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California and the West | THE CALIFORNIA ENERGY CRISIS

Power Crisis Casts Pall Over State Democratic Convention

Politics: Leaders blame the Republicans for deregulation but are keenly aware that they will be held accountable for a solution.

April 02, 2001|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

ANAHEIM — It was the best of times and the worst of times when Democrats gathered over the weekend for their annual state convention, a party fattened by success but chastened by its duty to fix California's energy mess.

The convention locale, in the heart of once reliably Republican Orange County, spoke volumes about Democrats' near-total control of the state political scene. But the dimmed lights inside the convention hall, a conservation measured imposed by management, spoke volumes too.

With incumbency comes accountability. And just about everyone in the party recognizes that, regardless of who caused the problem, voters expect Democrats to solve it.

"There will be no excuses . . . because we dominate state government," said state Controller Kathleen Connell, who skipped the usual convention niceties and bashed Gov. Gray Davis, her fellow Democrat, in the weekend's most provocative appearance.

Others chimed in as well. Dylan Wiseman, 32, a convention delegate and attorney from Elk Grove, scoffed at Davis' assertion that he was caught unaware when the Public Utilities Commission--stocked with his appointees--voted to drastically raise electricity rates last week. "I don't think his own party believes that," Wiseman said, standing Sunday morning in the semi-darkened hall.

Pelton Teague, 65, a delegate from Banning, was more deferential, but suggested much the same. "I'm not sure he's been telling us. . . . I've got to be careful what I say," Teague said, his voice trailing off.

"Right now I'm a little fuzzy about what's going on," he finally said. "But I'm not comfortable with what I'm seeing."

Though hardly a revolt, the incipient rumblings suggest the increased political peril Davis faces as he looks ahead to reelection next year. Although he remains a strong favorite to win a second term, the odds are becoming a bit less favorable each day the power problems drag on.

"He's in a situation where he has two advantages," said Bill Carrick, a Democratic campaign strategist in Los Angeles, who is not affiliated with the governor. "He has no obvious [Democratic] primary challenger and no obvious strong Republican opponent.

"That said, the political environment is very dangerous for him because when people see the economy slowing down and this incredible energy crisis, they are growing unhappier and unhappier," Carrick said. "And that's always bad news for incumbents."

So Democrats spent the weekend doing their best to change the subject and point their fingers at someone else: President Bush.

A scant 70 days into his term, Bush was lambasted for everything from his fractured syntax to the controversial way he took office, thanks to the 5-4 decision of a bitterly divided U.S. Supreme Court. One speaker after another attacked the president for barring funds for international family planning programs, rolling back worker safety rules, reversing his campaign pledge to limit carbon dioxide emissions and suspending new arsenic restrictions for drinking water.

"This is a president who, in every case, in every way, is doing what wealthy special interests want," said House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).

Bush was also faulted over and over for his hands-off approach to California's energy woes. "His attitude is pretty easy to sum up," Terry McAuliffe, the national Democratic Party chairman, told delegates. "Bush to California: Drop dead."

Throughout the weekend gathering, which drew roughly 2,000 party loyalists, Democrats strived to blame the electricity mess on Republicans, who ran things when the state's failed deregulation plan was adopted in the mid-1990s. Signs around the Anaheim Convention Center declared "Wilson did it"--a reference to Davis' GOP predecessor, Pete Wilson--and the party passed out fortune cookies with a barbed message inside--"Bush rejects price caps" and "Energy Fiasco: DNA proves Wilson at crime scene."

Davis appeared Saturday and spent nearly half his 25-minute speech faulting Republicans and touting his efforts--from stepped-up conservation to speeded-up permitting for power plants--to try to fix the electricity problem. He continued to distance himself from the actions of his own PUC, promising to release a statement within two weeks on "what, if any" rate increases he would support.

"Many advisors from Wall Street are running numbers, and they appear to be different from the PUC's," he told reporters.

Davis promised convention delegates that if a rate hike proves to be necessary, "You can be sure of one thing from this governor: I'll fight to protect those least able to pay, reward those who conserve the most, and motivate those who are the biggest guzzlers to cut back."

The response to the governor's remarks was strikingly tepid. Afterward, several delegates said Davis needs to do more--and quickly--to show Californians a way out of the mess. With Democrats holding all but one statewide office and boasting big majorities in both the Legislature and congressional delegation, many at the convention fretted that a voter backlash would hit their party hardest.

"If Democrats are smart, we'll keep reminding people it was Republican legislation that caused this," said Teague, the delegate from Banning. "But there's no doubt in my mind this will hurt Democrats if things crash and don't get better."

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