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Ohio’s Political Crisis Has Impeded Its Clean Energy. Democracy May Be Next.

The GOP supermajorities in Ohio’s gerrymandered state legislature have implemented a flood of voter restrictions.

The Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio, on December 18, 2023.

Ohio — the swing state that calls itself “the heart of it all” — may well decide the fate of U.S. democracy in 2024. No Republican has ever won the White House without carrying the Buckeye State.

The state’s epic electoral history is rooted in George W. Bush’s bitterly contested official 2004 victory over John Kerry, which helped birth the pivotal grassroots election protection movement in the U.S.

With their sights set on this fall’s election, democracy activists have already gathered more than 400,000 signatures to reform Ohio’s electoral districts. But pushback from the legislature and Republican state officials is predictably fierce.

Leading into 2024, the gerrymandered state legislature’s flood of voter restrictions included strict photo ID requirements, eliminating all but one voting center per country, compressed early voting, ending preaddressed/prepaid return envelopes for absentee voting, and more. According to the League of Women voters, such measures introduce unnecessary confusion and hurdles, with the apparent aim of undermining the public vote (as occurred 20 years ago) while guaranteeing victory for the GOP nominee (very likely Donald Trump, who has already been endorsed by the Buckeye GOP).

Ohio’s voters have already twice approved (in 2015 and 2018) referenda to ban gerrymandering. In 2018 the margin was more than 75 percent.

To date the legislature ignored those votes and defied five separate orders from a GOP-run state supreme court demanding reformed electoral maps.

The revised maps were demanded by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, who has retired. The updated state supreme court is not likely to repeat her mandate, especially since one of its sitting justices is the ultra-conservative Pat DeWine, the son of the state’s current Republican governor, Mike DeWine. Despite intense public furor, Justice DeWine has refused to recuse himself from redistricting lawsuits involving his father, the governor.

Thus as we enter the 2024 campaign, the Ohio state legislature remains dominated by GOP supermajorities. Today it’s run by 26 Republicans versus seven Democrats in the state senate, and 67 Republicans versus 22 Democrats in the state house. The state’s congressional delegation — headed by the infamous ex-wrestler Jim Jordan — now has 10 Republicans versus just five Democrats. All major statewide offices (save one) are held by Republicans.

So, in a state now divided with roughly 39 percent registered Republicans and 33 percent registered Democrats (the rest are independents), Ohio will enter the 2024 election with districts likely to give Republicans nearly 70 percent control of the state’s 15-member congressional delegation and two-thirds majorities in both houses of the state legislature.

In addition to its pivotal role in deciding the presidency, Ohio this fall will choose whether to send its one remaining widely respected pro-union Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown back to Washington for a fourth term.

Politics in Ohio

In addition to gerrymandering and election theft, the state suffers from nuclear weapons production, multimillion-dollar bribery, ecological decline, eco-catastrophe in the village of East Palestine, an almost total de facto ban against state-based wind power, and, most recently, state-sanctioned transphobia.

This coming April 23, a state bill banning gender-affirming health care for transgender youth is set to take effect, despite the state’s Republican governor’s earlier decision to veto it in an act of defiance against the GOP’s extreme right wing. On January 24, the heavily gerrymandered and corrupt state legislature overrode Gov. Mike DeWine’s veto and reinstated the total ban on gender-affirming health care. And it barred trans women from public school sports.

Some members of the state legislature have also signaled their interest in defying the a November 2023 referendum that enshrined the right to abortion in the state’s constitution.

In the lead-up to that referendum, in August 2023, the Republicans tried to gut Ohio’s century-old referendum process by demanding a 60 percent majority to pass any ballot initiative, but the attempt failed. (Fifty-seven percent of voters opposed it.)

So in the fall 2023, Buckeye voters not only approved a constitutional amendment to protect abortion rights, they successfully legalized recreational marijuana with a statewide referendum. But the legislature is dragging its feet on that too, relentlessly bickering over taxes and licensing.

Bribery and Anti-Democratic Measures Are Killing Wind Power

In July 2019, Akron-based FirstEnergy company won from the state legislature a $1 billion bailout for its failing nuclear reactors at Davis-Besse, near Toledo, and Perry, east of Cleveland. Its loosely crafted HB 6 also demanded subsidies for two 50-year-old coal burners, one of which is in Indiana.

