What had happened, the Scientific American reported, was this: A high voltage FirstEnergy line in Northern Ohio — likely in Walton Hills, the Greater Cleveland suburb — brushed against some overgrown trees and shut down. “Normally, the problem would have tripped an alarm in the control room of FirstEnergy … but the alarm system failed,” the magazine reported. In the ensuing confusion, “50 million people lost power for up to two days in the biggest blackout in North American history [contributing] to at least 11 deaths and [costing] an estimated $6 billion.”
As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette later reported, “A joint U.S.-Canada task force said … that FirstEnergy Corp. … was largely to blame for the massive blackout.”
So much for the electricity business. Because public utilities are state-regulated — though to use the word “regulated” in any Ohio context is being loose with the language — politics is of interest not only to utility bosses but also to utility investors and stock market operators.
The Illuminating Co., a FirstEnergy parent, had an especially big niche in Statehouse political history. For many years, ending late in the 1930s, its long-term lobbyist, Harry W. Wilson, of Solon, was considered most powerful of that era’s Statehouse lobbyists.
But Wilson never registered as a lobbyist, and he was never seen in the Statehouse. Instead, Wilson — unusually, a Democrat — managed the legislature from his room at the Columbus Athletic Club, to which General Assembly members were summoned for instructions. Wilson was said to be so influential that his backing of someone for Senate president pro tempore (today’s Senate president) assured that candidate’s election.
Gamey as that “system” was, it was more honest than today’s set-up. Now, lobbyists must register and reveal certain expenditures — meaningless expenditures.
And, oh yes, today Ohio has a supposed merit-selection-type setup for picking PUCO commissioners — a phony “process” that has just one aim: To preserve the status quo at the PUCO.
And regardless of any possible court action, that (bipartisan) status quo will likely remain. Randazzo was unanimously confirmed by Senate Democrats as well as by Senate Republicans. HB 6 passed with the help of some Senate Democrats and some House Democrats. Householder, a Republican, became speaker only with the help of 26 of Ohio House Democrats.
Ohio needs to face reality. Ohio needs a Public Utilities Commission elected by the voters.
Thomas Suddes is an adjunct assistant professor at Ohio University. Previously, he was a veteran Statehouse reporter for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer.