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A viewpoint by Thomas D. Elias: Why Davis doesn't yet have big reelection problems

May 15, 2001

You can't beat someone with no one. That ancient political truism was never more true than it's been this spring, as the favorability ratings of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis grow lower by the week.

Energy is the reason for those falling poll numbers. The longer the crisis lasts, the higher the rate increases approved by the state Public Utilities Commission, the greater the threat of increased blackouts — the lower goes Davis.

But Davis doesn't act very worried. He knows how low ex-Gov. Pete Wilson's ratings fell during the recession of the early 1990s, when the Republican felt forced to raise income taxes and the state endured devastation from riots, earthquakes, drought and unseasonable frost.

More than two-thirds of Californians said in early 1994 that they wouldn't vote for Wilson, but he won reelection by a wide margin that fall.

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Reason: The weakness of Democratic candidate Kathleen Brown. She may have been the daughter of one governor and the sister of another, but she did little right in her own campaign.

Now Davis looks upon a Republican field with only one declared candidate, Secretary of State Bill Jones. Not only does Jones have little campaign cash on hand while Davis possesses a war chest topping $30 million, but Jones has little to offer on the energy issue.

Like Davis, he was in statewide office in 1996 when state legislators voted unanimously for the electric deregulation at the heart of today's disaster. Like Davis, he uttered not a word of protest against it. Like Davis, he shared the 1998 ballot with Proposition 9, an effort to repeal deregulation by initiative. And like Davis, he opposed that initiative.

Now he criticizes Davis at every opportunity for the governor's slow, deliberate response to the energy problem. But like the only other active potential Republican nominee for governor — financier William Simon Jr. — Jones has so far offered no solution of his own. He'll have a plan soon, he assures listeners.

It's a classic case of trying to beat someone and something with nothing.

But let's take a guess at what the eventual Jones plan might be. He's a Republican, and no major Republican since Richard Nixon in the early 1970s has favored price controls. President Bush, for example, favors "free market solutions" for California's problems. In short, let prices go as high as the power-generating companies and the natural gas pipelines want to take them.

Only in the past few days has the Bush-controlled Federal Energy Regulatory Commission taken even a baby step away from that stance.

It would be revolutionary for Jones to ask Bush for firm federal price controls. Jones is not a revolutionary. And like every other Republican now in elected office in California, he's never even entertained publicly the idea of taking over power plants by eminent domain.

Those attitudes won't fly in California, where voters grow ever more furious at their steeply climbing utility bills and the prospect of a summer of blackouts.

It's not that Davis deserves to go blameless in the whole electricity mess. As far back as February 2000, the state Energy Commission chairman Davis appointed warned that California would need about 1,000 megawatts of additional power to avoid blackouts this year. That much power should be coming on line later this summer, but Davis did not treat the issue as a problem at the time.

Nor did he accept last summer's offers from Duke Energy and several other power producers to make long-term contracts to supply power for 5 cents per kilowatt hour. No one is offering power at that price anymore, partly because the price of natural gas that fires many power plants has risen steeply since then. State and federal investigations of alleged gas price fixing are ongoing, but for now, the power producers are paying much more for gas than in mid-2000.

So there is potential grist for the GOP campaign mill. But no Republican can score points by accusing Davis of procrastinating, a charge Jones likes to make, without demonstrating somehow that he would be different. This requires a plan, and thus far there is no GOP plan, either coming from legislators or gubernatorial possibilities.

Voters now say they are unhappy with Davis, but eventually they'll have to choose between him and someone else. And no Republican yet offers a single plausible reason to believe voters will come to prefer the eventual GOP candidate.

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