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Analysis: Republicans are running out the clock on redistricting. And they are likely to win

There is a thing in some sports — football and basketball come to mind — called "running out the clock."

The time on the clock is ticking away toward 0:00 and one team has a lead. Rather than give the other team a chance to get back in the game, the team with the lead simply slows down the game, making precious minutes and seconds disappear into thin air for the opposition.

And the team doing the stalling ends up winning the game.

That's "running out the clock."

And that is exactly what the Republican majority on the Ohio Redistricting Commission is doing to its "opponent," the four-member majority of the seven-member Ohio Supreme Court.

What they hope is that Ohio voters will give them a "friendly" court in the November election and they can end up getting whatever maps they want.

Sad to say, but Ohio politics so far this year has not been about candidates or contests or, heaven forbid, actual issues voters care about. Ohio politics has been about a seemingly endless battle between the Republican majority on the Ohio Redistricting Commission and the Ohio Supreme Court majority over state legislative and congressional district maps.

The Ohio Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected maps submitted to the court by the GOP majority, saying they are unconstitutional under the constitutional amendments passed overwhelmingly by Ohio voters in 2015 and 2018.

This left Ohio without a court-approved map for Ohio Senate and Ohio House districts that could be used in the May 3 primary election. Those races, along with contests for state political party central committee members, were simply not on the ballot May 3.

Then things got really complicated. Downright Byzantine, in fact.

Earlier this year, a group of Republican voters, no doubt egged on by their political party, filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court asking a three-member panel of federal judges to pick a map for state legislative maps and overrule the Ohio Supreme Court.

Well, they did. The federal judges chose a map the Ohio Supreme Court has rejected not once, but twice. And they set Aug. 2 as the date for a statewide election on Ohio House and Ohio Senate seats.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, one of the Republican members of the redistricting commission, argued that Aug. 2 was the latest date a primary election could be held without bumping up against the calendar for the November general election.

It also happens to be a day in the middle of summer, when most Ohioans are far more likely to visit their neighborhood swimming pools than their polling places.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor, a Republican who voted consistently with the three Democrats to reject the GOP maps, made it clear she was none too happy with the federal judges butting in on the job of the Ohio Supreme Court — making sure the constitution of Ohio is followed.

After rejecting the map a second time, the Ohio Supreme Court gave the Ohio Redistricting Commission until June 3 to submit a new one.

The Republicans on the commission simply ignored the deadline. They even refused to agree to a meeting to discuss it.

The two Democrats on the commission, State Sen. Vernon Sykes (D-Akron) and Ohio House Minority Leader Allison Russo (D-Upper Arlington), were furious at the Republicans for blowing off the court deadline.

"The redistricting commission has violated an order from the Supreme Court of Ohio," Sykes wrote in a letter to commission members. "More alarming is that the commission continues to violate its constitutional imperative to produce legislative maps for Ohio."

State Rep. Jeff LaRe (R-Violet Township), appointed by House Speaker Bob Cupp (R-Lima) to take his place on the commission when Cupp and Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima) said they were too busy for mapmaking, responded to Sykes with a letter of his own, saying that he doesn't believe the Ohio Supreme Court has the authority to order the commission to do anything.

“Although I disagree with the (Ohio Supreme Court) majority’s decision, I respect that outcome and fully intend for the Commission to reconvene and adopt a constitutionally compliant plan," LaRe wrote. "However, doing so by an artificial date and time is not appropriate at this time for a number of reasons."

LaRe argued that now that an August primary is scheduled under the old map, adopting a new one now would just confuse voters.

So, what is the Republican end game here?

The plan is this: Remake the Ohio Supreme Court in the November election. That's the final piece that needs to fall in place before the Republicans are successful in doing their end-run around the Ohio Constitution.

O'Connor, the biggest thorn in the side of the Republicans on the commission, can't run for re-election this year because of Ohio's age limits law for judges.

Two incumbent Ohio Supreme Court justices — Democrat Jennifer Brunner and Republican Sharon Kennedy — are running against each other for chief justice.

Two other Republican justices — Pat DeWine and Patrick Fischer, both of Hamilton County — are up for re-election this year and both have Democratic opponents — Marilyn Zayas of Cincinnati and Terri Jameson of Columbus, respectively. Both of the Democrats are currently state appeals court judges.

Obviously, either Brunner or Kennedy will be the next chief justice. That will create a vacancy on the court. And the governor, Mike DeWine, a member of the redistricting commission who has voted for every map that was declared unconstitutional, will get to choose the replacement. Rest assured it will be a Republican who does not share O'Connor's distaste for partisan gerrymandering.

That means the Democrats would have to defeat both Pat DeWine — son of the governor — and Fischer to create a Democratic majority on the court.

That's a task that may be made even more difficult by the new law adopted by the Republican super-majority in the Ohio General Assembly, which will require party affiliations be on the ballot for judicial candidates. The Ohio GOP is convinced that will give them an edge. Time will tell.

But, for now, Republicans are holding the ball and time is on their side. The game clock could hit 0:00 in November.

Copyright 2022 91.7 WVXU. To see more, visit 91.7 WVXU.

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.