A rogues’ gallery

Meet the men who devised the deregulation disaster

Jim Brulte

Jim Brulte

The ball is in Gray Davis’ court now, but it certainly didn’t start there. His Republican predecessor, Pete Wilson, pushed, prodded and presided over California’s electric power deregulation, but a number of other men played critical roles in devising the disastrous scheme. Here are four of them:

While former Gov. Wilson made plain his philosophical support for deregulation in the early ’90s and pushed it through after he won re-election and his party took over the Assembly in 1994, he needed a policy quarterback. Wilson found his man in the unlikely person of Daniel W. L. Fessler. This UC Davis contracts law professor had no particular background in energy issues, but he did boast a conservative ideology and the friendship of First Lady Gale Wilson. It was enough to make him Wilson’s choice as president of the powerful Public Utilities Commission.

After first trying to lead a revival of nuclear power in California, Fessler settled down to the task of crafting electric power deregulation. An Anglophile who enjoyed affecting a mock British accent, Fessler looked to the electric power deregulation of Britain, sparked by global conservative icon Margaret Thatcher, for inspiration, bringing back many ideas from a trip he and other regulators took there with top utility executives. After originating the deregulation scheme and seeing it through several versions into its final 1996 legislative enactment, Fessler became a high-priced partner of a global law firm that worked on the issue in Britain. He refuses to respond to repeated phone calls and e-mails on the power crisis.

Steve Peace

“Not only do we have some fresh leadership in place,” state Sen. Jim Brulte told the New York Times last week, speaking of the reeling California Republican Party, “but we see a great political opportunity in the electricity crisis that has hit the state. The Democrats are really botching it up.”

Talk about a profile in chutzpah! The Senate Republican leader says he sees “a great political opportunity” in a crisis largely of his own making. Brulte is the actual author of AB 1890, the final version of California’s disastrous deregulation scheme (which the august Times failed to mention). Considering his central role in the debacle as an assemblyman in 1996, Brulte has gotten a remarkably free ride from most of the media, in part because he is an important inside source on Republican and legislative politics for the press corps. Yet, notwithstanding that amazing quote above, there are limits to the Rancho Cucamonga Republican’s chutzpah. Though he is a key California ally of President George W. Bush (one who would dearly love to be governor one day), Brulte has scaled back his ambitions with the advent of the power crisis. Rather than seek statewide office next year, as he had planned, Brulte will run instead for a seat on the obscure but powerful tax policymaking body called the Board of Equalization, in a district that includes Sacramento.

This former lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council-turned-CEO of Southern California Edison is, in the words of author Harvey Wasserman, “the Darth Vader of utility deregulation.” A promising young person given great political prominence by then Gov. Jerry Brown (not unlike Gray Davis), Bryson served for a time as Brown’s president of the Public Utilities Commission, opposing the expansion of nuclear power and promoting a new age of wind and solar power. His appointment as a top Edison executive presaged for some a new era for the big utilities.

But the green Jedi Bryson turned, if you will, to the dark side. With his legal counsel a principal drafter of the deregulation bill, AB 1890, Bryson pushed for a multibillion-dollar bailout for the utilities’ expensive nuclear plants and turned the once staid utility into a high-flying operation investing in fossil fuel plants around the world.

If Brulte is a study in chutzpah, this bright Democratic state senator from San Diego—whose official bio cites an award from the California Journal as one of the two purportedly smartest legislators—is a study in hubris. Happy in the aftermath of deregulation’s enactment to be called its “architect,” Peace, heretofore best known as the producer of the classic schlock movie Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, was actually merely the chief mediator and broker for disputes and deals around a template devised by others in his role as chairman of the Assembly/Senate conference committee working out differences on AB 1890. As chairman of the energy committee in a Senate controlled by Democrats, he was needed by Wilson, Assembly Republicans and the big lobbyists to grease the bipartisan skids, conducting mind-numbing, marathon meetings which few could follow.

Peace doesn’t take credit any longer. Indeed, he has produced a video explaining why he is not the architect of deregulation. Like Brulte, he has dropped plans to run for statewide office next year.