State Legislatures Are Torching Democracy

6 mins read
State Legislatures Are Torching Democracy

In an interview, Michael Weinman, the head of government affairs for the Ohio chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents some twenty-four thousand law-enforcement officers, described the new gun laws as “dangerous” and “insane.” Thanks to the legislation, he explained, “anyone can come into Ohio and carry a concealed firearm,” and need not mention having the gun if stopped by law enforcement. Weinman pointed out that the law about arming school employees contains no provision requiring that lethal weapons be locked safely, adding, “Can you imagine a kindergarten student sitting down to be read to, and there’s a gun in the kid’s face?” He noted that, other than teachers, most employees of a school “haven’t been taught how to discipline people—and most school shooters are students.” Melissa Cropper, the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, told me, “It’s unbelievable. The more guns you have in schools, the more accidents and deaths can happen, especially with such minimal training.” She added, “We are every bit as bad as Texas and Florida when it comes to these laws. We are becoming more and more extreme.”

Weinman said that the rightward turn on guns in Ohio has been driven, in no small part, by “very aggressive gun groups,” some of which profit from extremism by stoking fear. This helps to sell memberships and to expand valuable mailing lists. “These groups are very confrontational,” Weinman said. He recently testified in the Ohio General Assembly against loosening state gun laws; afterward, he told me, Chris Dorr, the head of a particularly militant group called Ohio Gun Owners, chased him out of the room and down a hallway, demanding that he be fired. In an online post, Dorr, who maintains that the National Rifle Association is too soft in its defense of gun rights, posted a closeup shot of Weinman with the caption “remember this face,” adding in another post that Weinman is “the most aggressive gun-rights hater in Ohio.” Dorr and his two brothers, Ben and Aaron, operate affiliated gun groups around the country, which share the slogan “No Compromise.” During the pandemic, the Dorrs’ groups expanded into other vehemently anti-government causes, and helped lead anti-mask and anti-vax protests. Niven, the political scientist, said that the Dorrs “cultivate relationships with the hardest-right members of the state legislature, and can get their bills heard.” Ninety per cent of Ohio voters favor universal background checks for people trying to buy guns, Niven noted, “but the Democrats can’t get a hearing.”

Teresa Fedor, a Democratic state senator who has served in the General Assembly for twenty-two years, described Ohio’s new gun and abortion laws as the worst legislation that she has ever witnessed being passed. She told me, “It feels like Gilead”—the fictional theocracy in Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Fedor added, “We’ve got state-mandated pregnancies, even of a ten-year-old.”

The issue is personal to her. Fedor, a grandmother, is a former teacher; in her twenties, when she was serving in the military, she was raped. She had an abortion. Fedor was a divorced single mother at the time, trying to earn a teaching degree. “I thought my life was going to be over,” she said. “But abortion was accessible, and it was a way back. To me, that choice meant I’d be able to have a future. I feel like I made it to the other side, and have the life I dreamed of as a little girl, because I had that choice.” Without the freedom to have an abortion, she said, “I wouldn’t be a state senator today.”

In 2015, during a floor debate over abortion policy, Fedor testified about her experience. As she was speaking, she was enraged to notice that another lawmaker, who opposed her view, was chuckling. She said that Republicans who serve in districts that have been engineered to be impervious to voters are “just not listening to the public, period—there’s no need to.” Many of the most extreme bills, Fedor believes, have been written not by the legislators themselves but by local and national right-wing pressure groups, which can raise dark money and turn out primary voters in force. Nationally, the most influential such group is the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization that essentially outsources the drafting of laws to self-interested businesses. In Ohio, Fedor told me, it is often extreme religious groups that exert undue influence. She then noted that one such organization is about to have “an office right across from the statehouse chamber.”

