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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Californians Aren't Joining the GOP's Blame-Davis Game

February 26, 2001|GEORE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Everybody's beating on Gov. Gray Davis about energy. Everybody except California's citizens.

Republican politicians are berating the Democratic governor more and more, trying out a 2002 campaign theme: timid and slow. Many Democratic pols echo these accusations, except in whispers.

The citizens? They blame everybody but Davis. They're down on the Legislature, the Public Utilities Commission, the private utilities. A recent Times poll found they're even critical of President Bush, whose message to California was: Solve your own problem.

But more often than not, Californians approve of Davis' handling of the mess (49%-37%).

How does he escape? Several ways, say Davis strategists, citing their own polls and focus groups.

"People have a very good sense that this governor did not create the problem," says Garry South, Davis' chief political advisor. Adds Davis pollster Paul Maslin: "They don't view this as a crisis. They view it as a screw-up and a rip-off."

Former Gov. Pete Wilson gets tagged--along with the Legislature and PUC--for the screw-up, Maslin says. Wilson pushed the electricity deregulation bill that the Legislature passed in 1996 and the PUC implemented.

Private utilities are suspected of the rip-off. People do not distinguish between them and the bigger culprits, the out-of-state power producers--the "profiteers" and "gougers," as Davis called them in his State of the State address. Consumers know only about the familiar utilities--Edison, PG&E--that they send their money to.

But Davis also escapes because of public intuition.

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The best example of public intuition favoring Davis was what happened last summer.

When electricity rates doubled for San Diego G&E customers, it was a warning sign for regions served by Edison and PG&E. Davis and the Democratic Legislature patched up San Diego's immediate problem. But they procrastinated in dealing with the larger issue of supply, demand and profiteering soon to afflict the entire state.

Timid and slow.

Davis is widely blamed for not allowing or advocating--choose your verb--long-term contracts for affordable electricity between utilities and generators. Indeed, Duke Energy CEO James M. Donnell wrote Davis on July 31 offering what turned out to be a bargain: 2,000 megawatt-hours at $50 per megawatt for five years. Recently, megawatt hours have been selling on the spot market for from $250 to $1,300.

"The governor's office responded that they appreciated the offer," Donnell recalls, "but they weren't prepared to act because they were in the middle of trying to figure out what was the best way [to go]."

Timid and slow.

But many fumbled. Now there's finger-pointing and spin. Davis' aides note the Republican PUC had jurisdiction over contracting. The GOP contends Davis should have been assertive and led. The PUC says utilities did have approval to sign long-term contracts. Utilities didn't like the rules.

Amid the confusion, South says, it's intuitive for the public to side with Davis, a Democrat.

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"All this does not bode well for Republicans trying to use energy as a centerpiece to run against Gray Davis," South says.

"It's counterintuitive to people that when big companies are ripping you off, Republicans are the answer. Particularly when some of the companies are Texas-based and big [campaign] givers to Bush.

"Having the Republican Party say, 'We're going to protect you from rate increases and stop the big corporations from taking advantage of you' is about as credible as a Democrat standing up and saying, 'I'm going to cut your taxes more than my Republican opponent and I'm tougher on crime.' "

Davis has been a strong advocate of holding the line on rate hikes. People are grudgingly resigned to hikes--they're up 9% and slated to climb another 10% next year--but don't like it and appreciate the governor being on their side, his pollster says.

Republicans are encouraged by a Times poll finding that increasing numbers of people think California is "seriously off on the wrong track" (47%) rather than "going in the right direction" (38%). Yet, even those who bemoan the "wrong track" tend to approve of Davis' overall job performance.

It's crucial for Davis that California get through the summer without repeated blackouts. "It's my expectation we will," he told NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday. "But it will require every Californian using about 10% less electricity--and a little luck getting some extra megawatts."

If that happens, Davis may emerge from all this even stronger politically. And he can remind voters that we never would have gotten in trouble if Republicans, in 1996, had just been timid and slow.

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