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Volunteers from the “War Room” lobby to stop the Edison bailout bill

Sacramento News & Review

Today’s battle would be crucial. If this mostly volunteer army could stop the offensive by Governor Gray Davis and the Democrats, there was hope for killing the $2.9 billion bailout package to Southern California Edison, and maybe even restoring the prospects for public power in California. The stakes were high, the mission clear.

It was 9:30 a.m. and the “War Room”–Room 1322 in the downtown Sheraton, temporary local headquarters for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights (FTCR)–was springing to life, preparing to launch its troops upon the Capitol.

Margaret Strubble gave the morning’s press briefing about the progress of a bill to levy a windfall profits tax on power generators and the day’s big event: an expected vote on the Edison package by the full Assembly.

Strubble and fellow FTCR staffer Emmy Rhine–both young idealists who had been on staff for only a few months–would lead the day’s lobbying effort, guided by field general Doug Heller, a wily political veteran who was already at the Capitol counting votes.

“We are on high alert at this point,” Strubble said before taking a cell phone call from Heller to identify the day’s targets.

The walls were covered with butcher paper lists of the names of legislators, followed by color-coded stickers indicating where they stood on the energy issues. On one wall hung a huge “Bailout Watchdog” poster, a larger version of the logo on the yellow armbands they all wore to increase their visibility in the Capitol.

Waiting for their marching orders were the volunteers: Danny Howard, a suit-clad dot-commer who had recently been laid off from his job in the Silicon Valley; Dorothy Baker-Mill, a proud longtime union member from Sacramento; Todd Eichenberger, who had flown up from Southern California at his own expense for the day, despite his meager resources; and Jim Berkovec, a Roseville resident and former member of the California Senior Legislature.

It was Berkovec’s first day working with FTCR, while the other three had worked before with the Oaks Project, the citizen volunteer effort that was founded by Ralph Nader. Another pair of volunteers would join the group around lunchtime, and another pair would pull in sometime after midnight for the next day’s duties. Dozens of foot soldiers had cycled through the War Room since it opened on August 27 to lend a citizen-based lobbying presence to the chaotic last three weeks of the legislative session.

And a high-profile presence it had been. Armed with video cameras, they documented the activities of Edison‘s lobbyists in the halls of the Capitol, irking some to the point that one lobbyist finally slapped a camera away and created a minor controversy. On another day, they sang lyric-altered carols outside a committee hearing on the Edison package, trying to make the point that Christmas was coming early for the cash-strapped utility. They used another occasion to ceremoniously present Davis’ office with 30,000 “signatures” from an online petition opposing the Edison deal.

But today was a straight-ahead lobbying blitz, trying to visit all the Assembly members who were still undecided. Having cleared the Senate and its Assembly committees, Senate Bill 78xx awaited a vote on the Assembly floor that could come at any time. Although the bill was amended so much that it would still require another vote by the Senate–something that was far from guaranteed given some of the changes–killing the bill on the Assembly floor would mean victory for FTCR, and from its perspective, all Californians.

“We have these huge odds against us,” said Strubble, a 32-year-old archaeologist-turned-activist, “but cynicism is for sissies.”

The group split in half to cover the 14 undecided Assembly Democrats, those who would decide the bill’s fate, before the floor session began at noon. Rhine took Howard and Berkovec and Strubble went with Eichenberger and Baker-Mill, the leaders quizzing the volunteers on FTCR talking points during their walk to the Capitol.

Baker-Mill tried to recite the day’s big point–that the vote to bail out Edison is premature considering the California Public Utilities Commission is still investigating whether money from the utility was improperly transferred to its parent company–but it comes out a little muddled. Strubble patiently corrected the aging volunteer, who responded with “I kind of got my brain all confused with yesterday’s issue.”

The trio’s first stop was Assemblyman Jerome Horton’s office, where they were met with what would prove to be the most common reaction: irritation at their persistence. “It’s my understanding that someone from your office talked to him yesterday and that he hasn’t taken a position on it yet,” the receptionist said in clipped tones.

Strubble tried to explain that they had some new information, but it didn’t help. Finally, she implored, “Please, just let him know again that it’s critically important that he votes no on this.”

At the next stop, Assemblyman George Nakano’s office, the group got lucky when Strubble recognized his legislative director, Sheri Pemberton, in the front office talking to the receptionist. She seemed annoyed to be caught and said her boss still hadn’t committed, but offered, “I’m pretty sure he’s not going to support it.”

It turned out to be the most hopeful input the group received all morning.

