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Ohio House Democrats Make Emotional Plea: 'Take A Step Back And Have A Conversation'

Protesters march in downtown Columbus on June 2, 2020.
Paige Pfleger
Protesters march in downtown Columbus on June 2, 2020.

As more than 100 protestors chanted and demonstrated outside the Statehouse on Thursday, the Ohio House held a voting session that concluded with some passionate comments about the killing of George Floyd and the bigger issues his death has raised.

State Rep. Stephanie Howse (D-Cleveland) is the president of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus, and one of the two sponsors of a resolution to declare racism a public health crisis. Ohio would be the first state to pass such a resolution, though similar ones have been passed in cities like Columbus.

Howse grew emotional as she asked her Republican colleagues to talk to the protestors and listen to them.

“This pain – some of you all will never understand it," Howse said through tears. "But I am asking you to take a step back and have a conversation."

Republicans hold a 61-38 majority in the House. Eighteen Democrats make up the OLBC.

State Rep. Thomas West (D-Canton) also spoke, saying that some legislators have asked him what to do and what to say.

"The state is waiting for us to come together on this very moment to address this issue of race and race relations," he said.

Their comments were followed by state Rep. Haraz Ghanbari (R-Perrysburg), thanking them for their remarks.

Ghanbari said he has "begun that dialogue" with some protestors, and also met with faith leaders. He praised the Ohio Highway Patrol for talking with protestors as well.

"We're going to have partisan divides," concluded state Rep. Jay Edwards (R-Nelsonville), but "we don't want that to establish us to not be able to have conversations."

He suggested lawmakers get together both in their offices and outside them when they're in Columbus for session, "we're not just hearing, but we're also listening."

After the House session, House Speaker Larry Householder (R-Glenford) told reporters he thinks there’s a desire to solve the problems being highlighted by demonstrations.

“The vast majority of the members in this chamber want to get those things done," Householder said. "Some of them, I think they want to get them done. I think they’re a little shy. They aren’t exactly sure how to approach it.”

However, Householder did not commit to moving Howse's resolution. He said some things in it have been dealt with in this session or are pending in the Senate, including priority bills that he and other Republicans have said they've worked on with Democrats.

House Majority Leader Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati) referenced those priority bills earlier in the week on Twitter: "The Majority will not be bullied into passing resolutions that haven't received a hearing yet."

That got a response from Minority Leader Emilia Sykes (D-Akron), who replied, "We’re just asking you to declare #racismisapublichealthcrisis & join in solidarity with the Black Ohioans you represent."

While Howse said she's hopeful about the resolution's chances, one of her Republican colleagues criticized the proposal on Facebook. State Rep. Nino Vitale (R-Urbana) has been critical of the state's response to COVID-19, and Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton in particular.

On June 2, Vitale posted a photo of the OLBC and wrote, "Given that the resolution aims to assert that racism is a public health crisis affecting our entire community and the state of Ohio, one could surmise the Ohio Director of Health, Amy Acton, would oversee this effort as well, with potentially no legislative oversight."

In response to a comment to his post, Vitale wrote, "I am darker than MOST of the people in this picture."

A Facebook comment by state Rep. Nino Vitale on a photo of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus.
Credit Facebook
A Facebook comment by state Rep. Nino Vitale on a photo of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus.

When asked on ideastream's "The Sound Of Ideas" about Vitale's comment, Howse responded, "That's real ignorance... Our focus and energy has to be on people we can partner with."

"He's not with us at this moment," Howse added.