Power Crisis Abates, but It Hounds Gov. Davis

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The New York Times

MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif., Oct. 4 – Gov. Gray Davis spoke animatedly with a cluster of national guardsmen today at a training compound here just south of Los Angeles, emphasizing his support for their critical mission: protecting airports. Although this was not the sort of appearance the governor used to make, it was the second this week in which he had placed himself in front of cameras with uniformed guardsmen.

In fact, it was just the sort of appearance governors across the country are making as they seek to identify themselves with the popular campaign for greater domestic security. But while many incumbents are enjoying a lift among the public, with voters expressing a desire for stability over change, Mr. Davis could turn out to be the exception, political experts say.

Mr. Davis, a centrist Democrat who took office with a landslide election victory three years ago, has seen his approval ratings slump for months, even as the state’s energy crisis has abated. What appeared likely to be a runaway re-election race for which he has already raised more than $30 million now looks as if it could prove a tough battle.

Polls taken in early September, before the terrorist attacks, showed Mr. Davis trailing former Mayor Richard J. Riordan of Los Angeles, a potential Republican challenger in next year’s race, by a couple of percentage points, even though Mr. Riordan has yet to formally announce and is not well known in many parts of the state.

Mr. Davis took office at a time of vast prosperity and was fond of saying his three highest priorities were education, education and education. Now the state is facing a sharp decline in revenue and sliding into an economic downturn that some economists say could be deeper than that elsewhere in the country.

The governor’s biggest political problem, though, may be the lingering effects of the energy crisis, which started in the summer of last year.

Polls have consistently shown that while voters do not hold the governor responsible for the crisis itself, they are critical of his policies for resolving it. Those policies have included enormous state spending to provide adequate supplies of electricity and big rate increases that could last for years; rates of some customers are up 40 percent since last fall.

In addition, his plan for keeping Southern California Edison, the state’s second-largest utility, out of bankruptcy has inflamed already angry consumer advocates, who say he is helping a campaign contributor at the expense of ratepayers.

Even the fact that the state got through this summer without the power blackouts many had predicted has not helped the governor, in large part because of his approach to controlling the crisis.

“Here we’re in a situation where the market prices for electricity have dropped tenfold since the spring, and yet Davis’s plan has locked in the rate increases for years,” said Harvey Rosenfield, an official of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. “Every time consumers get their bills, they are reminded why Davis has done a poor job.”

Shirley Bebitch Jeffe, a senior scholar at the University of Southern California, added, “I’m astonished that his polls keep getting worse, but it does show you how a pocketbook issue like this can stick.”

Garry South, a top adviser to the governor, noted that the latest poll reflecting trouble for him was taken before the terrorist attacks, and said private polls had shown growing support for his performance.

But the energy issue has undoubtedly proved frustrating to Mr. Davis. Earlier this year, many political experts said that if he could just keep the lights on through the summer, his political fortunes would revive.

The governor feverishly fashioned a virtual state takeover of the energy market at a cost of tens of billions of dollars, raised utility rates sharply and pushed conservation. By midsummer, the state actually found itself with a surplus of power and was forced to resell some at a loss, a sign that the worst was past.

But surveys suggest that Californians saw such signs as evidence of questionable management. A poll by the nonpartisan Field Institute taken in early September, before the terrorist attacks, showed that more respondents disapproved of Mr. Davis’s overall performance, 47 percent, than approved, 41 percent. Even after a series of blackouts last winter, the governor had a 60 percent approval rating in January.

“Davis is seen as joined at the hip with the energy issue,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll. “This is going to continue to be an albatross around his neck, because what people seem to be thinking about is the increase in rates. It’s almost like a tax increase.”

Mr. South, the Davis adviser, said that “people don’t know what the governor has done” to resolve the energy crisis. In any case, he said, Mr. Davis will ensure that the top campaign issue next year is not energy but instead Mr. Riordan, whom Mr. South described as “naïve” and “a pathetic candidate.”

The governor himself said in an interview here today that he did not put much stock in polls but that he felt his response to the national crisis would ultimately help him politically. “I don’t expect people to get up and applaud because the lights stayed on,” he said. Then he added: “The bottom line is we’re in extraordinary times, which require extraordinary leadership. I believe if I do my job well, everything else will take care of itself.”

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