How OH pols inked surprise redistricting deal
COLUMBUS – It was midnight on Dec. 12, and a most unlikely scene was taking place.
A small group of state lawmakers had been negotiating for hours – and, before that, for days – seeking a compromise on a plan that would affect every single Ohioan, of every political persuasion, for years to come.
The lawmakers had kept their talks so secret that many considered a deal to be impossible. Now, after a flurry of progress, they were ironing out their final point of disagreement.
For the first time since the 1960s, Ohio was steps from revising its much-maligned process for choosing which lawmakers represent which Ohioans in the state Legislature. The deal – remarkable for its bipartisanship – promised to make more Statehouse races competitive and to eliminate puzzle-piece districts that might include you, but not your neighbors.
To make it all happen, an improbable group of lawmakers had become partners, at least for a few days: Democratic Rep. Vernon Sykes, Democratic Senate leader Joe Schiavoni and two GOP leaders, Senate President Keith Faber and Speaker Pro Tempore Matt Huffman. They jokingly called themselves the "Four Wisemen."
In drawing up a compromise, they hoped to gerrymander-proof Ohio's process for drawing its 99 state House districts and 33 Senate districts. Ohio's current districts had been drawn entirely by the majority party – in this case, Republicans. Under the new plan, a seven-member panel would draw a map that received two "yes" votes from the minority party. (Scroll down for plan breakdown.)
The end result, Schiavoni said: "We're going to have more competitive elections."
This is the behind-the-scenes story of how four politicians, a bunch of lawyers and a well-timed delivery of chicken wings combined to clinch a deal that just a few weeks earlier seemed impossible to broker.
From 'bad guy' to lead negotiator
"It's a deal-breaker," Sykes told Huffman.
Sykes, the Akron Democrat, turned and strode across the darkened Statehouse rotunda, a cellphone pressed to his ear. For days, he'd juggled calls from voting rights advocates, lawyers, constitutional scholars and progressives, who were often sworn enemies of the Republicans with whom he negotiated. He'd brokered peace countless times before.
Just after midnight on Dec. 12, days of work had all come down to one last point – a relatively minor one, related to a possible court challenge.
Huffman, Sykes' Republican counterpart, cracked open a fresh bottle of water and sat on a bench to wait. Negotiators had come to a stalemate over "deal-breakers" six or eight times already that day, and each time, Republicans and Democrats had come together to solve them. It had happened so many times the remarkable negotiations almost seemed normal: majority Republicans ceding their supermajority advantage to take ideas from Democrats.
For Huffman, the majority of the work toward a historic deal with Democrats had been over almost before it had started.
To many, Huffman, of Lima, was the face of gerrymandering – "the bad guy," he admits. He got his bad rep in 2011, when the Legislature was redrawing Ohio's congressional districts. Under the final 2011 plan, authored by Huffman, "purple" Ohio has 12 Republican-leaning districts and only four that lean Democratic, with famously twisting contours.
Even Huffman's wife said, "Jeez, these look like they're gerrymandered," when she saw the 2011 maps. "And I'm like, 'Honey, that's my bill,' " Huffman said.
Huffman is term-limited. This summer, he said, he began to wonder: Might he have a chance to make a difference?
On Nov. 13, Huffman abruptly rolled out a plan for how to draw state and congressional maps. Districts required minority approval. If no one from the minority would sign on, voters would have a chance to reject the maps – via a confusingly worded question, according to opponents.
Democrats, nonpartisan activists and even many Republicans hated Huffman's plan. They said it would give Ohio the worst redistricting process in the country. They called him a "wolverine in sheep's clothing."
Huffman said he would work with Sykes to revise the plan to get Democratic buy-in. No one The Enquirer interviewed, from either side of the aisle, really believed him.
Back in 2011, when Huffman was gaining a reputation as a "bad guy," he and Sykes had a few heart-to-hearts about drawing Ohio's districts.
"It was clear that we could probably come to an agreement, he and I," Sykes said. "But when we came back to our respective caucuses, they had a different opinion, a strong desire to protect the party's interest. We agreed to be disagreeable. But it planted a seed for some hope that some day, he and I might be able to work together."
This November, Huffman reached out again. Sykes told him his plan was "lopsided" and "far-fetched." But if Huffman would work toward a new, bipartisan plan, Sykes – also term-limited – was in.