Facing Ohio’s Greek Revival statehouse is a vacant six-story building that is slated to become the new headquarters of the Center for Christian Virtue, a once obscure nonprofit that an anti-pornography advocate founded four decades ago, in the basement of a Cincinnati church. In 2015 and 2016, the left-leaning Southern Poverty Law Center classified the organization as a hate group, citing homophobic statements on its Web site that described “homosexual behavior” as “unhealthy and destructive to the individual” and “to society as a whole.” The group subsequently deleted the offending statements, and, according to the Columbus Dispatch, it has recently evolved into “the state’s premier lobbying force on Christian conservative issues.” In the past five years, its full-time staff has expanded from two to thirteen, and its annual budget has risen from four hundred thousand dollars to $1.2 million. The group’s president, Aaron Baer, told me that the new headquarters—the group bought the building for $1.25 million last year, and plans to spend an additional $3.75 million renovating it—is very much meant to send a signal. “The message is that we’re going to be in this for the long haul,” Baer said. “We’re going to have a voice on the direction of the state—and the nation, God willing.”

The center already commands unusual influence. E-mails obtained by a watchdog group, Campaign for Accountability, show that Baer has been in regular contact with Governor DeWine’s office about an array of policies. The center’s board of directors includes two of the state’s biggest Republican donors, one of whom, the corporate lobbyist David Myhal, previously served as DeWine’s chief fund-raiser. A third director, Tom Minnery, who has served as the center’s board chair, is a chairman emeritus of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a powerful national legal organization that was created as the religious right’s answer to the American Civil Liberties Union. And, until earlier this year, a fourth director at the center was Seth Morgan, who is currently the vice-chairman of the A.D.F.

The most recently available I.R.S. records show that the center and the A.D.F. share several funding sources—notably, the huge, opaque National Christian Foundation—and have amplified each other’s messages. In April, the center celebrated the A.D.F.’s legal defense of an Ohio college professor who refused to use a student’s preferred pronouns. In addition, the center works in concert with about a hundred and thirty Catholic and evangelical schools, twenty-two hundred churches, and what it calls a Christian Chamber of Commerce of aligned businesses. Jake Grumbach, a political scientist specializing in state government who teaches at the University of Washington, told me that the center illustrates what political scientists are calling the “nationalization of local politics.”

The Center for Christian Virtue appears to be the true sponsor of some of Ohio’s most extreme right-wing bills. Gary Click, the Sandusky-area pastor serving in the Ohio House, acknowledged to me that the group had prompted him to introduce a bill opposing gender-affirming care for transgender youths, regardless of parental consent. The center, in essence, handed Click the wording for the legislation. Click confirmed to me that the center “is very proactive on Cap Square”—the Ohio capitol—adding, “All legislators are aware of their presence.” Click’s transgender bill isn’t yet law, but a related bill, also promoted by the center, has passed in the Ohio House. It stipulates that any student on a girls’ sports team participating in interscholastic conferences must have been born with female genitals. The legislation also calls for genital inspections. Niven observed that “many anti-trans sports bills were percolating” in Republican-ruled statehouses, but “leave it to Ohio to pass a provision for mandatory genital inspection if anyone questions their gender.” He went on, “That’s gerrymandering. You can’t say ‘Show me your daughter’ and stay in office unless you have unlosable districts.”

Cartoon by Seth Fleishman

In a phone interview, Baer told me that his mother and father, who divorced, were Jewish Democrats. But his father converted to Christianity, and became a Baptist pastor. After a rocky adolescence, Baer himself converted to a more conservative form of evangelical Christianity. He told me that the only “real hope for our nation is in Jesus, but we need safeguards in the law.” He described gender-confirming health care for transgender patients as “mutilation.” Baer believes that the Supreme Court should overturn the legalization of same-sex marriage, and he opposes the use of surrogate pregnancy, which he called “renting a womb,” because it “permanently separates the children from their biological mothers.” He supports the Personhood Act—State Representative Click’s proposal to ban abortions at conception. As for Ohio’s much publicized ten-year-old rape victim, Baer told me that the girl would have been better off having her rapist’s baby and raising it, too, because a “child will always do best with the biological mother.”

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