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A Maverick Voice on Phone Rules

PUC Commissioner Susan Kennedy is orchestrating an overhaul of state telecom regulation, to the liking of big companies but to the chagrin of other Democrats.

May 22, 2005|James S. Granelli | Times Staff Writer

Susan P. Kennedy seethes when people call her "anti-consumer."

She is, after all, a Democrat, a former top aide to Sen. Dianne Feinstein and former Gov. Gray Davis, who put her on the California Public Utilities Commission in January 2003.

As the state's highest-ranking openly gay public official, she embraces the party's ideals of civil rights and individual freedoms. "I'm a Democrat to the core," she said.

So why do Republicans love her so much, while many Democrats distrust her?

On the commission, Kennedy is orchestrating -- at breakneck speed -- a wholesale revision of state regulation, mostly to the liking of giant regional phone companies SBC Communications Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc.

She would eliminate many economic regulations, including the state's power to set wholesale and retail phone rates. In the process, she is dismantling actions she considers excessively pro-consumer, such as a telecom consumers "bill of rights" pushed by former Commissioners Loretta M. Lynch and Carl W. Wood.

"She's the most Republican Democrat I've ever seen," said Joe Gillan, an economist who has worked for AT&T Corp. and other rivals of SBC and Verizon.

It all comes as the traditional telephone industry is consolidating, with SBC and Verizon gobbling up their two biggest long-distance rivals.

Consumer advocates contend that now is not the time to set the phone carriers free from regulation. But Kennedy insists her agenda ultimately will help California residents and small-business owners.

"I'm pro-business and I'm pro-consumer, and I reject the notion that those are mutually exclusive," Kennedy said. "I'm pro-growth. I'm pro-jobs. I don't see how you can be pro-growth and pro-jobs and be considered anti-consumer."

PUC matters aren't usually viewed as partisan. However, she acknowledges that her telecom views aren't typical for a California Democrat. "I can't believe how conservative, even right-wing, I've become on these issues," she said in an interview last fall.

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The daughter of an RCA Corp. employee and a church secretary, Kennedy grew up in the tough environs of Rumson, a New Jersey shore town. As a 12-year-old in 1972, she was inspired by actress Jane Fonda's support of American Indian and free-speech causes and opposition to the Vietnam War.

Five years later, a partial meltdown of a nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island near her new home in Lancaster, Pa., raised her political hackles as the government tried to keep a lid on what happened.

Her then-private sexual orientation also shaped her views of equality and her political affinity for Democrats. "You can't grow up gay in this country without experiencing some real pain," she said. She always has viewed herself as a public official who happens to be gay, not as a gay public official. Her 1999 marriage to partner Vicki Marti drew top politicians to the ceremony in Hawaii.

After dropping out of Millersville State College in Pennsylvania because she was partying too much -- "My father made me pay him back" -- Kennedy headed to Los Angeles and, at nearly 20, joined the Campaign for Economic Democracy run by Fonda's then-husband, Tom Hayden.

It was a breeding ground for political training: campaigning, fundraising and field organizing. She quickly became a behind-the-scenes organizer and fundraiser taking on ever-increasing responsibilities in a series of jobs to become one of the state Democratic Party's top field organizers.

In one of the biggest get-out-the-vote campaigns, which Kennedy helped lead, the state Democrats in 1992 put Feinstein in the Senate and helped put Bill Clinton in the presidency. Clinton's "solution-oriented mind-set," she said, is one she emulates and one that too many California Democrats don't appreciate.

"We rightfully get tagged with the baggage that all we want to do is tax, spend, regulate," said Kennedy, now 44. "We measure progress by how many regulations and dollars we throw at problems. I'm tired of having my party being labeled as anti-business."

To her own dismay, Kennedy has spent 13 years studying part time to reach her senior year in college. She insists she will finish. She promised her father.

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Kennedy is pushing her telecom agenda with passion, quick wit, a sharp tongue and a short fuse.

She is impatient with bureaucratic and legal process, which, she acknowledges, may make her ill-suited for a seat on the commission, a full-time job that pays $114,191.

A sprite of a woman at 5 feet 2 with sky-blue eyes, Kennedy also can be confrontational. After agreeing in January to delay a vote she sought, she said in an e-mail she didn't want to leave any impression "that I have no appetite for an ugly fight."

Kennedy typically is backed by PUC President Michael R. Peevey, also a Democrat, and is expected to get support from new appointee John Bohn, a Republican. Geoffrey F. Brown and Dian M. Greuneich, appointed in January, are moderate Democrats.

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