouse business treads a thin middle, between the grandeur of the national stage and the guerrilla wars of city politics.

Scene wanted to get the skinny on Northeast Ohio's legislators, so we mailed questionnaires to roughly 750 state lobbyists. Who knows lawmakers better than the guys and gals who ply them with Johnnie Walker?

To shield them from reprisals, lobbyists were granted anonymity. The ones who responded confirm suspicions that the region is served by a dim constellation. "None" was a popular answer to the question "Who would make a good governor?" Eric Fingerhut, James Trakas, and Ann Womer Benjamin would fare well in an index of positive categories, but as one lobbyist wrote, the Northeast Ohio delegation "has almost no power at the Statehouse. The Appalachian, Cincinnati, and Columbus delegations all far exceed the influence in overall state policy [of] members from Northeast Ohio."

Cleveland. It's no Gallipolis.

Most Conservative
Rep. Ron Young

He introduced legislation to offer motorists "Choose life" license plates. Young claims the message is a generic, up-with-people thing, but proceeds would benefit a Christian pregnancy crisis center.

He was also one of a handful of conservatives who voted against the bill to unplug the electric chair. Many Republicans supported the bill, as it would make executions harder to challenge on grounds of cruel and unusual punishment, but Young just couldn't stand to see Ol' Sparky dismantled.
Runners-up: Sen. Ron Amstutz, R-Wooster; Rep. Jamie Callender, R-Eastlake

Most Liberal
Sen. C.J. Prentiss

Stephanie Tubbs Jones's endorsement of Ray Pierce got most of the ink, but Prentiss was the liberal conscience of the Cleveland mayor's race. Her African American Women's Agenda Coalition demanded allegiance to gun control, affordable housing, lead paint removal, and HIV prevention. Friends of corporate Cleveland need not apply.

As a senator, Prentiss introduced -- in one day -- legislation to extend food stamps, put questions about racism and genocide on the proficiency test, reform the Parole Board, reexamine felony sentences, create a committee to study equal pay, and designate September as Sickle Cell Awareness Month. She has a mean streak (once a friend to Jane Campbell, Prentiss derided her legislative accomplishments as "mickey mouse") and fights for her constituents.

"You have to like a smoker who voted to raise the cigarette tax," one Statehouse observer says.
Runners-up: Sen. Eric Fingerhut, D-Shaker Heights; Rep. Mary Rose Oakar, D-Cleveland

Most Moderate
Rep. Ann Womer Benjamin

The chair of the House Criminal Justice Committee, Womer Benjamin angered the red-meat wing of her party by pushing for a safe gun storage bill. She was also the only Republican to vote to save the Women's Policy and Research Commission, and she opposed the pro-tobacco bill to stop health boards from enacting smoking bans. She drifted to the right this session, perhaps to establish credentials for a statewide office run. Thanks to term limits, she's looking for a new job.
Runners-up: Sen. Jeff Armbruster, R-North Ridgeville; Rep. Sally Conway Kilbane, R-Rocky River

Most Likely to Vote With Party
Rep. Dean DePiero

Last summer DePiero became the House minority leader, so essentially the party votes with him. Of course, Democrats control only 40 of the 99 seats, so even when he gets his caucus in line, it merely dents the Republicans' margin of victory. Though a relative conservative, he assumed power with the full support of the black caucus.
Runners-up: Sen. Leigh Herington, D-Ravenna; Rep. James Trakas, R-Independence

Most Likely to Vote With Conscience
Rep. Ed Jerse

Jerse dances to the beat of his own heart. His pet issues -- land stewardship, tax abatements, consumer protection -- don't exactly ignite the partisan flames. He also wrote an eminently sensible bill that exempts the first $2,000 in online purchases from the state's new use tax -- the thought being, why make criminals out of eBay bidders? "I like Ed," an observer says. "He always seems to be rolling his eyes, like 'Are we serious?'"
Runner-up: Rep. Dale Miller, D-Cleveland

