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Top Democrats Trade Barbs at State Convention

Politics: Controller Kathleen Connell criticizes governor's tactics during the energy crisis. Davis defends his strategies.


ANAHEIM — Backbiting over California's electricity crisis soured the mood Saturday as Democrats gathered for their first-ever state party convention in Orange County.

Controller Kathleen Connell, a candidate for Los Angeles mayor, launched a scarcely veiled attack on Gov. Gray Davis, a fellow Democrat, saying his go-slow approach may squander the state's multibillion-dollar surplus and threaten the party's prospects in the 2002 state elections.

A displeased Davis responded that Connell should run for governor if she feels she could do a better job--which is precisely the intent some read into her remarks.

The inharmonious exchange underscored how the electricity issue has overwhelmed state politics and threatened Davis' expected reelection cakewalk, much to the chagrin of Democrats. Many in the party are fretting they will be hit by a backlash when voters look for someone to blame for rolling blackouts and soaring utility bills.

"All Democrats are shaking in their boots about the next election," said Assemblywoman Carol Migden (D-San Francisco).

The preferred party line is to blame Republicans. It was, after all, GOP Gov. Pete Wilson who approved the electricity deregulation plan that was passed by a Republican-run state Legislature and pushed by a Republican-controlled Public Utilities Commission.

"The Republicans who were so enamored of deregulation just five years ago have become even more enamored of criticizing me as I try to clean up their mess," Davis said in remarks to several hundred convention delegates, who greeted his appearance with notable restraint. ". . . And while our Republican friends offer partisan attacks, they have yet to offer a constructive, comprehensive solution to the problem they created."

But the harshest words came Saturday from inside the Democrats' own camp, as Connell called for a bolder--if ill-defined--approach to solving the energy mess. "Just ask President Jimmy Carter what happens when you stall and you don't solve the gasoline problem," Connell said. "We don't want to have that happen to California Democrats."

Connell has repeatedly clashed with Davis over the electricity crisis, criticizing him directly at candidate forums and indirectly in her TV spots in the Los Angeles mayor's race.

On Saturday, she faulted Davis for failing to publicly disclose terms of the power contracts he has been secretly negotiating and for the drain on taxpayer dollars to keep lights burning as the state works toward a long-term solution.

"I am concerned that a delayed and incremental approach to an indefinite problem is going to rob this state of any financial flexibility and all the budgetary resources that we have put in the bank," Connell said. "Dollars that I worked hard to identify and audit so that we could expand our schools, we could pave our roads and we could build new water supplies that we desperately need."

The audience of party loyalists responded coolly, and Davis even more so. At a news conference after his own speech, Davis said, "Everyone is entitled to their point of view, but I believe we've moved at warp speed to address this problem."

"Maybe if she's not happy with that," Davis added a moment later, "she can run for governor next time around."

Some believe that may be Connell's intent, assuming she fails to make the mayoral runoff in the April 10 primary. "It sounds like she may be preparing herself," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at USC. "Any politician worth his or her salt always looks for another door to open."

But in a later interview, Connell insisted "the governor's race is irrelevant to this issue" and said that as controller she was focused on helping solve the energy crisis. Politically, she added, she was concentrating on the mayor's race.

For his part, Davis continued to insist he was not wedded to the steep consumer rate increases adopted last week by his appointees to the PUC. Asked why he failed to intervene to block the hike if he disapproved, Davis said, "I don't think it profits us to go backwards." He promised a "comprehensive statement" sometime in the next two weeks on what, if any, rate hikes he would support after further study of the situation.

The intraparty feuding overshadowed the message Democrats intended by holding their first statewide gathering in Orange County, long a bastion of conservative Republicanism. After a series of locally elected Democrats were introduced, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown Jr. crowed: "Orange County? In my day [as Assembly speaker] I could only come here at night. . . . I can walk in Orange County now."


Times staff writer Jean O. Pasco contributed to this story.

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