Groping in the dark in sunny California

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Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio)

One of the few movie references that was not dredged up and recycled during the California recall campaign was a line Arnold Schwarzenegger intones in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”

“The more contact I have with humans, the more I learn,” he says.

It would have been a natural for the campaign. Repeating it would have been an excellent way for real-life Ah-nuld to explain the contact with female humans that he ended up apologizing for – “things that were not right which I thought then was playful,” as he put it. He was just learning.

By repeating the line, he also could have demonstrated how effective the contact was. He did learn from it, because “now I recognize that I have offended people” and “wherever there is smoke, there is fire. That is true.”

One step at a time. Humans and cyborgs learn from mistakes, and learning social graces is more complicated than learning “fire – bad.”

But the groping in California has just begun.

Ohioans feared that our U.S. Senate campaign would have become a circus if Jerry Springer had decided to run. It would have looked like the College of Cardinals next to the 135-ring California race.

Compared with “Total Recall,” Springer would have looked like Adlai Stevenson.

Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy with Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show,” took a few questions in Johnny Carson Park and gave his first interview to “Access Hollywood.” He and his wife sat for their only extended interview half a continent away, in Chicago, with Oprah Winfrey. He showed up for one “debate.” For in-depth coverage, you watched “Entertainment Tonight.”

He talked about terminating the hapless and leadership-challenged incumbent Gray Davis and terminating the unpopular tripling of the state car tax. He lifted Peter Finch’s line from “Network” and said people were “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore,” even if he left them in the dark about specifics.

But California was in the dark before, because of an energy crisis. Which brought up an interesting point amid all the charges about groping and goose-stepping.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission found that California’s blackouts and rate spikes of May 2001 were largely due to energy companies manipulating the market and gaming the system in the wake of deregulation. One of the companies was Enron, whose profits soared. It feared the crisis would cause other states to reconsider or cancel deregulation plans.

At the height of the crisis, Enron President Ken Lay convened a secret meeting in a posh Los Angeles hotel, with a dozen participants including Schwarzenegger. The meeting recently was confirmed by internal Enron e-mails coughed up in federal investigations and obtained by the nonpartisan Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Los Angeles, which had been highly critical of Gray Davis.

Schwarzenegger said he didn’t recall the meeting. But, said the foundation’s senior consumer advocate, Douglas Heller, “You don’t meet with America’s most well-known corporate crook in the middle of California’s biggest financial disaster and not remember. Schwarzenegger should come clean about what happened at that meeting and if he shares Ken Lay’s views on energy regulation.”

Heller wasn’t surprised there wasn’t much pursuit of the story. “From the California perspective,” he told me, “people had lost any capacity to do the tailwork. Unless Schwarzenegger had been groping Ken Lay in that hotel room, there wasn’t going to be much interest.”

It becomes important because California has gone to court seeking to recover $8.9 billion in energy overcharges – about equal to the state’s projected budget deficit. State officials have protested the FERC’s recent settlements of cases with companies accused of manipulating the market, seeing them as wrist-slaps amounting to a fraction of the refunds they figure they’re owed.

If Schwarzenegger says the state should move forward, settle accounts and drop the suits to accept what it gets, then the groping will have only begun. And people had better keep a hand on their wallets.
To reach this Plain Dealer columnist: [email protected], 216-999-5433

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