Sen. Eric Fingerhut
D-Shaker Heights

Fingerhut is intelligent (he has degrees from Northwestern and Stanford), but doesn't make a big show of it. He cuts his Al Goreness with Clintonian pragmatism. "It's very difficult to beat Eric in an argument, if he believes what he's saying," a Statehouse reporter says. "I've seen him catch things in Senate Finance Committee meetings that the majority has tried to sneak in a bill, saying, 'What's this provision really about?'"
Runner-up: Rep. Peter Lawson Jones, D-Shaker Heights

Rep. Annie Key

The Plain Dealer endorsed the GOP candidate before the last election, even though District 10 -- which includes portions of the East Side, downtown, and Tremont -- is home to about 38 Republicans. The PD lamented that Key's "understanding of the issues is so weak that we cannot, in good conscience, recommend her." Columnist Phillip Morris once wrote that Key "has little working knowledge of . . . anything other than the fact she wants the $44,000-a-year job." Hey, she was smart enough to scam an easy paycheck.
Runner-up: Rep. John E. Barnes Jr., D-Cleveland

Biggest Ego
Sen. Kevin Coughlin
R-Cuyahoga Falls

"Hard work, honesty, and personal integrity have helped Kevin Coughlin become one of the most effective members of the Ohio Senate." So says, the website maintained by the state's dreamiest legislator. Every breath drawn by the handsome senator is recorded here. His list of memberships and affiliations would shame an Ivy League applicant. The six-page photo gallery includes shots of Coughlin greeting Boy Scout Troop 177, posing with daughter Kathryn in various stages of her development, and planting a tree in Jerusalem, "both a practical and symbolic thing to do in Israel," we're assured by the arborist/peacemaker. One lobbyist says Coughlin "lives in a fantasy world."
Runner-up: Peter Lawson Jones

Shortest Temper
Sen. Leigh Herington,

Feeling excluded from the school funding talks last year, the Senate minority leader announced, "The Democrats are no longer at the table." It was as if he were taking his ball and going home.

Herington got really steamed during the redistricting mess. He was quick to accuse the NAACP's representative of being a Republican tool. At a press conference, he and other Democratic leaders invoked Judas and the days of politicians peddling whiskey for votes.

"It's funny when Leigh gets really mad," a Columbus reporter says, "because his face gets kind of red and his voice reaches a slightly higher pitch."
Runners-up: Jeff Armbruster; Sen. Robert Gardner, R-Madison

On the Rise
Rep. Dean DePiero

DePiero's rapid ascent attests to the Logan's Run effect of term limits and the political genius of County Prosecutor Bill Mason. DePiero, 33, is a Mason protégé who served on Parma's city council. In just his second term, he now leads the House Democrats. "An all-around great guy," says one lobbyist.

"Handsome, well-spoken, but maybe a bit too cautious," a Statehouse reporter adds. "He sometimes seems to get caught by surprise."
Runners-up: James Trakas, Peter Lawson Jones

On the Way Down
Rep. Mary Rose Oakar

One might think the Ohio House would be child's play for a former congresswoman, even one who left The Show so ignominiously. (Voters drummed Oakar from office in 1992, and she was later indicted on charges relating to the House bank scandal.) Instead, the West Sider is seldom heard from on issues of the day and finds herself on the business end of redistricting. "Been around too long," one respondent says. "Stink from Washington, D.C., stays with her."
Runners-up: Sen. Dan Brady, D-Cleveland; Ann Womer Benjamin

Most Powerful
Rep. James Trakas

Trakas chairs the Republican Party of Cuyahoga County, which is a little like presiding over the William T. Sherman Fan Club's Savannah Chapter. But the former Independence councilman is a player in Columbus. Trakas -- the House majority whip, Finance Committee member, and reliable quotesman -- received more than triple the votes of the nearest competitor. "It's almost impossible not to respect that guy," one observer says.
Runner-up: Leigh Herington

Least Powerful
Rep. Annie Key

Ohio's poorest district is represented by a vapor. Given Key's runaway win in this category, voters might as well send a bobblehead doll downstate. "Still finding her way," says one charitable lobbyist. "Who is she?" wondered another. At least she muscled a spot on the almighty Retiring and Aging Committee.
Runner-up: Rep. J. Tom Lendrum, R-Huron

