Minority to Majority Party: A Good Lesson in Leadership
Women hold only 18 percent of the state legislative leadership positions across the country. Ohio House Majority Floor Leader Barbara Sears is one of them. She was elected to leadership in 2013, when Republicans regained control of the Ohio House of Representatives.
What are some barriers to women rising to leadership positions in state legislatures?
“I think, in part, a lot of women never get the opportunity to go through the leadership process. Men are just more likely to be trained, whether it be by early sports, early leadership opportunities as kids. I think women are getting there, but I don’t think we’re really, by nature, there yet. I think a big part of it is that women can just tend to be a lot more complicated, in that a lot of us still have families that we are trying to prioritize—not that men aren’t prioritizing. … As a lot of women legislators do things with women’s legislative caucuses, those types of organizations, I think that can also alienate, to some extent, men. … I think it’s crucial that we coach and lead and give women the opportunity to understand they can be on equal footing, that they don’t need any assistance, that they’re equal by their nature. I try to coach (women) out of segregating themselves.”
What qualities are necessary for a woman—or a man—to advance in legislative leadership?
“You have to have the edge that says, ‘Not only am I going to compete for my elected position, but within my own caucus, I’m going to compete at that level also.’ You really are running through a variety of different competitions. It can be difficult because, for me, what the district may require in order for me to get elected may not necessarily put me in the best position to be elected in a leadership position. I’m in a 53 percent Republican-leaning district, which means I’m in a 47 percent Democrat-leaning district. The caucus that I lead is more conservative than my district. Making sure that my messaging speaks to both groups is very difficult because it’s one thing to get elected, but it’s a whole other thing to get re-elected. That takes integrity. That takes the trust and relationships you build with caucus members and that takes time.”
What was the best piece of advice you received when you sought the leadership position?
“When I was appointed (to the legislature), I was in the majority party and I really aligned myself with the leadership team that lost. ... When we came out of the minority, trying to get into a leadership position after I had outright supported the other team, so to speak, it was a lot of work. The message I took from talking with folks on how to master that was the integrity. Work hard, be a specialist, find where you can be a useful tool and then find out how to be useful. And work on relationships so you’ve got that trust and that integrity with the leadership team that was coming into power.”
How do you manage different personality types to be an effective leader?
“That’s very difficult. Even within the party, with the huge tea party movement, getting all the caucus members on the same page can be incredibly difficult. … One thing as a leader that we need to do is just make sure we remind our caucus just how diverse the state of Ohio is. … I will say to the caucus, the state is really big and think about all four corners and the center of the universe (which is what Ohio State University fans call Columbus), meaning you have to look at the whole state. Even though you don’t see this as a policy issue for your part of the state, it could be horrendously impactful for another member and if you need support on your legislation that impacts your area, you need to make the yeoman’s effort to support something that’s crucial for another part of the state.”
How does being a leader in the majority differ from serving in the minority?
“A quick story I tell to our members that have never served in the minority: I went from the first year in majority party … and immediately went deep into the minority and the phone stopped ringing, people stopped asking can you look at this, can you do this? (I asked) one of the other gentlemen I was serving with, … ‘What do we do to make ourselves relevant?’ … We pulled out our Ohio Revised Code and we started reading the chapters that provide the oversight and rules and regulations for Medicaid. … So when it came time for the budget to roll around, we actually knew more as minority members than the majority members on the committee knew. … I think that in the minority, it’s a great opportunity, if you want, to become a specialist. It’s also a perfect chance to just throw bombs and accomplish nothing.”
How did your perspective change when your party took control of the state house?
“That gets back to the integrity. Are you willing to say the same thing in the minority party as you are willing to say in the majority party? And that’s really, quite frankly, an integrity question. … Speaker (William) Batchelder, to his credit, who had … served a good number of years in the minority, he made it an objective as part of his leadership that he was going to recognize that both Rs and Ds had good quality ideas. Both sides were capable of putting forth solid public policy and he was not going to limit public policy to majority party only.”
How do you think about your priorities serving both as a legislative leader and as a representative for your constituents?
“I think there is a balance. I’m heavy union up here. The Toledo area is 45 minutes from Detroit, so from a union experience we are Detroit light. They say you’re elected by 115,000 in your district, … but you serve 11-and-a-half million, which is the size of our state. I talk to people all the time about that. I get the fact that, me personally, these are issues that I might like to support, but they don’t fit the district. … I don’t take it lightly, but I will vote against the party line if I feel it is wrong for the district I serve because I think that’s my job. Speaker Batchelder is very open to that. He understands. Quite frankly, he will tell you it’s your responsibility to vote your district.”
How do you measure success?
“I think I’m successful, generally speaking, if I can work with the caucus to get them to go along with the leadership recommendations. ... If I can keep the floor speeches to a minimum, even those that agree or disagree, to get them to join forces … so I don’t get a lot of my own members speaking against my own members. ... Obviously if we can get bipartisan votes, we always strive to do that. ... I think getting members to engage on issues, getting them to really understand it so they’re voting knowledgeably on issues—I think that speaks to success as a leader. … When you get the caucus in a position where there are no bombs being thrown at each other, quite frankly, I think that’s success.”
As the majority leader, how do you think about working with the minority party?
“One of the other areas Speaker Batchelder really did a great job was encouraging us as majority members, when we have a bill that we believe has the ability to be bipartisan, to bring a minority member on as a joint sponsor. … I think reaching out to them right away, trying to, where you can, understand that we have similar outcomes we want, we just have different pathways of getting most things. And then just recognizing that the minority party is going to have to vote against things just because their constituency is going to demand that they vote one way, just like our constituency demands that we vote one way. In addition to that, we’ve been trying … to do some things that brings folks together; do activities with both sides. … It’s a heck of a lot harder to fight with somebody that you’re actually friends with.”
What advice would you give to female legislators who are considering legislative leadership?
“Don’t pigeonhole yourself with the same group of folks. Don’t follow your natural inclination. Go out and do things with different folks. … Develop that relationship that sometimes it’s tough to do ... The biggest thing I believe that made a difference for me was becoming a recognizable expert in some subject matter, something that people have to go to you to ask your opinion. … I think that puts you in a position of leadership without a title, then it’s an easy to step to make the transition to a leadership position with a title.”