A viewpoint by Thomas D. Elias: New Davis weakness doesn't yet matter much

March 20, 2001

There is no longer any doubt the political position of Gov. Gray Davis has grown palpably weaker this winter, as corporate greed produced a small electric rate increase for most Californians, huge natural gas price increases and a mind-numbing quantity of threatened blackouts, plus a few real ones. But the new Davis weakness doesn't matter yet.

Yes, plenty of Californians see many Davis actions during the electricity crisis as toadying to utilities and their allies, companies which that contributed to his campaign war chest.

They wonder why Davis is so anxious to keep the utilities out of bankruptcy, when few would care if a bad business decision — like the utilities' promoting a faulty deregulation plan — were to do in almost any other company.

Yes, the Davis ratings from the public on his handling of the electricity crisis have lately risen a bit from earlier abysmal levels. But they're still low and he's repeatedly been forced to answer for taking large campaign contributions from companies whose fate now depends on his policies.


This makes Davis a weaker candidate for reelection next year. That doesn't make much difference now, for no significant potential reelection opponent is positioned to take advantage of the power crisis. But it will surely matter in the long run, especially if Davis makes an expected run for president in 2004.

Yes, he's insulated himself from most blame for the power crunch, even though he was lieutenant governor at the time the disastrous deregulation plan passed and did nothing to fight it. But as he maneuvered this winter to save Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison, he sometimes seemed more concerned with their financial well-being than that of the people who buy electricity, pay taxes — and vote.

As he's maneuvered to bail the companies out in exchange for a state takeover of the rickety, inadequate power grid, he's caused some voters to wonder why he doesn't go after less troubled assets the companies are far more eager to keep.

To many consumers, the fact that Davis all but ignored the notion of the state using its emergency powers and a rare multi-billion-dollar revenue surplus to buy up the utilities and the power plants they built was evidence that he kowtows to his campaign donors. Davis vehemently denied that.

"I think there's not a major supporter of mine who hasn't had one or two of their measures vetoed," the governor told reporters. "I take each issue as it comes. You will not find a person who can't point to both successes and failures (with me)."

While every governor faces some scrutiny for his campaign finances, Davis is the first in memory who's been forced to make such a defensive statement.

These relevant numbers put him on the spot: From November 1998 to June 2000, PG&E gave Davis $167,258; Edison International, the parent of Southern California Edison, kicked in $338,500, and Sempra Energy, the owner of SDG&E, contributed $89,763 to the Davis campaign kitty. Those figures do not include donations from high-paid utility executives.

Altogether, Davis took more than $687,000 from these and other major players in the power crunch. Does anyone seriously think he'd want the state to buy up assets they really want to keep and thus take them out of the universe of potential campaign donors?

There's also the completely separate question of why the utilities spent significant dollars on political donations just when they were claiming they were in financial danger.

For the moment, the companies have stopped giving and Davis has stopped taking from the companies. His spokesman, Steve Maviglio, insists the donations never really mattered to Davis.

"It doesn't affect him one way or another," he said. "There is no connection between contributions and policy."

But consumer groups say they see plenty of connection. After one conference call with Davis and other consumer group leaders, activist Harvey Rosenfield, prime author of a proposed 2002 ballot initiative that's likely to demand a state buyout of the power plants, said he was "disgusted. Every solution they talked about involved rate hikes."

That was before the "temporary" increase that's about to become permanent as part of the preferred Davis "solution" to the crisis.

So past utility company contributions will surely be a future political liability for Davis.

But this will matter only if and when a consumerist rival should emerge. There is no major Democrat now willing to take on Davis and his $25 million (so far) war chest in the primary next March. And there's no Republican possibility with any pro-consumer credibility waiting to run.

Which means the real damage this crunch may do to Davis likely will not be felt until 2004, when there will be plenty of consumerist Democrats running for president, all ready to point out that Davis' proudly "moderate" approach has translated into big bucks and big bailouts for big companies.

Imperial Valley Press Online Articles