May 23, 2022

FirstEnergy gets back in the political giving game: Capitol Letter

Spending spree: FirstEnergy’s political action committee has lifted its ban on making campaign contributions the company imposed in late 2020 in response to the House Bill 6 bribery scandal. As Jeremy Pelzer reports, the Akron-based utility’s PAC donated more than $156,000 last month, mostly to candidates in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. No Ohio politicians received contributions, though the campaign arms of U.S. Senate Republicans, U.S. House Republicans, and U.S. House Democrats (all of which often support Ohio candidates) received $15,000 each.

Meet the new boss: With Shontel Brown stepping down as the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party chair, multiple candidates are already angling for the post, Seth Richardson reports. The seat is one of the most influential in Democratic politics in the state and key to boosting turnout in the Democratic vote-rich area of Northeast Ohio.

Text chain: Text messages from a former head of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio suggest he knew a grid modernization charge that cost ratepayers nearly half a billion dollars was “likely to be found illegal and could not be refunded.” Former PUCO Chair Asim Haque exchanged messages with former FirstEnergy Vice President Michael Dowling the same day the state supreme court found the charge unlawful, Kathiann M. Kowalski of Eye on Ohio reports. Challengers in the case have said that the commission’s order imposing the charge had no strings attached to make the utility take action to modernize its energy grid. At the same time, the court ruled against refunding the charge. By that time in 2019, Ohio ratepayers already spent roughly $456 million. Haque said his texts were meant to be “tongue-in-cheek based on my previous contentious interactions with him and the company.”

What’s in a name?: Speaking of FirstEnergy and HB6, a member of the Cleveland City Council plans to introduce a resolution calling for the beleaguered company to relinquish its naming rights for the Cleveland Browns’ publicly owned football stadium. Courtney Astolfi reports that Councilman Brian Kazy, chairman of the committee that oversees Cleveland Public Power, is the resolution’s lone sponsor, which he’s set to introduce to the council on Monday. The legislation cites the public money that has subsidized the stadium and the utility, the ongoing HB6 scandal and accusations that FirstEnergy bankrolled a dark money group that tried to undermine CPP, its city-owned competitor.

This is fine: Chelsea Clark, the Democratic Ohio Secretary of State candidate, got a $500 fine from the Ohio Elections Commission last Thursday over minor campaign finance issues, Andrew Tobias writes. Two violations had to do with the name of Clark’s campaign committee – a July 2021 campaign video carried the disclaimer “Chelsea for Ohio,” the initial name of her committee. Ohio law requires campaign committees to include a candidate’s last name. Another had to do with Clark’s acceptance of a $2,500 check dated the week before her campaign committee was formed. Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose’s campaign made hay out of the fine, saying it showed she was unfit for the job, while Clark responded that LaRose was just trying to distract from the failures of the Ohio Redistricting Commission.

Power play: The Ohio Power Siting Board unanimously rejected FirstEnergy’s proposal to run high-tension power lines along the Mahoning River near downtown Youngstown. As Stan Boney and Abigail Cloutier of WKBN-TV write, “The board’s decision ends, at least for now, what was a contentious four-month debate over the power line project, which was opposed by almost everyone with interest in downtown Youngstown.”

Catch a wave: Cuyahoga and 14 other Ohio counties have gone from low to medium levels of community transmission for the COVID-19 virus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Two other counties – Ashtabula and Lorain – have gone from low to high transmission levels. Julie Washington reports that the designation comes with a CDC recommendation that people “at high risk for severe illness” speak with their healthcare providers to see if they should wear a mask.

Sick day: Sen. Sherrod Brown missed a Thursday vote on a high-profile measure giving $40 billion in military, economic and food aid to Ukraine after he went to a Washington, D.C. hospital for medical testing after not feeling well, according to his office. Tobias reports that 69-year-old Cleveland Democrat underwent what his office described as “a series of standard and precautionary tests” at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C. “out of an abundance of caution.” Brown’s office said he is expected to return to work this week.

Whoops: Following a follow-up survey of its work in the 2020 U.S. Census, the census bureau thinks it overcounted Ohio’s population by 1.5% — or by about 177,000 people. Ohio was one of eight states that the Census thinks it overcounted, while it thinks it undercounted in six other states. Census officials aren’t saying what the problem was, but National Public Radio reports the issue could involve each state’s get-out-the-count efforts. Whatever the cause, the potential miscounts won’t affect states’ allocations in Congress, census officials said.

Then git out: CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski and Em Steck unearthed Ohio GOP congressional candidate J.R. Majewski’s call for secession in a livestream he recorded following the 2020 election. Majewski, the Air Force veteran who has promoted QAnon conspiracies and attended the Jan. 6, 2020 “Stop the Steal” rally, is taking on long-time Democratic Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur in the newly drawn 9th Congressional District. According to the report, he made the comment in response to a commentator on his livestream who asked his opinion about splitting up the country. “I don’t think it sounds out there,” he said. “Why should we go to this — the left, they’re f–king psychotic. I mean, it’s not, it is not out there brother. I mean, in my opinion, they’re beyond they’re, they’re — it’s irrational. Their way of life is just crazy. To me, secession is not out there.”

Warming up: In a Friday column, the Youngstown Vindicator’s David Skolnik details the insults Republican J.D. Vance and Democrat Tim Ryan are already exchanging ahead of the November election for U.S. Senate. Vance, himself a famous mind-changer, said of Ryan, who’s flip-flopped on abortion and guns: “I don’t have any problem with people changing their mind. The issue I have is when there’s no real theory behind it, no explanation behind it.” And Ryan said of Vance: You’ve got a carpetbagger from California with a Silicon Valley billionaire (Peter Thiel) who wrote him a $15 million check,” and “He didn’t get one-third of the vote in the primary. I’m not impressed.”

Five things we learned from the March 17, 2022 financial disclosure of state Rep. Cindy Abrams, the Harrison Republican:

1. Her full first name is Cynthia.

2. She made an amount less than $1,000 selling kitchen tools from Pampered Chef.

3. She owns a consulting business related to her Pampered Chef gig.

4. She received $3,922 in House travel reimbursements, and $2,600 in House hotel reimbursements.

5. She reported receiving two Opening Day tickets from the Cincinnati Reds worth $170.

Robert “Bob” Hinkle, Chief Deputy Auditor for Ohio Auditor Keith Faber, received top state honors this month from the National Intergovernmental Audit Forum (NIAF) as part of its biennial David M. Walker Excellence in Government Performance and Accountability Awards.

Greg Lawson, Buckeye Institute research fellow; State Rep. Craig Reidel

“I don’t know guys, I think the only way to settle this whole debate about who does political theatre better is for Rodney to put on a wig and show us what he’s got.”

Amy Cox, a Preble County Democrat who’s running against Republican state Rep. Rodney Creech. Cox was reacting on her Facebook page to the mixed reaction to a video she posted on TikTok in character, wearing a wig and a mustache, mocking Creech. Another one of Cox’s surreal campaign videos references the 1988 cinematic masterpiece, “They Live,” starring “Rowdy” Roddy Piper.

Capitol Letter is a daily briefing providing succinct, timely information for those who care deeply about the decisions made by state government. If you do not already subscribe, you can sign up here to get Capitol Letter in your email box each weekday for free.

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