Most Trustworthy
Rep. Ann Womer Benjamin

She supported Bill Harris for the speaker's job, yet even after the more conservative Householder prevailed, Womer Benjamin wasn't cast out of the temple. As a testament to her probity, she retained her seat at the head of the Criminal Justice Committee. "You could trust her with your checkbook," one lobbyist says -- unusual praise for a politician.
Runners-up: Ron Amstutz, Dale Miller

Hardest Working
Rep. Dale Miller

One night in May, the House was about to vote on the budget. Democrats, distressed by cuts in spending, tried to delay the inevitable. At 4:45 a.m., there stood Miller, the assistant minority whip, offering amendment after doomed amendment. "He loves his job," says one respondent. "He believes titles without tasks are meaningless."
Runners-up: Ron Amstutz, Eric Fingerhut

Rep. John E. Barnes Jr.

Barnes was considered dead weight even in that bastion of incompetence and dereliction, the Cleveland Finance Department. Twice while employed there, he was written up for absenteeism and tardiness. He was also suspended for three days for "threatening, intimidating, coercing, or interfering" with colleagues.

After a brief stint in Columbus, he'll be idling on city time again. Mayor Campbell appointed him head of the Department of Community Relations.
Runners-up: Robert Gardner; Rep. Erin Sullivan, D-Strongsville; Annie Key

Most Charming
Rep. Peter Lawson Jones
D-Shaker Heights

A smooth touch is one reason this Harvard-educated lawyer was the Democratic machine's choice to replace Campbell on the county commission. He's also an effective legislator, despite his party's minority status.

One lobbyist calls Jones the region's "shining star." A reporter says he is "easily the best speaker in either chamber of the legislature, and he almost never stops smiling. Even for people who disagree with everything he says, he's so disarming that it's impossible not to like him."
Runners-up: James Trakas, Dean DePiero

Most Annoying
Rep. Ron Young

Five years ago, Young held a campaign rally at a fairgrounds gun show. The PD reported that, from an available jamboree of 4,000 Magnum lovers, only 25 paid the 10 bucks to duck inside his tent. Young's no better loved at the Statehouse. "Other than family, he won't have six friends to bury him," a lobbyist says. "Thank God for term limits."

Another observer says Young reminds him of the actor Alan Rickman, "who always seems to play the villain."
Runner-up: Dale Miller

Most Likely to Cry in Public
Rep. Erin Sullivan

She's carved out a niche in higher education and, apparently, wearing her heart like a Seiko. One respondent describes Sullivan as "very sensitive," though we can't help but wonder if her age (35) and gender contributed to perceptions she's quick on the tear trigger. At any rate, the Statehouse is shopping for a new set of loose ducts, as Sullivan recently announced she will not seek a third term.
Runners-up: Rep. Twyla Roman, D-Akron; C.J. Prentiss

Most Likely to Say Something Offensive
Rep. Ron Young

Last year Peter Lawson Jones introduced a bill to allow evidence of demographic disparities in death-penalty cases to be presented at sentencing. In the committee meeting, Young quoted statistics to argue that whites were overrepresented on death row and seemed to suggest that crime was a problem specific to the black community.

A Statehouse reporter says Young's comments were the most insensitive he's ever heard spoken at such a venue: "I later learned he's married to a black woman, which, in his mind, gives him license to say whatever he pleases."
Runner-up: Rep. Tim Grendell, R-Chesterland

Would Make a Good Governor
Sen. Eric Fingerhut
D-Shaker Heights

Last summer The Columbus Dispatch reported that Fingerhut and Leigh Herington had formed a pact: If it looks like Tim Hagan is headed for the Democratic nomination for governor, one of them will step up and try to wrestle it away. Apparently they want to save the party from throwing Ohio's answer to Tom Hayden at Bob Taft's feet.

