Commentary: Rosenberger Investigation May Rebound In Favor Of Democrats

Apr 16, 2018

Here's a truism in politics: More often than not, one politician's ugly mess is another politician's dream come true.

Same goes for political parties. One political party spirals down the drain in scandal and another political party rises to the top (see: "Watergate; Resignation, Richard Nixon").

This business of Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, a Republican from Clinton County, who originally announced he would resign May 1 and then last Thursday saying he would resign immediately came after saying there is an FBI investigation into his activities and proclaiming that he is innocent of any wrong-doing.

Nobody is quite certain of the specifics of the FBI investigation; and the FBI, of course, never speaks publicly about on-going investigation.

But the Dayton Daily News, the Cincinnati Enquirer and some other Ohio newspapers have done some good reporting on this. Much of it had to do with trips overseas and around the U.S. that Rosenberger often didn't pay for, according to news reports.

Rosenberger, who turning 37 years old and can't run for re-election this year under Ohio's term-limits law, told the Dayton Daily News he had hired a criminal defense lawyer as a precaution. The FBI, Rosenberger says, has been asking questions but hasn’t told him he is under investigation.

Nonetheless, last Tuesday, the same day the Enquirer published its account of the accusations against the Speaker, he called a late night meeting of the GOP caucus and announced his resignation.

David Pepper, chair of the Ohio Democratic Party, said it was amazing how quickly Rosenberger quit once word got out that he was under investigation by the FBI.

"This guy stepped aside three days after it became public that he was being investigated,'' Pepper said. "In the meantime, you have this Missouri governor with the sex charges hanging on in office after all this time."

In Columbus, where the legislature and the administration are totally dominated by Republicans, Pepper says, "there has been a culture of pay to play for a long time; one party dominating government for far too long."

But even Pepper doesn't pretend to know what the political implications of the Rosenberger investigation will be.

"Before we start talking about the politics of this, let's get to the bottom of it,'' Pepper said. "What exactly happened? Who was involved?"

Could it be an investigation that peters out without expanding beyond Rosenberger and spreading through the GOP legislature? Maybe.

Or maybe not.

And if it does spread and became a massive scandal that dominates the conversation throughout the rest of this election year, when Ohioans are electing a new governor and constitutional officers? Then what? Do the Democrats rack up big wins in the statewide offices?

It has happened before.

"We'll have to wait to see if this scandal has legs like the Crofters scandal in 1970 and Coingate in 2006,'' says Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics and a native Ohioan. "It has potential." 

Crofters was the short-hand term for a scandal where the Republican state treasurer, John Herbert, had invested state money in improper investments with a big GOP campaign contributor.

Democrat John Gilligan of Cincinnati ended up beating Republican Roger Cloud for governor in 1971, and the Democrats also won the attorney general, auditor and treasurer races the year before. 

Coingate was an investment scandal where the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation invested hundreds of millions of dollars in high-risk investments run by people who were close to the Ohio Republican Party. Tom Noe, a GOP fundraiser and coin dealer, was one of them.

Noe ended up with a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence for engaging in a pattern of corruption in his management of Ohio's $50 million rare coin investment with the bureau.

After Coingate, the Democrats did very well indeed – Ted Strickland won the governor's office; Richard Cordray was elected state treasurer; Marc Dann was elected attorney general (and ended up resigning in a scandal of his own); and Jennifer Brunner was elected secretary of state.

Will "Cliffgate," or whatever this may end up being called, rebound in the Democrats' favor? It bears watching very closely.

“Politically Speaking” is WVXU reporter Howard Wilkinson’s weekly column that examines the world of politics and how it shapes the world around us. Wilkinson has covered every Ohio gubernatorial race since 1974.