The campaign around Ohio's nuclear bailout law is intensifying with more reports of people intimidating signature gatherers who want to put the law up for a vote on next year's ballot.
Amy Sutherly is standing outside of the Columbus Coffee Festival on the north side of the city to collect signatures for the HB6 referendum. She approaches people and asks if they are registered to vote in Ohio, followed by a short request, "Would you like to sign a petition? We're trying to repeal HB6."
She says she wants voters to decide if Ohio should keep its new energy law which bails out nuclear power plants, subsidizes coal plants, reduces renewable energy standards, and eliminates energy efficiency mandates.
Sutherly doesn't like the law, saying it's a corporate bailout.
"I'm just out trying to get it on the ballot and give the public an opportunity to choose," Sutherly says.
But Sutherly says signature gathering has not been an easy task.
Generation Now is a dark money group funding a counter referendum effort. They're trying to protect the nuclear subsidies bound for FirstEnergy Solutions. Part of that effort is to pay for people to follow petitioners like Sutherly around.
Sutherly says these trackers are becoming aggressive and intimidating. She says they've crowded around her, followed her in a car for miles while she was driving home, and, while she was collecting signatures on Ohio State University's campus, assaulted her.
"The one gentleman turned around and whaled my hand in front of three students and knocked the phone out of my hand," Sutherly explains.
Sutherly, who's wearing a brace on her left wrist, says she reported the case to OSU police.
These stories are alarming to Attorney General Dave Yost (R-Ohio) who says the campaign around the HB6 referendum is getting ugly.
"There's no protection against ugliness, and politics can sometimes get that way, but when it crosses the line to intimidation then the law's being broken," says Yost.
Yost wants anyone who witnesses or experiences intimidation to call his office. He says these reports will be investigated and could then be forwarded to local prosecutors. This kind of intimidation crime can carry a sentence of up to six months in jail and a $500 fine.
Generation Now is not commenting on the reports of violence and intimidation. However, a spokesperson says trackers have been directed to be polite, respectful, and to avoid inappropriate contact.
The tenor of the campaign is heightened by ads and mailers from Ohioans for Energy Security, another dark money group that supports the subsidies for FirstEnergy Solutions. They’ve run ads and send mailers featuring a phone number to call to report where circulators are working. They try to claim that the referendum group is backed by foreign interests and that the Chinese government is trying to take over the energy grid. The referendum group, Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts, says that claim is "bogus."
As Sutherly continues to gather signatures, she captures the attention of Justin DeBrosse, a Columbus voter who's become familiar with these anti-referendum ads and tactics. He says they had the opposite effect.
"It made me want to sign the petition, because it felt disrespectful. It felt like all they needed to do was throw up a few signals of communism or foreign powers and that would be enough to have people land on their side," says DeBrosse.
Ohioans for Energy Security, the group behind the ads, did not want to comment on the reports of intimidation, saying Generation Now was behind the campaign in the field.
None of these organizations, including Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts, have disclosed their donors.
Sutherly says the intense campaign around the issue has gotten out of hand.
"But I'm not going to let it stop me," says Sutherly.
The referendum group has until October 21st to collect more than 265,000 valid signatures. If they do, the law will be halted and it will go on next November's ballot. FirstEnergy Solutions says, if that happens, it will be forced to shut down its nuclear plants. Critics argue the validity of that claim.