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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

New Energy Czar Gives Davis Some High-Voltage Help

April 26, 2001|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Four months ago, David Freeman--then head of the L.A. Department of Water and Power--said some blunt things about Gov. Gray Davis. Like, he should be bolder and less boring.

"Either he thinks like Franklin Roosevelt or he becomes Herbert Hoover," Freeman told me. Pointing to white plaster, he added: "Right now, he's as bland as that wall over there."

Freeman went on to declare that Davis should dive into the public power business and name an "energy czar."

A Stetson-wearing disciple of FDR, Freeman has spent his long, colorful life managing public power, including two creations of Roosevelt: the Tennessee Valley Authority and the New York Power Authority.

His comments, naturally, rankled the governor. And Freeman immediately heard about it from a top Davis aide.

But to Davis' credit, he later contacted Freeman, listened to him and embraced a bill by Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco) to create a state public power authority. The governor also recruited Freeman to negotiate vital long-term electricity contracts for the state.

And last week, Davis named Freeman, 75, as his "chief energy advisor"--indeed, his energy czar. Says the salty new Davis aide: "You know what happened to the czars. They got their . . . heads chopped off."

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It says something about Davis--something contrary to conventional wisdom--that he would appoint a onetime critic to a job so crucial to his and the state's future. It says he does not always need yes men around him. That when his back is against the wall, he will reach for the best, regardless of past slights. No grudges, no paranoia.

In doing that, Davis has acquired an asset he badly needs in the Capitol: a voice with unquestioned expertise and credibility.

This comes at a time when frustration--over the unending energy crisis, long intense days, Davis' micro-management--is rampant in the governor's office. Two burned-out top aides recently resigned: Communications Director Phil Trounstine and energy advisor John Stevens.

Freeman has quit as DWP general manager to head up Davis' $850-million statewide energy conservation program. He'll lead the new state public power authority once the Legislature passes the Burton bill creating it. The measure has been stalled in the Assembly.

A lot of energy legislation is stalled. Every lawmaker seems to have a distinct idea about how to fix this mess. And the idea changes every week. "A tower of babble," one utility exec recently called the Capitol.

Leadership is lacking. Davis doesn't have a real friend in the Legislature. He's trying-- holding group meetings, lobbying his proposals--but most legislators lost faith in him when he seemed to move slowly.

"My gut tells me this guy has to get very bold and assertive," says one influential Democrat of Davis. "He should be coming to me and saying, 'You may not like this, but I need you to do it. We have to get this solved.' "

Reward and punish, befitting a governor.

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Freeman acknowledges "a fair amount of frustration" with the Legislature. But he isn't critical. The lawmakers, he notes, are being extra skittish. They're trying not to repeat the 1996 blunder, when most legislators were like lemmings following their leaders in unison off the deregulation cliff.

One dilemma is that data change constantly. For example, the state Energy Commission now has new figures for those electricity transmission lines. This is important because Davis and Edison have agreed--the Legislature willing--for the state to buy Edison's high-voltage lines for $2.7 billion.

The Edison lines represent just 16% of California's nearly 33,000-mile grid, according to the commission. PG&E owns 57%, San Diego G&E 6%, municipal utilities 18%, the feds 3%.

Many legislators question buying just Edison's lines. But Freeman says it's a step toward also acquiring PG&E's in Bankruptcy Court. "In order to get it all, you've got to start," he points out. And if the entire California grid were in public ownership, he says, it could be operated and expanded more efficiently and cheaply.

But for this summer, he asserts, conservation is the solution. "If you unscrewed every other lightbulb in the state, you think we'd be in the dark? My gosh, it would be more pleasant."

For long term, the new public power authority will start building generating plants so California isn't at the mercy of private profiteers.

"We're going to try to see how close to FDR we can come," the new czar says, grinning.

Davis wants to get just close enough to avoid becoming a Herbert Hoover.

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