Strange bedfellows

Republicans and consumer groups form a chorus of criticism toward Davis energy approach

On the power issue, there seems to be more overlap between the positions of liberal consumer activists like Medea Benjamin and conservative Republicans like Bill Jones than either side has with the approach of centrist Governor Gray Davis.

On the power issue, there seems to be more overlap between the positions of liberal consumer activists like Medea Benjamin and conservative Republicans like Bill Jones than either side has with the approach of centrist Governor Gray Davis.

Illustration By David Jayne

If politics makes for strange bedfellows, then power politics makes for the type of supercharged weirdness not often seen in California.

Take the recent dust-up over Governor Gray Davis’ plan to float $13.4 billion in bonds—the largest bond proposal in U.S. history—to repay the general fund for the state’s electricity purchases, which have now surpassed $7 billion.

Despite having a preponderance of fellow Democrats in the Legislature to carry out his wishes, the governor had to take plenty of lumps to get the bonds approved.

The Legislature passed the plan, but only after Republicans denied Davis a two-thirds vote needed to make the legislation effective immediately, delaying sale of the bonds until later this summer when the bond market will likely be saturated. Worse, Wall Street reacted to the delay by downgrading the state’s credit rating.

Davis was furious with what he dubbed irresponsible Republican obstructionism, a theme that was largely echoed in the daily press.

But the criticism of the GOP for blocking the bond plan ignores the fact that California’s most significant consumer groups—which, although nominally nonpartisan, tend to lean at least a little to the left of mainstream Democratswere just as vehemently opposed.

Doug Heller with the consumer group Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights likened the bond measure to restocking one’s jewelry box in the middle of a home-invasion robbery.

‘What’s to say that the energy companies won’t just abscond with it again?’ asked Heller.

Heller’s group is led by outspoken activist Harvey Rosenfield, who recently predicted that the state’s energy crisis was heading toward the ‘ultimate showdown between naked capitalism and populist outrage.’

He has threatened to put the bond plan to a state referendum, which would give voters the power to directly rebuff Davis’ approach to the problem.

If the energy crisis were a pro-wrestling match, then Davis would be a bloodied and beleaguered fighter in the middle of a sort of left-right tag team. One camp slings the governor against the ropes while the other stands waiting for his rebound and ready to administer a stiff clothesline across the throat.

But are the Republicans and consumer groups actually orchestrating their assault on the centrist governor? Perhaps not formally, but there is at least recognition of common foes.

‘It has become a sort of strange alliance. We’re always getting little notes from them saying ‘Way to go!’ ’ said James Fisfis, spokesman for Assembly Republican leader Dave Cox from Fair Oaks. ‘There’s the old saying, ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ ’

The Governor’s Office has noted the triangulation being used against it.

‘The Republicans have no plan other than obstruction, so it’s not surprising that they will do whatever they can to block the governor’s plan, even if it’s a matter of strange bedfellows,’ said Davis spokesman Steve Maviglio.

So far, little criticism has been leveled at the consumer groups—perhaps because the governor fears a referendum on his bond plan, but also perhaps because the governor fears further angering the mass of voters just as their electricity rates are going up.

With the deadline to place a referendum on the ballot nearing, it becomes less likely that Rosenfield and his group will go forward. More likely, said Heller, is a November 2002 ballot initiative that would completely re-regulate the state’s electricity system.

The consumer groups are a bit more reluctant to claim common cause with the Republican leadership. After all, the camps are very different in terms of ideology and the solutions they bring to the table.

Republicans have opposed the idea of a windfall profits tax, the creation of a public power authority and using the threat of seizure of power plants to recoup money lost to alleged generator price gouging—all staples of the insurgent consumer groups.

Instead, the Republican leadership has stuck to a mantra of increased supply, relaxing environmental regulation to speed the construction of new plants and allowing old dormant plants that don’t meet clean air standards to restart at least temporarily.

The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, California Public Interest Research Group and other consumer and environmental groups are also pushing for greater supply, but in the form of conservation and clean, renewable power.

Secretary of State Bill Jones, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, has proposed going after the utilities’ parent companies for billions of dollars in profits that were taken out of the state, an idea that appeals to activists but has been sidestepped by Davis.

But Heller said that proposal might only be so much populist window-dressing.

'It’s easy to criticize the governor,' he said. ‘It’s much harder to present alternatives. When the rubber hits the road, the Republicans aren’t even in the car.'