Despite Spending $46 Million, California Rejects PG&E

“No on 16” revelers pay a 1:30 a.m. visit to PG&E Headquarters.

I’ve been a political campaign junkie for years. And the frustrating part about this job is that after going to Election Night parties, I have to go home and write about it for readers to view the next morning. So if a particular race takes the whole night to resolve, I could be up very late. But I had no problem sticking around the “No on 16” campaign party last night until 1:00 a.m. – monitoring the results with Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, State Senator Mark Leno and our good friends at TURN. Because Tuesday  night’s defeat of Prop 16 was one of the most historic victories in California history. Outspent over 1,000-to-one by a monster utility company, consumer advocates defeated by a 52-47 margin an odious measure that would have cemented PG&E’s monopoly. To call this a David & Goliath victory does not give it justice. As my friend Robert Cruickshank wrote at Calitics, it’s like “an ant taking down an elephant.” Oh, and Prop 17 failed too.

PG&E is desperate to stop community choice aggregation – where local governments can purchase energy to offer their constituents a “public option” to the company’s monopoly. Proposition 16 would have required a two-thirds vote of the electorate before cities can do community choice aggregation, and cynically dubbed it the Taxpayer’s Right to Vote.

Never mind that taxpayers already have the right to vote out their elected officials – if they don’t support community choice aggregation. Never mind that ratepayers were not given the chance on voting for PG&E as their energy provider. Public power is not even one of my top “issues,” but I was outraged that PG&E would try something like Prop 16.

PG&E shattered campaign spending records with $46 million to pass Prop 16 – ratepayer money that we give them every month when we pay our energy bills. The only organized opposition was TURN (the Utility Reform Network), who only raised $90,000. Bloggers got creative by making “No on 16” videos, and a hilarious Twitter feed. But the campaign often seemed like a rag-tag army tilting at the windmills.

When I arrived at the “No on 16” party at Otis Lounge around 9:30 p.m., the results were looking bad. We were down by about three points, but the night was still young. Having watched statewide campaigns for years, I knew it would ultimately come down to Los Angeles County – so I quickly went online to check how we were doing down there.

Not good. The early absentees had Prop 16 winning L.A. County by 13 points, far worse than where we were statewide. If this kept on during the night, it was going to be painful. The public power entity in Los Angeles had just raised rates, and folks at the party said it may be why Prop 16 was doing so well. Small comfort for the largest county in the state.

Mark Toney of TURN was saying we should be proud that we held PG&E to such a close margin, after having been outspent nearly 1,000-to-one – but I cringed when I heard that. We were losing. Sure, we were doing pretty well in Northern California – where people know and hate PG&E, but we were getting creamed down south. Where the votes are.

But as the night wore on, some folks pointed out how well we were doing in counties like Fresno, Madera, and Mariposa. These are conservative places in the Central Valley, but PG&E had alienated these customers with “smart meters.” I checked how we were doing in San Benito County – which political junkies often say is the bellwether of California state politics. We were slightly ahead in San Benito County, but only by about 50 votes.

And the L.A. County numbers were trickling in – slowly, but surely. We were still losing there, but the margin was noticeably trending in our favor. By now, everyone at the party was huddled around a small number of laptops – while I double-checked the Secretary of State’s website with what individual counties were saying. Places like San Diego and Orange County were coming in where we were behind, but we were not losing ground.

Pretty soon, our three-point loss became a one-point lead – and there was a palpable sense in the air that we could win it. I wasn’t convinced yet – scouring the L.A. County numbers to see if this positive trend in our favor was not going to start reversing itself.

When 58% of L.A. County had been counted, we were ahead there. I got up, and boldly shouted that we had won. It reminded me of the scene in Milk, when Jim Rivaldo tells Harvey Milk not to worry about the Briggs Initiative. L.A. County had just come in, and we were going to win. By now, I was sure that we had slain the Prop 16 dragon.

During that whole time, Proposition 17 – Mercury Insurance’s scam to rip off consumers – had been ahead by a wider margin than Prop 16. As we were all fixated on the Prop 16 results, it became apparent that Prop 17 results were following similar trends. By the end of the evening, Prop 17 had likewise had the same fate – it also lost by about five points.

As of 4:00 this morning, Prop 16 is losing 47-53 – with 91.6% of all precincts reporting. Not only is this a stunning rebuke of PG&E, but it is a strong mandate for public power. Californians want a choice in the energy marketplace, and are ready for a “public option” that provides them with competitive rates and renewable energy sources.

And PG&E will deserve every share of anger, rebuke and humiliation coming at it.

Paul Hogarth

Republished with permission from BeyondChron.

Published by the LA Progressive on June 11, 2010
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About Paul Hogarth

Paul Hogarth is the Managing Editor of Beyond Chron -- an alternative online daily based in San Francisco providing news coverage ignored or distorted by the San Francisco Chronicle. He is a tenants' rights attorney at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, an active member of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club and was an elected official on the Berkeley Rent Board from 2000-2004. He lives in San Francisco.