Ohio legislature could become even more conservative under House Speaker-elect Derek Merrin

Derek Merrin

State Rep. Derek Merrin, a Toledo-area Republican, speaks on the Ohio House floor in this file photo. Merrin was chosen by House Republicans last week to become House speaker starting next year. (Ohio House of Representatives)

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COLUMBUS, Ohio—The Ohio House of Representatives, which has passed a wide array of conservative legislation in recent years, soon could become even more conservative thanks to Republicans’ pick to become the next speaker: state Rep. Derek Merrin.

Merrin, a 36-year-old Toledo-area Republican, has been a proponent of several proposals that, to date, haven’t passed the House, including a near-total abortion ban, a major expansion of school vouchers, and an anti-union “right-to-work” bill.

As speaker, Merrin will have enormous influence over which bills pass the Ohio House. He can only serve for another two years, as he’s prohibited by term limits from running for reelection in 2024.

Until now, Merrin has been a comparative outsider even among House Republicans. The House GOP caucus vote to pick Merrin as the next speaker – which attendees said he won only by a few votes – came as a surprise to most around Capitol Square.

One of the first signs that Merrin won the Republican caucus vote, conducted behind closed doors in a Statehouse committee room, was when Aaron Baer, president of the Center for Christian Virtue, ran into the hallway shouting with joy.

“I think on all things [related to] conservative policy, I think you’re gonna see an increased likelihood [of passage],” Baer told cleveland.com later. “Because you now have somebody who not just believes in it, but is capable of making the case to his colleagues and to the public about why this is needed.”

Merrin’s background

A New York native, Merrin attended high school at Monclova Christian Academy, a school founded by his father, Baptist pastor Russ Merrin.

Merrin didn’t wait long to enter politics: at age 19, he was elected to city council in Waterville, a city of 6,000 south of Toledo. In 2007, while a 21-year-old student at the University of Toledo, he successfully ran for mayor of Waterville, unseating the incumbent to become the youngest mayor in the state.

Even then, Merrin wore his politics on his sleeve: during his mayoral campaign, the Toledo Blade reported that his cell phone’s voicemail greeting quoted conservative economist Milton Friedman as saying “If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in five years there’d be a shortage of sand.”

After four years as mayor, Merrin was hired by then-state Auditor Dave Yost’s office, first as a performance analyst helping agencies and local governments find ways to cut costs, then as Yost’s Northwest Ohio regional liaison. He also became a licensed Realtor and began investing in real estate around the Toledo area, renting out several houses.

In 2016, Merrin was elected state representative with the backing of numerous Republican officials, including Barbara Sears, who held the seat before him.

Merrin’s policy record

In the legislature, Merrin introduced a number of bills and amendments affecting landlords like himself, including proposals to speed up eviction deadlines and prohibit local governments from enacting their own anti-lead poisoning rules. He has signed on to other legislation championed by the right as well, including cosponsoring:

  • A “right-to-work” bill that would prohibit private-sector union membership as a condition of employment
  • Ohio’s new law allowing people to carry a concealed firearm without training or permits.
  • A “backpack bill” that would expand school vouchers so that any Ohio student could receive a publicly funded voucher scholarship to attend private school.
  • A number of anti-abortion bills, including multiple proposals to pass a near-total abortion ban in Ohio.

Merrin voted for Larry Householder to become speaker in January 2019 over then-Speaker Ryan Smith. Later that year, he voted for House Bill 6, the controversial energy law that federal prosecutors say that Householder passed with the help of $60 million in bribes from FirstEnergy, the Akron-based utility that stood to profit from the law. Last year, Merrin opposed the House’s vote to expel Householder, who goes on trial next January for a federal corruption charge.

Currently, Merrin chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, which mostly handles bills related to taxes.

Jonathan Dever, who was a Republican state representative when Merrin was elected, said he served as a mentor to Merrin during Merrin’s early days in the House. Dever, now a bank executive, called Merrin a “hardworking, very approachable” lawmaker who “is not going to be afraid to tackle the big issues.

“The biggest problem we always typically see in government is a lot of can-kicking. Derek’s not going to be that guy,” Dever said. “He’s actually going to roll up his sleeves and get to work and take on the difficult things, whether they’re popular or unpopular.”

Greg Lawson, a research fellow with The Buckeye Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank, said Merrin cares about understanding the specifics of legislation, no matter how complex it is.

“He digs into details,” Lawson said. “You might even call him wonky – which is, from a think-tank perspective, actually a really good thing.”

What to expect

When Merrin was asked by cleveland.com shortly after the caucus vote what policies he wants to pursue as speaker, he didn’t directly answer. “We will move a conservative agenda to make Ohio as prosperous of a state as it can be,” he said.

The current House speaker, term-limited Republican Rep. Bob Cupp of Lima, has allowed a number of conservative bills to pass the House, including the permitless conceal-carry bill that Merrin backed. But Lawson predicted that installing Merrin as speaker will open the door to “bolder” reforms.

“I think he has a vision that [he] wants to see things done bigger,” Lawson said.

Of course, for a bill to pass the Ohio legislature, it must be approved by the Ohio Senate as well as the House. It remains to be seen how Merrin will fare should any policy differences arise with Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman, a Lima Republican, though Lawson said he believes the two leaders agree on many issues.

Some groups that could be hurt by Merrin’s agenda have already taken action to get in Merrin’s good graces – such as building trades unions, which have fought against “right-to-work” and anti-prevailing wage legislation. Matt Szollosi, executive director of the Affiliated Construction Trades of Ohio, noted that his group endorsed and donated to Merrin’s reelection campaign this year.

“We may not agree on every point, but we feel that ... Speaker-elect Merrin will do right by the construction industry,” Szollosi said.

Desiree Tims, the president/CEO of the liberal think tank Innovation Ohio, said she believes the selection of Merrin as speaker reflects how gerrymandered the Ohio legislature is in favor of Republicans. Republicans added to supermajorities in both chambers during the midterm elections.

“I think he’ll be dangerous and extreme, like much of the extreme wing of the Republican Party,” Tims said.

She said Merrin’s two GOP challengers for speaker, state Reps. Jason Stephens of Lawrence County and Phil Plummer of Dayton, would have been equally extreme as speaker, but they wouldn’t have been as vocal about their views.

“Merrin may have a louder microphone,” Tims said.

Jeremy Pelzer covers state governments and politics for Cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer. Read more of his work here.

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