Beth Ellis, one of the two Republican candidates for representative of Ohio’s 91st District, defended an endorsement from former Speaker of the Ohio House Cliff Rosenberger and campaign funds directed her way by Rosenberger, while fellow candidate Shane Wilkin acknowledged campaign support from sources outside the district, including former House Speaker Larry Householder.
It was standing room only at Southern State Community College’s North Campus in Wilmington Tuesday evening as more than 150 people heard from Ellis and Wilkin at a candidate forum sponsored by The Times-Gazette and Wilmington News Journal.
The candidates answered questions ranging from workforce development to medical marijuana, and sparred over the issues of financial support and political endorsement as Times-Gazette Editor and Publisher Gary Abernathy and News Journal Editor Tom Barr moderated the discussion.
In opening statements, Ellis described herself as a “servant leader,” saying, “When I see a need, I respond to it.”
“We are in a time of great need,” she said, adding that if elected, she will be a strong voice for the 91st District in Columbus.
Wilkin said his blend of private and public sector experience as a business owner and Highland County commissioner will prove useful as a state representative, and he hopes to bring fiscal conservatism to the capital without putting the burden on local governments.
In regard to a reported FBI investigation involving Rosenberger, who represented the 91st District until his recent resignation, Ellis said she did not know details of the case.
“I don’t know anything about it,” she said.
Rosenberger endorsed Ellis last year, and her campaign has received support from the Ohio House Republican Organizational Committee, the political arm of the Ohio House Republican caucus.
Ellis said while she believes Rosenberger has represented the district well, his endorsement of her campaign “doesn’t change who I am.”
In regard to campaign finances, Ellis said OHROC, which has donated extensively to her campaign, is not “a shadowy organization,” but a group of “good people” who want to ensure a Republican majority in the House of Representatives.
Abernathy asked Wilkin, who has criticized OHROC’s contributions to the Ellis campaign, if Wilkin would have accepted an endorsement from Rosenberger and help from OHROC if it had been offered to him instead of Ellis.
“I probably would have accepted that as well at the time,” Wilkin said, adding that he believes that the amount of money spent on Ellis’ campaign is “baffling.”
Ellis replied, “I guess my question is, am I the only one in this room who has had any help from Columbus?”
Wilkin said much of his financial support has come from grassroots efforts, but that he has accepted funds from outside the 91st District.
“When you get into a race of this size and you have an organization the size of OHROC… it left me little option than to fundraise outside the district,” he said.
Wilkin acknowledged receiving assistance from State Rep. Larry Householder (R-72nd Dist.), who formerly served as speaker of the House. Wilkin said his campaign shares a campaign consultant with Householder.
Householder previously served in the statehouse from 1997-2004, the last three years as speaker of the House. He left Columbus while he and several advisors were under federal investigation. The case was later closed with no charges filed.
Ellis said she would have declined any support from Householder, saying he “has an innate sense of entitlement to speaker of the House,” and “believes that he can control everyone in Columbus.”
The candidates also addressed a negative advertisement that depicted Ellis as a puppet, which Wilkin denounced.
Wilkin said he has “not asked for any outside help,” and that he has never engaged in negative ad campaigns.
“Quite frankly, it sucks, and I don’t like it,” he said.
Ellis said the ad proves that she is a political outsider, since it indicates that she is not wanted in Columbus.
Wilkin said no one has approached him saying, “Hey, if I do this, I expect your vote for speaker.”
Ellis said that a report that she had committed to voting for Rep. Ryan Smith for speaker was “fake news” and that she has not been similarly approached.
On other subjects, Barr asked how the candidates would make the district more business-friendly.
Wilkin said he would make an effort to reduce business regulations, adding that “government doesn’t create jobs,” but instead facilitates them, which he said Highland County has done.
Ellis said having close relationships with employers in the 91st District will make the difference, as well as working with JobsOhio to ensure locals can identify employment opportunities. Ellis added that workforce development is an essential aspect of making the district business friendly.
Ellis and Wilkin agreed that the top environmental issue in the district is the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, which they said should be watched closely.
On the topic of the legalization of medical and/or recreational marijuana, Ellis said she is in favor of legalizing medical marijuana so it can be researched, but is opposed to legalizing recreational use of the substance. Wilkin said he is opposed to legalizing marijuana for any use, citing Highland County Coroner Dr. Jeff Beery’s belief that marijuana causes widespread drug abuse.
On the topic of gay marriage, Wilkin said he is opposed. Ellis said she believes marriage should be between a man and a woman, but said she has compassion for homosexuals and opposes discrimination.
Addressing abortion, both candidates said they are opposed.
Both candidates said they support the gubernatorial ticket of Mike DeWine and Jon Husted, and both candidates said they support Donald Trump as president.
Bud Hunt, regional publisher for AIM Media Midwest, welcomed those in attendance and thanked both candidates for participating in the forum, as well as expressing thanks to Dr. Kevin Boys, president of Southern State Community College, for his help in facilitating the event.
For complete video coverage, check back at both timesgazette.com and wnewsj.com.
Reach David Wright at 937-402-2570, or on Twitter @DavidWrighter.