On his own solo rounds, Heller learned that the earliest the bill would be heard on the floor was 3 p.m. and that it would indeed be approved today. His sources said Davis and the Democrats who back the bill felt they had 43 votes on their side, two more than needed for passage. The only hitch was that one of those votes was Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, who was back home in Los Angeles to be with his wife, who is battling cancer. His chief of staff, Dan Savage, said he was set to return “either tonight or tomorrow morning.”

So the half-dozen “bailout watchdogs” spent the afternoon in the halls outside Room 3171, an entrance to the Assembly floor, an area dubbed “the lobbying pit.” They were matched by a roughly equal number of Edison lobbyists, led by political veteran Bob Foster. The two camps exchanged wary glances, but no words.

It was a waiting game at this point. The idea was to make their presence known, and to pounce on any undecided Assembly Democrats they saw coming or going, watching the session action on a hallway television or memorizing faces on the legislative roster in between bursts of action.

“I can’t emphasize enough that just being here matters,” Heller told his troops.

Strubble, Howard and Eichenberger stopped Assemblywoman Gloria Negrete McLeod on her way to the floor, offering their arguments and paperwork. She listened politely for a few minutes and said she still hadn’t decided, but would read the information.

When Assemblyman Rod Wright poked his head out the door, Strubble and Rhine engaged him, but it was a futile effort. The powerful chairman of an energy committee, Wright openly supported the Edison bill, and forcefully shot down all the activists’ arguments, seeming to enjoy sparring with the young activists.

But soon, they had a slightly more receptive audience in Assemblywoman Helen Thomson, an undecided that Heller earlier said was probably leaning toward voting for the package.

“It’s not only premature, but it’s unjust to force the ratepayers to do this,” Rhine said to Thomson, as Edison‘s Foster peaked around the corner, monitoring the exchange and making his presence known.

The Davis Democrat said she was still undecided, and that her vote would depend on the bill’s amendments and what she heard in the floor debate. She asked about FTCR’s position on the transmission line purchase option and conservation easements, and Rhine–who was with the Peace Corps before FTCR–answered in the confident, earnest manner she had honed over the previous week and a half working the issue.

“I have concerns and I’m hoping they’ll be answered in the debate,” Thomson said before excusing herself.

It was now 4:15 p.m., and the Assembly announced a recess until 5 p.m., which on “Capitol time” means 5:30 or 6 at the earliest. Why wasn’t the bill being called to the floor? Heller sounded a hopeful note that the bill’s backers might not have the votes they needed yet.

Two hours later, the full Assembly still hadn’t reconvened as both parties broke off into caucuses to discuss where they stood on the bill. Heller had excused his troops for a dinner break and worked the halls and his cell phone alone. One of Heller’s sources said Assemblyman Cedillo was now on his way to the Capitol.

At 7:53 p.m., a bell clanged and a disembodied voice called the members back into session. Heller’s face fell. If they were going back into session, it meant they had the votes. He reached for his cell phone to summon the troops from the War Room: “Emmy, it’s showtime.”

Forty minutes later, as Heller grumbled in the hallway, “There is no reason to be doing legislation at 8:30 at night except to black-out the public,” the floor debate began, with members alternatively labeling the bill a needed solution or costly bailout using often fiery rhetoric.

When the debate ended at 10:20, the Republicans called a 10-minute caucus to try to prevent defections, although they already knew Riverside County Republican David Kelley was supporting the measure.

The vote was called and 36 Democrats immediately lit up the tally board. It stalled there for a few minutes, then crept up to 38 votes, still three shy of the 41 needed for passage. Among those not yet voting were Cedillo, Thomson, Nakano, Hannah Beth-Jackson and Horton.

“Where’s everybody else at?” Cedillo asked Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg, who responded, “I’m trying to figure that out right now.”

“Mr. Horton, where’s Mr. Horton?” Assemblyman Juan Vargas called out as he walked up to the Inglewood Democrat’s desk, where Horton sat, waiting, his finger poised over the green button. “I’m waiting,” Horton responded, like a child who didn’t want to eat his vegetables.

There was apparently some problem with Cedillo’s vote button, so the chair called out his name, and Cedillo responded with, “Aye.” The green light next to Kelley’s name then lit up and Horton swallowed hard and pressed his button, approving Senate Bill 78xx. (One more vote was later added to the final tally).

The “bailout watchdogs” looked weary as they headed back to the War Room. Tomorrow, they would start lobbying the senators who would have to approve the measure before the session ends on September 14. But for now, all they wanted to do was sleep.

“I’m tired,” Strubble said, rubbing her eyes. “It’s been a long day.”

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