MARIETTA - After announcing Tuesday his intentions to resign from office, Ohio Sen. Jimmy Stewart denied allegations his departure was related to mounting criticism for his support of Senate Bill 5, a new law that strips collective-bargaining rights from many public workers.
Stewart, the Senate majority leader, represents a nine-county district that covers much of southeastern Ohio, including Washington County.
"I will be stepping down in late June or early July and pursuing something in the private sector in the energy field," Stewart said Wednesday. "All that stuff (the negativity surrounding the passage of SB5) in no way, shape or form had any effect. Once you run for legislature, this goes back eight or nine years, and you run in a competitive district and are subjected to TV and radio ads attacking you and mail in your inbox and at your office... You get numb to that sort of stuff.
"Now more than ever I am convinced SB5 was the right vote and I would do it again today, tomorrow, next month and again in November with no issue with doing that," Stewart said.
Stewart, R-Albany, began his political career in Athens as a city councilman. He was then appointed Athens city auditor and in 2002 was elected to serve in the Ohio House of Representatives, where he served three terms. In 2008 he was elected to the state Senate and his current term expires Dec. 31, 2012.
Stewart said the state's Republican senators will form a screening committee, which will appoint someone to complete his unfilled term.
"At this point, I don't know who is going to replace me, but I want to thank the people in my district for their support," he said. "Please understand this has been a great opportunity to serve and I'm certain whomever is appointed will be able to tackle the issues as well, or better than I have. I'm sure that person will do a fantastic job, so just give them a chance."
The Ohio Democratic Party issued a press release suggesting Stewart bowed out due to mounting pressure related to his deciding vote on SB5. The issue passed the Senate earlier this year by a 17-16 vote.
An effort is under way to repeal the issue and has included billboards being erected near Stewart's hometown accusing him of betraying Ohio's working families by supporting the controversial bill.
"Sen. Stewart must have seen the writing on the wall and decided he would rather leave the Senate than face the wrath of the voters next year," said Ohio Democratic Party communications director Seth Bringman. "His district's widespread, bipartisan opposition to Senate Bill 5 was a clear indication that he would not be re-elected."
Lydia Hunter, teachers association president at Warren Local Schools, said she was notified by e-mail late Tuesday of Stewart's intention to resign.
"Now it's just a wait-and-see as to his replacement and what impact that person has on things," Hunter said.
Hunter and members of her teachers group have been active in recent months fighting to repeal Senate Bill 5.
"Several teachers are circulating petitions and we've participated in rallies ... All because we have definite concerns with many of the provisions in Senate Bill 5," she said. "I'm confident we're going to get enough signatures to get this on the ballot in November. Really, there's no doubt we'll get enough signatures. It's just what happens in November... there is going to be a fight on the side of the people who are trying to enact this and I'm guessing they'll spend a lot of money."
Senate Bill 5 allows unions to negotiate wages but not health care, sick time or pension benefits. It eliminates automatic pay increases and bans strikes. It applies to 350,000 of Ohio's teachers, nurses and many other government workers, including police and firefighters, who were exempt in a similar push in Wisconsin.
Washington County Republican Chair Marilyn Ashcraft said she was disappointed to hear of Stewart's decision to leave office, but said it had nothing to do with "mounting pressure."
"I don't believe that for a second," Ashcraft said. "He voted his conscious on Senate Bill 5 and if only everyone could hear the truth about the issue they would understand why he voted the way he did."
Ashcraft said Ohio Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta, or Ohio Rep. Troy Balderson, R-Coshocton, both live within the Senate district and will likely be considered to fill Stewart's seat.
"At this point, I don't know exactly how the party will handle this," she said. "As for losing Jimmy, I really think he was a great spokesman for southeast Ohio and I hate to see him go, but I understand his move and he has a great opportunity. You hate to hold anyone back."
Stewart, who moved to Ohio in 1995 from Charleston, W.Va., said he is proud of his record as a public servant.
"To move to Ohio in 1995 and not know a person and 15 years later find myself as the majority leader in the Senate is pretty amazing to me," he said.