A former congressman and assistant to Mike White, Fingerhut has made a name in gun safety (don't call it control) that might play well against Taft's lack of chin. Then again, he could be too loquacious for Ohio's big chair. Jokes one observer, "It would be the longest State of the State address you ever heard."
Runners-up: Ann Womer Benjamin, James Trakas

Would Make a Good Used-Car Salesman
Rep. Bryan Flannery

He played football at Notre Dame under Lou Holtz, bullshit artist extraordinaire, and it seems that more than blocking techniques rubbed off on the big, affable rep. One voter didn't think the car-salesman tag was necessarily a pejorative. He describes Flannery "as someone you feel comfortable with." Another says, "He's very persuasive."

Flannery, fittingly, is running for secretary of state, the political equivalent of a casino greeter.
Runners-up: Tim Grendell; Rep. Joseph Koziura, D-Lorain

Like Cockroach, Most Likely to Survive Nuclear Attack
Rep. Mary Rose Oakar

"Hasn't she already?" asked one respondent. Indeed, Oakar patched wounds that would have drained a lesser politician's blood. She pleaded down felony House bank charges to misdemeanor election-law violations and settled a libel suit with The Plain Dealer, pocketing a reported $2 million. Her mayoral bid ended at the primary, but that Oakar has any political career at all -- and a fat purse -- is a wonder. The Ohio House, though, does appear to be the ceiling on this comeback.
Runner-up: Tim Grendell

Best Date for Your Son or Daughter
Rep. Ed Jerse

One Statehouse watcher says the Case Western law professor "reeks of integrity, though I don't know if he's a good kisser." Another calls him "a stand-up guy."

He showed his rectitude by speaking out against a bill to ban same-sex marriages. Ohio law already defines marriage as a union between man and woman, and Jerse recognized the bill for what it was: a cheap shot. "I think representatives of the gay community have been put down enough in our society," he said during the floor debate.
Runners-up: Sen. Robert Spada, R-Parma Heights; Eric Fingerhut

Worst Date for Your Son or Daughter
Rep. Tim Grendell

Judging by the lobbyists' scorn, Grendell has been making folks queasy since the S&L crisis. Remarkably, he's serving his first term.

He made an ass of himself before joining the House. In 1999 wife Diane, who previously held the seat, sued her colleagues, alleging that they stripped money from her district because she voted against a budget bill. The suit was laughed out of court. (It's called politics, sweetheart.) Tim represented his wife in the matter, and the Ohio Supremes fined him for filing frivolous litigation.

Since taking office, Grendell has developed a reputation for demeaning witnesses who speak at committee hearings. Last year the Ohio Women's Policy and Research Commission came to the House to protest its loss of funding (a measly $250,000). Grendell told the commission's executive director he was sorry, but the state's budget problems were "driven by the pressure put on us by a Supreme Court decision. And the member of the court who's putting the most pressure on us is a woman." Grendell, who was referring to Alice Robie Resnick, was reprimanded by the committee chair and groaned at by those in attendance.

"He's Ohio's version of Phil Gramm -- without the charm," says one watcher.
Runners-up: Ron Young, C.J. Prentiss

Most Likely to Visit a Library After Work
Sen. Ron Amstutz

Amstutz is known for his thoughtfulness. He pursues such pocket-protector causes as biotech funding and electronic campaign filing. His committee appointments -- Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review, Legislative Information Systems, Ways & Means, etc. -- are a nerd's delight.

Witness the opening of an honest-to-God Amstutz press release: "Today I'm introducing a bill to establish market pricing for electric utility line extensions in Ohio. The need for this policy arises from high charges to electricity consumers by investor-owned utilities in the early months of the transition toward market driven pricing of electricity." Whew!
Runner-up: Dale Miller

Most Likely to Visit a Bar After Work
Sen. Robert Gardner

After 28 years as an educator, Gardner found a semi-retirement gig that's surely more fun than passing carts to Wal-Mart shoppers. The senator is, in the words of one lobbyist, "one of the boys." It's a shrinking club. Having a few pops with the fellas is "not even close to what it used to be," says another Statehouse observer. The days of sprinting to the bar the minute hearings adjourned went out with Vern Riffe, the late House speaker. Back then, Ohio politics had a seedy side, but at least things got done at Happy Hour.
Runners-up: Joseph Koziura, C.J. Prentiss

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