Don't write off Davis just yet

April 09, 2001|By Jules Witcover

SACRAMENTO -- Gov. Gray Davis sat at the far end of a long table in an unlit conference room the other day, quietly explaining how he intended to rescue California -- and perhaps his own political career -- from the dark shadow of the worst electricity crisis in the state's history.

Leaving the lights off was a small symbolic gesture of the power conservation that is a key element, along with increased power generation, in his formula for getting through a dicey spring and an expected rougher summer, amid the severe power shortage that has brought "rolling blackouts" into the American lexicon.

"We all have to pull together," Mr. Davis said. "The solution to this problem involves building more power plants and reducing the amount of power each of us consumes on a daily basis. Generation and conservation are the keys to our electricity future."

Mr. Davis defended his state against its image as a power guzzler. California, he said, rates behind only one state, Rhode Island, in efficient use of energy. "The perception that all Californians are sitting in their hot tubs with their computers on" is wrong, he said.

He spoke for the most part in the same soft and measured voice that over the years has made him among the most unprepossessing of political figures. After a landslide election in 1998 and a honeymoon in office of more than two years, Mr. Davis is now embattled, jousting not only with powerful utility giants but the unpredictable elements of weather that can greatly complicate his challenge.

While saying that all Democrats and Republicans at the state capitol "are joined at the hip on solving this problem," Mr. Davis for openers repeated his contention that he inherited the problem from his Republican predecessor, Gov. Pete Wilson, and the energy deregulation during Mr. Wilson's tenure.

"In 12 years preceding my governorship," he said, "not a single power plant was built. I've authorized 12; seven are under construction, four will be up this summer, three will be up next summer. But you can't make up for 12 years of inaction with two years of action."

Mr. Davis is negotiating with the leading utilities to enable the state to buy power transmission lines, to be put under a new state power authority in an effort to control soaring consumer prices. It is an approach that has met opposition among some Democratic leaders in the legislature who would prefer seizing existing plants outright, and among some Republicans ideologically opposed to the state getting deeper into the power-generation business.

A new complication arose Friday when California's biggest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, filed for bankruptcy protection.

At the same time, the state's Public Utilities Commission's recent decision to raise power rates by up to 46 percent has consumers up in arms and Mr. Davis on the griddle. After months of opposition to a price increase, he conceded in a statewide televised speech the other night that price increases as much as 25.6 percent will be needed to keep the lights on. But he promised to make the heaviest energy users pay the most.

In the interview, Mr. Davis said it is not his job to dwell on "how we got into this mess. It's my job to lead us out." And in terms of his political future, he said, he expected to be judged on how he succeeds or fails in that task.

For all the peril in the current energy dilemma, and sinking re-election polling numbers, Mr. Davis' prospects for a second term in 2002 are not being dismissed here, barring a total political disaster. One reason is the strength of the Democratic Party, which in November not only delivered the state for Al Gore but also increased the Democratic majorities in the legislature. Another is Mr. Davis' re-election campaign treasury, reported to be already at an astonishing $26 million.

The California Republican Party remains in shambles, with Secretary of State Bill Jones, the only GOP statewide officeholder, and Bill Simon Jr., son of the treasury secretary in the Gerald Ford administration, the only prospective challengers so far.

Movie actor Arnold Schwarzenegger has said he's considering a run, and if that happens, Mr. Davis says with another grin, "I'll star in `Terminator III.'" It is one of the few things the governor can laugh about these days.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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