Local Politics: Can Ohio become a ‘welcoming place’?

Gov. DeWine announced plans for a campaign aimed at convincing folks from the coasts to relocate to the state, but a bill making its way through the General Assembly could have a more immediate effect

Craig Calcaterra
A file photo of a sign welcoming visitors to Ohio

In early February, Gov. Mike DeWine announced plans for a new $50 million marketing campaign aimed at convincing people from the coasts to move to Ohio, saying, "We want to position Ohio as the place to be." DeWine went on to say that, "Ohio is a welcoming place. I don't care who you are, we want you to come to Ohio. It's a progressive state."

The governor's comments were widely mocked by people who have paid even a little attention to the work of state government over the past several years, as Ohio's GOP-controlled Legislature has fed DeWine a steady diet of regressive bills, most of which he has signed into law. Rather than try to whitewash those bad policies with a marketing campaign, many asked, would it not be better to pass the sorts of laws that would actually make Ohio a more welcoming state to begin with? One that would make people actually want to move here?

We'll see what the answer is soon, because Sen. Nickie Antonio has, for the sixth straight session of the Ohio General Assembly, introduced the Ohio Fairness Act, which if passed into law would add LGBTQ+ people to the list of those protected from discrimination.

It surprises even many people who have lived in Ohio for some time to know that such protections do not already exist, but Ohio remains one of 27 states where people can be denied jobs, housing and services based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Several Ohio cities and towns have enacted ordinances protecting LGBTQ+ residents, but most Ohioans still have no such protection from discrimination.

The merit of such a law is obvious. Discrimination is bad, yes, and businesses and institutions shouldn't be allowed to engage in it. Indeed, it's appalling that such anti-discrimination protections weren't already in place. But there is a business justification for such a law, too. One that flows nicely with the governor's aim of making people want to move to Ohio.

It's a justification that isn't all that hard to follow, and it goes like this: The Fairness Act allows Ohio employers to better compete for workers by letting LGBTQ+ people know that they and their spouses, partners, children and other loved ones will be protected. It will give the state a better chance to attract or retain people who, at the moment, would prefer to live in other, more welcoming places. Places that have already enacted such protections. 

It is for this reason that Sen. Antonio has at least some Republican support for the bill in the form of its co-sponsor, Sen. Michael Rulli. Other Republicans, such as Sen. Matt Dolan, spoke out in favor of the act last week, albeit with some qualifications. It is also for this reason that virtually every business group that has weighed in on the matter — groups such as the Ohio Business Competes coalition and Edge Innovation Hub — has supported its passage.

Yet it's already clear that there will, once again, be conservative pushback against the Ohio Fairness Act.

When the bill was introduced last week, Senate President Matt Huffman made his opposition plain, claiming it would be "devastating" to employers because of the potential legal liability they might face as a result of the law, missing, it seems, the fact that virtually every business group that has weighed in on it has been supportive. It will likewise not be surprising if, as was the case last year, Huffman and likeminded members of the General Assembly invite religious and conservative groups to speak against the legislation. Last year's testimony was rife with misinformation and homophobic and transphobic rhetoric. If given the chance to testify again, it will likely be more of the same.

Is Ohio the "welcoming place" Gov. DeWine says it is? Do we, as he says, really want people to move here and to stay here? Or will bigotry prove to be Ohio's higher priority?

The General Assembly will have the chance to answer that question in the coming weeks and months with deeds rather than mere words.