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Front Page > Issues > 2003 > December

A post-mordem for public power

Big lies, backed by big money, beat an inexperienced grassroots campaign in one of the state’s most important fights on energy.

By Abby Sewell

In the Nov. 4 special election, another progressive ballot measure went the way of last year’s failed attempts to create universal health care and require labels on genetically modified foods. Measure 26-51, which would have created a publicly owned power company in the place of the Enron-owned Portland General Electric (PGE), went down by a margin of 32 percent to 68 percent at the polls; and the question on many people’s minds is, “Why?”

For some, the answer is all in the money. The campaign against the PUD (publicly owned utility district) reported that it had raised nearly $1.9 million dollars in the week before the election, while the pro-PUD campaign had raised only $29,000, mostly in small individual donations. The anti-PUD campaign, calling itself Citizens Against a Government Takeover and largely comprised of PGE and the neighboring private power company, Pacific Power, spent about $567,000 on TV airtime alone. Meanwhile, the pro-PUD campaign, led by the Oregon Public Power Coalition, was constrained by a lack of funds to putting up yard signs and sending volunteers to table at public gatherings.

Moreover, pitted against OPPC’s staff of overworked and often inexperienced volunteers, PGE had its high-profile public relations firm, Gard and Gerber, which engineered the devastatingly effective anti-”government takeover” campaign message. PGE also had 2,800 employees at its disposal, who contributed $70,000 worth of “employee time” to the campaign, according to PGE’s campaign spending report.

For OPPC activist Liz Trojan, the lesson to be taken from the election is, “If you have a grassroots effort but it conflicts with a corporation’s ability to make a dollar, you won’t win.”

The odds were further stacked against the PUD by the language in the voter information pamphlet, which warned the public that the measure could cause property taxes to rise by more than three percent. Although a federal judge ruled this statement to be “patently false,” the ruling came only after voting had begun, and was not widely publicized.

“The judge listened to the arguments, called three lawyers to the bench and said, ‘Do you have calculators? Do you realize how much money we’re talking about, that you’re misleading people on?’” recalls Nancy Newell, an activist in the pro-PUD campaign and one of the candidates for the PUD board. The judge, Ancer Haggerty, subsequently ordered the county to run newspaper notices advising voters of the error, but the county and state appealed his decision to the 9th circuit court and had it overturned.

This brings up a third factor weighing against the PUD — the bevy of public officials who either remained silent on the issue or actively opposed it. While some of these officials may have an ideological preference for private over public power, Newell believes that others wanted to see the PUD measure fail so that the city of Portland could move to acquire PGE’s assets on its own terms. She points to city commissioner Erik Sten, who pointedly refused to take a stand on the measure.

“Obviously, the PUD is something he didn’t want. He wants control through the city. He feels that it would be more efficient...but what he risked [by failing to speak in favor of the PUD] was the disparagement of public power as a viable option,” Newell said.

In fact, Sten, Mayor Katz, and others supporting a city takeover of PGE have now lost their chance. In July, the city offered Enron $2.2 billion dollars for PGE and was turned away. Following the failure of the PUD measure, the city was considering its next step, reportedly preparing to condemn PGE’s assets if Enron refused to sell them. But the idea of city ownership received its deathblow on Nov. 17, when Enron announced that it had accepted the $2.35 billion dollar offer of another Texas-based corporation, Texas Pacific, to buy PGE.

While the money is coming from Texas Pacific, the purchase will be carried out by the Oregon Electric Utility Company, a brand new operation, chaired by Neil Goldshmidt, the former mayor of Portland and ex-governor of Oregon. Goldschmidt was a prominent voice in the anti-PUD campaign at the same time as he was engaged in negotiations with Texas Pacific.

In light of these facts, there is no doubt that the campaign was an unequal competition, but PUDs have been created in other counties despite heavy-handed opposition. For instance, the campaign that resulted in the creation of the nearby Columbia River PUD faced a similar ratio of campaign spending by the opposition, but in that case, the PUD campaign succeeded in winning the voters over.

Trojan believes that private utility companies generally throw less resources into fighting PUDs in rural areas like Columbia County than in metropolitan areas like Portland, where there are more potential ratepayers and the cost of service per customer is lower.

Newell, however, thinks that the Columbia River PUD campaign may also have done a better job of finding a message that would resonate with the voters.

“I think [the Columbia River campaign] stuck more to what public power is, and ours was more against Enron...theirs was more about local control, and that rung a bell in people’s minds,” Newell said.

She said ruefully of the Multnomah County pro-PUD coalition, “A campaign it was not. It was more of a learning process. In the future, I would try to run a more extensive organizing campaign with a lot of people involved, and a broader message, not just focused on cost.”

Another activist with the PUD campaign, who asked to remain anonymous, said that one major problem was that there was no one involved who had prior experience in running a successful electoral campaign. Initially, the campaign had hoped to get some large contributions from industry, especially since Ken Cannon, of Industrial Customers of Northwest Utilities, has repeatedly complained that high energy costs are driving industry out of Oregon. PGE’s rates are among the highest in the state. But, in the absence of a professional fundraiser, the PUD activists were unsure how to go about approaching potential major donors or even how to schedule meetings with them.

PUD proponents were also unable to win over IBEW, the electrical workers’ union, despite having approached the union on several occasions. This crucial failure was probably the result of PGE bludgeoning its employees with misleading information and of the conservative tendencies of some of the union leadership. Nevertheless, it was a heavy blow to the legitimacy of the PUD campaign in the eyes of the public.

For her part, Trojan said, “I think, given the amount of resources we had, we got great turnout from the community...and we educated a lot of people.”

Although the Multnomah County PUD measure failed, four other counties are currently preparing to introduce similar ballot measures. The Yamhill county measure is already slated to go on the March ballot, with a Clackamas measure likely to follow in the May primary elections.

Trojan and Newell are both optimistic about the prospects for a victory in these counties.

“The irony for us would be if little old Republican Yamhill gets a PUD before we do,” Trojan said. But Yamhill County has an example of a successful PUD in its back yard, with McMinnville Public Power. Moreover, as Trojan pointed out before, PGE is likely to spend less money on fighting PUD measures in the more rural counties.

Newell concluded hopefully, “I think you can win against big money, I do.”

Abby Sewell is a student at Reed College and a Portland Alliance intern.


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Last Updated: January 29, 2003