To get these measures through the state house, FirstEnergy slipped former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder $61 million in outright bribes. Since convicted with four associates (one of whom committed suicide), Householder has begun serving a 20-year term in federal prison.

On February 15, Ohio’s attorney general announced a total of 27 felony indictments against Sam Randazzo, former chair of the Ohio Public Utilities Commission, former CEO Charles Jones and former Senior Vice President of External Affairs Michael Dowling, both of Akron-based FirstEnergy, which is the state’s largest utility and the owner of its two commercial atomic reactors.

The massive fossil fuel and nuclear energy bailouts in Ohio have occurred in tandem with an all-out assault on Ohio’s renewable and efficiency industries.

Amid the scandals’ uproar, the billion-dollar nuke bailout has been rescinded. But still Ohio ratepayers are being forced to subsidize two ancient coal burners, one of them in Indiana. The state’s once-progressive incentives for renewables and efficiency have been utterly trashed.

Meanwhile, the huge Piketon-Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion plant along the Ohio River is set to play a central role producing radioactive material for future commercial reactors and escalated bomb production.

Local activists have long complained the plant’s radioactive fallout is killing nearby residents.

But the bribed and gerrymandered legislature is also pushing plans for “advanced reactors” and other nuclear boondoggles.

Not far from Portsmouth, the state still reels from the February, 2023 derailment of a chemical-laden tanker train that poisoned the air and water at East Palestine, in the state’s southeast. Bitter recriminations of who might be harmed and who should bear ultimate responsibility still undermine the region’s ecological politics.

To top it all off, Ohio electric consumers are suffering from exorbitant rates while being denied its cheapest and most abundant source of energy: wind power.

Ohio claims the U.S.’s third-largest industrial base (behind California and Texas), and leads it in manufacturing components for the wind industry.

Lake Erie and Ohio’s breezy “north coast” — the flat windswept farmland from Toledo to Ashtabula — have long been target for huge wind turbine investments. Thousands of jobs, billions in private investments and a huge supply cheap carbon-free energy hang in the balance. In 2014, some $4 billion in private investment was set to go on agricultural sites, with billions more ready to go in the lake.

Much of the hardware was likely to be manufactured in Cleveland, where the first electric-generating turbines were developed by Charles Brush in the 1880s. (The original is still there.)

But in 2014 the state legislature approved a “setback clause” designed to kill wind development in the north coast. Since then, the nascent turbine industry there has all but died. Wind development in Lake Erie has also been stymied.

Indeed, with nearly 120,000 megawatts of wind potential (equivalent to more than 100 big nukes) Ohio uses less than 1 percent. The GOP’s assault on Ohio’s nascent wind power industry has cost the state thousands of jobs and untold billions in cheap, carbon-free energy. Its notoriously dirty coal, gas and nuclear industries have been buried in scandal. Those pushing for a revival of those cancelled turbine projects have strong financial and employment winds at their back, which could well translate into political clout.

The entrenched, autocratic power of Ohio’s Trumpist Republican Party has been shaken by its statewide losses on abortion and pot, its ugly defenses of gerrymandering, the depth of its nuclear-related scandals, its counterproductive assaults on wind power and more.

But only if the notoriously ineffective Ohio Democratic Party can revise its ways of campaigning and harness a new generation of voters — especially around the issues of corruption, abortion, pot, dirty energy and the environment — will the Buckeye State revive the labor-based progressivism that once sent liberals like John Glenn, Howard Metzenbaum and Sherrod Brown into the U.S. Senate, and helped put the likes of Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Barack Obama into the White House.

Indeed, amid bitter warfare over gerrymandering, voter suppression, a history of blatant election theft, barriers to the legalization of marijuana, abortion rights, attacks on the transgender community, staggering levels of official bribery, ecological catastrophe, atomic weapons production, the denial of a massive industrial leap into wind energy and much more, the Buckeye “heart of it all” is suffering a top-to-bottom crisis that could affect the future of U.S. democracy.

Will any or all of this help swing the state in 2024? Many fuses have been lit. So stay tuned.

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