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Ohio minority leaders Antonio, Russo navigate GOP supermajority

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Monday, April 1, 2024   

By Megan Henry for the Ohio Capital Journal.
Broadcast version by Nadia Ramlagan reporting for Ohio Capital Journal-Ohio News Connection Collaboration.

For the first time since 2008, two women are serving as the minority leaders of their caucuses in the Ohio Statehouse.

Ohio Senate Minority Leader Nickie Antonio, D-Lakewood, became leader in 2023 and Ohio House Minority Leader Allison Russo, D-Upper Arlington, became leader in 2022.

"I couldn't be more proud to have two women leading the caucuses, but more importantly, beyond their gender, they're just both really talented legislators and leaders," said Ohio Democratic Chair Liz Walters. "They have different, but I think equally effective leadership styles that allow them to keep their caucuses together, and make sure the needs of all their members are met."

The last time two women served as minority leaders was during the 127th General Assembly (2007-2008) when then-state Representative Joyce Beatty and state Senator Teresa Fedor were the minority leaders.

Antonio and Russo are navigating a Republican supermajority.

"I think they really work well and balance each other, which goes a long way towards making the Democrats as a whole very effective," Walters said. "When they work together, right across chambers, it helps overcome a lot more of the obstacles and make them a more formidable force."

But neither of them initially had political aspirations.

Antonio's path to Senate Minority Leader

Antonio, 68, first got involved in politics at the local level when she advocated for a skatepark in Lakewood for her daughter. She went to city council, but was disappointed the council members didn't seem to be paying attention to her.

"I could do that job," she remembered saying when she got home that night.

But she ultimately decided to run for office in 2004 after Ohio passed a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

That caused many of their friends to move out of state, but Antonio and her now wife Jean committed to staying in Ohio to make it better.

"We felt like LGBT folks were being attacked," she said. "Certainly we were being marginalized and told that we were less than."

There was an opening on Lakewood City Council in 2005, so she ran and ended up serving two terms. Then the House seat for her district opened up in 2010 so she ran and got elected - making her the first openly gay person to be elected to the Ohio General Assembly.

"A lot of people didn't really know how to talk about it," she recalled when she was elected in 2010.

She married her long-time partner Jean in 2015 after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage.

Antonio served for eight years in the Ohio House of Representatives before being elected to the Ohio Senate in 2018, where she once again made history by being the first openly gay person to be elected Senate Minority Leader.

"One of the things I appreciate most is her tenure as a public servant," Walters said.

People will often pull Antonio aside and tell her about a family member who is part of the LGBTQ community.

"I'm happy that I'm able to have those conversations with folks because I think every conversation that's had opens the door for some understanding and ... I really do believe it makes a change in the long run," she said.

Ohio GOP lawmakers have introduced a slew of anti-LGBTQ legislation this General Assembly and Antonio will often speak up against those bills on the Senate floor. Notable among them is House Bill 68, which bans transgender minors from receiving gender-affirming medical care. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine vetoed the bill, but the House and the Senate overturned it. The law is set to take effect on April 23, but the ACLU of Ohio will file a lawsuit in an attempt to stop the ban on gender-affirming care.

"I'm definitely where I am supposed to be and doing what I'm supposed to be doing," she said. "It's really important to me in the room where it happens. And as the minority leader, I am in the room where it happens."

Some highlights of her career so far include working on bills that helped closed the loophole for people who are adopted to get original information, cut down on the response time for people experiencing a stroke and allowing pharmacies to give vaccines.

Before launching her political career, she taught students with behavioral problems and learning disorders for 10 years in Cleveland.

"I loved those kids and I always tell people that I learned everything I needed to know about the legislature and dealing with my colleagues in the legislature from troubled youth because you have to have a sense of humor, never show fear, really like people and make it part of your mission to find some kernel of commonality to start with to be able to communicate with them," she said.

Russo's path to House Minority Leader

Russo, 47, never intended to be in politics. She grew up in Mississippi and moved around quite a bit with her husband who was active duty military before deciding to put roots down in Ohio to be close to her in-laws.

She worked in health policy for more than twenty years, but a couple key moments lead to her to run for office.

The first was the 2016 Presidential Election where Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton.

"2016 got those of us who had always been very active voters off the sidelines and into the arena in a way that probably no other election has," she said.

The following year, there were efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and freeze Medicaid expansion enrollments in Ohio, so she worked with folks doing advocacy work at the state and federal level. People encouraged her to pursue politics, but she brushed that aside since she was enjoying her career and her youngest child was less than a year old.

But she ultimately decided to throw her hat in the ring when the House seat in her district opened for the 2018 election.

"I thought, well, it's now or never," she said. "I knew absolutely nothing about running a campaign."

Russo, a mother of three, often had her children with her when she was campaigning and knocking on doors. She ended up not only winning the election, but flipping the district seat blue.

She ran for Congress in 2021, but lost to U.S. Rep. Mike Carey 58% to 42%. The next year, she was elected House Minority Leader.

Walters said Russo has "an aptitude and innate ability to lead her caucus and maneuver, playing chess every day rather than checkers."

As minority leader, Russo tells the members of her caucus they need to cultivate relationships and find common ground in order to be successful.

"In a super minority, you are constantly having to figure out how to navigate this place, so that you can be effective and it's not always in big ways, like you pass a big massive piece of legislation," Russo said. "It can be in little ways- you get part of your legislation into a bill, you make bills better, you get things into the budget, you have wins there."

But sometimes finding common ground can be tricky.

"You also don't want to sacrifice your values," she said. "You also want to be fearless in calling (things) out when needed. Don't pull your punches."

Russo feels fortunate to live about 15 minutes away from the Statehouse, so she can run home to take one of her kids (ages 17, 14 and 7) to practice and then come back, if needed, for an event at the Statehouse later that night.

"I realize that's a luxury," she said. "In some ways, it's my proximity to the Statehouse that allows me to do this job with three kids at home and I know that that's not normal for most people who are in these roles."

Advice for future women politicians

Russo's advice for women looking to get into politics is to not wait around for approval to run for office.

"As women, we're looking for someone to give us permission to take on these leadership roles or to run for office or whatever - you do not need that," she said.

Antonio's suggestion to women who are in politics or who want to go into politics is to not take anything personal.

"There are definitely things that make you feel like you get a gut punch some days," she said.

Something that can turn women away from politics is the lack of privacy, Russo said

"Politics is an industry that's tough for anyone, but it can be especially tough for women," Walters said. "It's a field that's traditionally dominated by men with lots of strong opinions and feelings. ... Leaders Russo and Antonio work twice as hard as their counterparts while overcoming unique obstacles. Even though they shouldn't have to."

What's next for Antonio and Russo?

Antonio is term-limited and she's not sure what she'll do after her time in the Statehouse is up.

"What I do know is I do not intend to go back to the House," she said.

Russo will be up for re-election for a fourth term this November. If she wins, she'll be term-limited in the House. So what's next after her time in the House is up?

"To be determined," she said. "There's a lot of this that's out of my control. And then a lot of this is about timing, and often many unknown factors."

And as for a potential run for Ohio Governor in 2026?

"I know there's been a lot of chatter in that space," she said. "Let's get through 2024 first and we'll see what happens."

Megan Henry wrote this article for the Ohio Capital Journal.

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