It quickly became clear a new plan for drawing congressional districts would have to wait. For one thing, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner told state GOP leaders not to touch congressional redistricting this year.
A glimmer of hope – & an 'NFL draft'?
So negotiations kicked off, focused solely on legislative redistricting.
"The whole process was difficult," although "surprisingly cordial" at first, Sykes said. "You're in a meeting, trying to figure out who's going to blink first."
Sykes caught a glimmer of hope when the GOP made its first major concession: They'd spell out in the plan that entire counties should go into legislative districts, rather than pieces of counties and towns.
"The basic way the majority party gerrymandered was by being able to put small pieces together like a puzzle," Sykes said. "If you have to work with large pieces, you can't do that."
Still, Sykes and Huffman kept discussions secret. Insiders continued to doubt they'd be able to ink a deal.
Count Republican senators among those who hated Huffman's original proposal. In late November, they resurrected their own plan, which had passed the Senate nearly unanimously, only to die in the House.
Redistricting had been Sen. Frank LaRose's baby for four years. Now, the Akron Republican threw himself into crafting a remedy if the minority refused to agree to a set of maps. The goal? Find a solution so repulsive to both parties that they'd be forced to agree on a map in regular negotiations. Among the senators' ideas:
•Sequester panel members in a room, prohibiting them from leaving until they made a decision;
•Allow both the majority and minority to apportion Ohio into districts, then put both maps on the ballot for voters to decide;
•Create an "NFL draft." Majority and minority parties would alternate 10-minute periods to draw one district at a time, until the state map was done. The mastermind behind this idea? GOP Secretary of State Jon Husted, Ohio's top election official.
Meanwhile, Faber, the Celina Republican who leads the Senate, was irked by the silence from the House.
"We're not really excited about a plan that's been developed without any Senate input," Faber said.
On Dec. 2, Faber introduced his own redistricting plan. It failed to win over Democrats and LaRose, but Faber prepared to pass it out of the Senate anyway. Once again, redistricting reform appeared headed toward a stalemate.
But on Dec. 4, Huffman and Sykes emerged, with a deal.
"My first thought was, 'I wonder if they've actually come up with it,' " LaRose said.
Huffman and Sykes' plan passed the House 80-4, a margin that stunned legislative leaders. The pressure was on the Senate to agree within the next week. Faber had declared Dec. 11 the last day of session.
"We didn't see their plan until literally when they passed it," Faber said. Right away, his caucus identified two main points it hated. First, Senate Republicans wanted the plan only to require one minority vote, instead of the two outlined in the House plan.
Second, if the seven-member panel couldn't agree on a map, the House plan would send members back to the drawing board in four years. And if they again couldn't agree, they had to come back in four more years.
Four years is how long senators' terms last. (House members serve two-year terms.) Senate leaders feared they'd have to run in different districts every election.
On Dec. 9, Faber called Schiavoni, of Boardman, who leads Senate Democrats. Faber was ready to negotiate.
Only if we include our House counterparts, Schiavoni said.
"I didn't want to have a negotiation where our caucus and their caucus blew up the House plan," he said.
The next day, staffers from both parties in both the House and Senate sat down together. They got nowhere.
Faber walked out of negotiations, declaring them a failure.
Sykes wasn't so sure. The 80-4 approval in the House put tremendous pressure on final negotiations.
The next morning, the last possible day for a deal, the Four Wisemen met, face to face.
This time Sykes suggested a failed map would last only four years. If the reconvened panel again failed to come to an agreement, the map would last six years – until the next decade's redistricting. The four-year period incentivized lawmakers to draw good districts the first time, he said.
In exchange for the six-year period for the second round of maps, the GOP had to agree to require two minority votes to pass a set of districts.
"I don't know why I don't like that, except that it's not my idea," he said.
Early-morning 'appellate court'
Walking through the Statehouse, Sykes looked up for the first time in weeks. The giant Christmas tree with its topper of Ohio flags. The Victorian swags of greenery. The holidays were coming. He hadn't even noticed.
"I was thinking that I wouldn't be here in a few days, and maybe this might work. I might be able to get this," the term-limited Sykes said. "I just buckled down."
Nine minor points of disagreement remained before the Senate could vote on the proposal. Around 9 p.m., senators were sent to their offices to wait. And wait.
