People's Power in CA

By Bradley, William | The Nation, March 19, 2001 | Go to article overview

People's Power in CA


Bradley, William, The Nation


When former Republican Governor Pete Wilson & Co. started the ball rolling on electric power deregulation in California, there were probably many results they didn't anticipate. Not least is a revival of social-democratic and populist politics in the Golden State.

The Left Coast may turn out to be just the left coast after all. Having gone into eclipse in the mid-nineties with the passage of the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 and the rise of deregulation fervor, and suffering through two years of disappointment under moderate Democratic Governor Gray Davis, progressives are again on the move, with even the preternaturally cautious Davis, a potential 2004 presidential contender, along for much of the ride.

Most Californians now favor both a state takeover of the power grid and the establishment of a public power authority. Most don't believe there's a real power shortage and blame their utilities and the out-of-state power companies for manipulating the situation. Two-thirds oppose deregulation, and in a Los Angeles Times poll 60 percent opposed new nuclear power plants. Meanwhile, organized labor, consumer advocates and environmentalists are coming together to urge a dramatic expansion of public ownership of power and an end to the decades of private utility dominance in California politics that led to the debacle. "We're fighting to protect jobs, hold the line on the environment, protect against rate increases for fixed-income consumers and to keep the utilities out of bankruptcy to protect workers," says California Labor Federation chief Art Pulaski.

Coalitions have come and gone over the years, but shifts in political tectonics caused by the power crisis make this one's prospects far better. "The atmosphere is dramatically different," notes former State Senator Tom Hayden. "You can work for years hitting your head against the wall. Then crisis can lend clarity, making many things possible."

Even some Republicans are questioning the utilities' decision to shovel money from their nearly bankrupt operating companies into the safe havens of their holding companies. But that's as far as they'll go. It doesn't matter, though. Democrats control the governorship and both houses of the legislature, and although they needed Republican votes to pass emergency bills allowing the state to enter into long-term contracts to buy power and distribute it through the utilities, they don't need Republicans to enact more far-reaching measures.

Outside the political establishment, a populist consumer movement has been revitalized, with former Nader associate Harvey Rosenfield making credible threats of an omnibus energy initiative on next year's state ballot. Lost on few is the fact that the 30 percent of Californians with municipal power are in good shape. "I want a coherent plan to restore reliable and affordable electric power with a public power authority as its centerpiece," says Rosenfield, head of Ratepayer Revolt. "It would look a lot like Prop 103 [an insurance reform initiative he wrote in 1988], with re-regulation of the market and consolidation of duplicate agencies." He goes on to say, "If they pass a bailout, we'll reverse it at the ballot box."

Governor Davis, like others in the establishment, sees Rosenfield as a gadfly who finally finds himself in the right place at the right time. Davis believes he can head off an initiative by limiting rate increases through the election. That's far easier said than done, however, even with the state on the verge of entering into long-term electric power contracts. And no one wants to look like they're caving in to utilities' demands for a second bailout in five years (the first being the $28 billion they got as part of the 1996 deregulation package). …

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