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Beating Up a Powerful Friend and Creating a Good Impression

July 02, 2001|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Politicians are too predictable, you say. Well, here's a twist: Republican conservative beats up on big business.

Secretary of State Bill Jones, running uphill for governor, lectured the power industry "to change business practices or face consequences."

Consequences like being shut out of California's huge electricity market--12% of the nation's population, the world's fifth-largest economy.

Jones scolded:

"Either you get with the program, or Californians may take matters into their own hands. I tell you, if you do not get up and do something to help this state--and by doing so, help yourselves--then you as energy providers face a dim future here . . .

"Let me remind you of a little process we have out here in California called the ballot initiative. When people get angry enough, voters can and do take action directly through the polls."

You probably have not read or heard about this dressing down by a pro-business Republican of profiteering power suppliers, some of whom he asserted "simply got greedy."

That's because Jones normally does not attract a lot of attention. Too dull and predictable, we newsies say. And he gave this dinner speech late on a weeknight, June 21, in out-of-the-way Ojai. The audience was relatively small--62 people attending a conference of the Western Power Trading Forum.

"I probably was not as welcome leaving as I was coming in," Jones says. "But it's the kind of speech those folks needed to hear."

"He got a mixed reaction," recalls the power group's executive director, Gary Ackerman. "We'd like to see stronger support from gubernatorial candidates because we feel we've done nothing wrong and have played by the rules.

"But there's some sympathy and understanding that any politician worth his salt is not going to stand up and go 'rah-rah' for the generators. . . .

"He's in a lot of good company with people who feel the same way."

That's verified by a new Times poll. When registered voters were asked whether they agree or disagree that "independent power companies have manipulated the electricity market in California in order to make a higher profit," 89% agreed--77% "strongly."

Moreover, 90% of voters called energy a serious problem, but only 35% believed "there is an actual shortage" of electricity.

The problem, voters think, is gaming and gouging.

So even if Jones was in strange territory for a Republican politician, he was on safe ground with voters.

Jones' strategy, however, is not merely to pander to voters. His aim is to be seen as a straight shooter--an experienced politician who's knowledgeable and doesn't pull punches.

That contrasts with his only announced opponent for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, megabucks businessman Bill Simon, who never before has run for office. Simon is still doing crash homework on basic issues and is super-cautious in answering questions about his views.

Asked last week at the Sacramento Press Club whether he thinks power producers have gouged consumers, the onetime prosecutor replied, "That really rests on the investigations. . . . I wouldn't want to prejudge culpability."

If he had answered the Times poll, Simon would have been among the very few--6%--who weren't sure.

Former Mayor Richard Riordan, who's being egged on by President Bush to run for governor, probably won't be attacking greedy generators either. That's because he could be branded one himself. The L.A. DWP was one of the biggest gougers last winter while selling electricity to the state.

That's priceless fodder for Jones. But in Ojai, he pounded primarily on Gov. Gray Davis--"he took a problem and made it into a crisis"--and the private producers.

Jones admonished the power companies to embrace the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's new wholesale electricity price caps.

"You are in many ways waging war on yourselves," he said. "The reports of never-before-heard-of profits of several generators have fueled resentment . . . and soured the long-term prospects for true market reforms."

Ackerman, the dinner host, said Jones arrived as an unknown, but "left people with a positive image. . . .

"I'll add one thing. This man has integrity. I talked to him about [campaign] contributions. He didn't hesitate. He said he wouldn't accept money from generators during the [energy] crisis."

This is intriguing strategy. Beat up a usual ally. Leave a good impression. Earn praise for ethics.

Refreshing politics.

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