The Four Wisemen convened what they called an "appellate court," considering each side on all nine issues.
The "court" dragged on and on. Around 11 p.m., Sykes starting getting text messages from Senate Democrats, wondering how much longer the process would take. Republicans appeared to be on the verge of mutiny, but were plied with trays of chicken wings, potato skins and salads.
Finally, at 11:30 p.m., the men had a deal. They thought.
Sykes had been calling Democratic allies. Don't agree to that deal, someone told him. Republicans wanted to define one point – one tiny, technical point – and Democrats felt they had an advantage in keeping it vague.
Around 12:30 a.m., Sykes set up camp with Schiavoni in a conference room. Faber hunkered down at the other end of the hall. Between them, senators milled around, drinking coffee, comparing schedules.
Sen. Lou Gentile, D-Steubenville, had to leave for the airport at 4:30 a.m. to catch a flight to Washington, D.C. Sen. Randy Gardner, R-Bowling Green, had an 8 a.m. meeting in his hometown office.
Someone made popcorn.
Head down, Faber strode down the hallway to the Democrats. Head down, he walked back. Sykes traversed the hallway, carrying a scribbled slip of paper. And back he went.
At 1:48 a.m., Faber and Schiavoni met each other in the hallway. They each muttered something. Faber shrugged. Or maybe it was Schiavoni. The chat didn't appear notable.
But then Faber turned and boomed the news. They had an agreement.
'This is good. Vote for it'
It took two more hours for the Senate to reconvene. First there was the bill-drafting, the approval by a Senate Committee, a press conference with the Four Wisemen.
At 3:53 a.m., LaRose took the floor, followed by his longtime partner on redistricting, Sen. Tom Sawyer, D-Akron, who called the plan "a dramatic departure from the paralysis and polarization" of much of Ohio politics.
"Legislators do work hard, and they work together," Schiavoni said.
As he spoke, staffers hustled into the chamber, delivering one-page amendments to the resolution. Democrats' eyes narrowed. Were Republicans adding a new provision to the plan? Was the bipartisanship off?
LaRose rose to speak. It seems the plan had an extra comma on Page 10. The amendment deleted that comma.
Finally, it was time.
"I'm going to be real brief. This is good. Vote for it," Faber said. "This is a fine way to end our session."
As the clerk called the roll. Sen. Capri Cafaro, D-Hubbard, recorded the moment with her smartphone.
"Yes," "yes," "yes," the votes came. Twenty-eight of them.
Lawmakers fled the room. Gentile caught his flight. Faber and Gardner drove straight to breakfast meetings with constituents. Sykes prepared for his 10 a.m. commencement speech at University of Akron. At the room's edge, LaRose and Sawyer stopped for a bear hug, celebrating at last.
Only Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Green Township, had voted "no." "Amending a constitution at four in the morning is not a good idea," he said.
The following week, the amended plan passed the House. It had cleared the Legislature with only nine of Ohio's 130 sitting lawmakers voting "no." Ohioans will vote in November on adding the plan to the constitution.
"This is the most productive bipartisan collaboration that I've participated in my 26 years as a member of the Legislature," Sykes said.
Can the Legislature keep up this bipartisanship and tackle congressional redistricting next year?
"It provided an example of how something could be done," Sykes said of the Four Wisemen's negotiations. "And I think something will be done."
How Ohio's legislative districts are drawn now
•Five-member panel meets every decade in the '01 year: governor, secretary of state, auditor, someone representing the majority party in the House and someone representing the minority party.
•Three votes needed to pass a plan, so whichever party holds the majority on the panel controls the process.
How they'd be drawn under the new plan
•If approved by voters in November, will take effect in 2021.
•Seven-member panel would meet every decade in the '01 year: governor, secretary of state, auditor, and four more people, each appointed by one of the Legislature's majority or minority leaders.
•Four votes needed to pass a plan, with two of those votes coming from members of the minority party.
•If the minority won't sign on, stricter rules would kick in, designed to make the districts extra competitive. The resulting map would last only four years, with the panel reconvening to try again after that.
Correction - Dec. 20:
A previous version of this story incorrectly indicated the number of Ohio lawmakers who voted against the redistricting compromise. Nine of Ohio's 130 sitting lawmakers voted "no."