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California and the West | THE WASHINGTON CONNECTION

Race Gets a Jolt From Unexpected Issue

August 29, 2000|NICK ANDERSON

Despite the best efforts of high-priced consultants to plan for any campaign contingency, every so often an election gets jolted by a phenomenon that reminds us why politics can still be so much fun: the unforeseen issue.

Consider the race in California's 49th Congressional District, which hugs the San Diego coastline, between Republican Rep. Brian P. Bilbray and Democratic state Assemblywoman Susan A. Davis.

A year ago, the line on this contest was that Bilbray, a three-term incumbent, would face a stiff challenge in the wake of his vote in December 1998 to impeach President Clinton. Davis, a three-term state legislator, offered herself as a seasoned alternative.

Bilbray planned to depict himself as an independent--endorsing campaign finance reform, for instance--in tune with his swing district, while Davis hoped to play up such themes as broadening prescription drug coverage, holding down class size in schools and preserving Social Security.

Then came this summer's electric rate shock as San Diegans became guinea pigs in the state's deregulation of the electric power industry. When customers of San Diego Gas & Electric Co. saw their bills more than double with little warning, politicians throughout the state saw the emergence of a formidable issue with potential to affect the outcome at the polls in November in at least San Diego County and possibly elsewhere.

Suddenly, everyone in the 49th District--one of a handful statewide that figure in this year's duel for control of the House of Representatives--is talking about their electric bills. The issue dominates the nightly television news and the morning newspapers. And Bilbray and Davis have been forced to react.

"This is something that really hits people where they recognize it, where there's a real pain," said Gary Jacobson, a professor of political science at UC San Diego. Voters, he said, are "looking for someone to blame and looking for help. . . . Any politician that's up for election has to pay attention."

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Indeed, Bilbray and Davis are not alone. Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and the leaders of the state Assembly and Senate also know that they will be held accountable to fix a problem that few, if any elected officials envisioned in 1996 when California passed its landmark deregulation.

In Washington, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who is up for reelection this year, has been pressing federal regulators to intervene to protect ratepayers. Her opponent, Rep. Tom Campbell (R-San Jose), also promises to help ratepayers with a plan to increase electricity supply and make consumption more efficient. Even President Clinton, always looking to boost Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore's chances in California, got into the act. Last week, Clinton freed up $2.6 million in aid for low-income electric consumers in San Diego County and southern Orange County--doubling available federal relief funds.

The scramble in California echoes what happened earlier this year in the upper Midwest when gasoline prices spiked to well over $2 a gallon. Members of Congress fumed that the federal government had abandoned motorists and endangered the regional economy. Many solutions were proposed but almost none enacted as lawmakers discovered how the complex economics of energy supply defied simplistic solutions. Efforts to roll back the federal gasoline tax, for instance, died in the Senate.

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In the San Diego crisis, Bilbray and Susan Davis start from a defensive position. Davis voted for deregulation. Bilbray later endorsed the state plan in a letter signed by members of California's congressional delegation.

This month, Davis has seized on proposals to provide immediate relief to San Diego ratepayers. A plan she endorsed last week with the governor and other lawmakers would sharply reduce bills--to $68 per household per month, on average, down from what is now well over $100--for homeowners retroactively to June 1.

Davis says urgent action is needed to fix a problem that all sides, including then-Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican and former San Diego mayor, failed to foresee. "I have seen in my own neighborhood the devastation this has caused," she said. "It's unbelievable. We call it an economic earthquake."

Bilbray is pushing federal legislation to give investor-owned utilities, such as SDG & E, more access to cheap federal power supplies and promoting a hearing on the issue to be held in San Diego on Sept. 11 by a unit of the House Commerce Committee. He also wants President Clinton to stop what he calls the price gouging practices of a federal hydroelectric power supplier in the Northwest.

Bilbray needled Davis for her 1996 vote for the state plan, saying the state assemblywoman "is about as credible as Exxon wanting to take credit for cleaning up the Exxon Valdez oil spill." Davis replied that Bilbray, recipient of sizable campaign cash from utilities, is no one to carp.

Whoever wins this contest will get no respite from power politics on Capitol Hill. A major issue to confront the 107th Congress will be national legislation to deregulate the electric industry.

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