Previous blackouts triggered governor recall. Now?

Source: By Anne C. Mulkern, E&E News reporter • Posted: Sunday, November 3, 2019

The last time Californians endured electricity blackouts, they overwhelmingly voted to recall their Democratic governor, Gray Davis.

Now, 16 years later, it’s Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) who’s dealing with repeated utility-imposed blackouts in the Golden State.

San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has four times in as many weeks cut power for multiple days during high winds, to pare the risk of electric lines sparking catastrophic wildfires. The move shuttered Northern California businesses and schools, leaving residents with spoiled food and medicines and in some cases no fresh water.

The state’s peak wildfire season isn’t over, and no rain is expected in the next week to saturate dried-out foliage. Meanwhile, wildfires are burning in Northern and Southern California. They pose a major challenge for Newsom, who many believe wants to eventually run for president.

“He recognizes that this is a big test for his administration,” said Michael Wara, a Stanford University professor and member of the former California Commission on Catastrophic Wildfire Cost and Recovery. “There are political risks to this because people are really upset and they’re looking for someone to blame.”

Wara added: “The last energy crisis wasn’t Gray Davis’ fault. Gray Davis was the person in charge when the crisis hit and was held responsible.”

The reasons for the power outages now and in 2000-2001 are different. The earlier blackouts happened when manipulation of a deregulated electricity market led to power shortages and then Davis’ 2003 removal from office. Today, PG&E is cutting power to prevent a repeat of last year and 2017 when wildfires rampaged through communities, killing 135 people.

PG&E has blamed climate change in part, saying hot weather and drought dried vegetation, creating more to burn. The portion of its 77,000-mile territory considered at high risk for fire has grown exponentially, it says.

Newsom counters that he’s a firm believer in climate change but that PG&E failed to act on safety for years. He’s launched an investigation into the power shut-offs, called on the California Public Utilities Commission to reform blackout rules and dedicated $75 million for local programs to mitigate impacts.

The governor has repeatedly stated that he’s been in office nine months and inherited the problem. At the same time he’s said, “I’m accountable.”

At a press conference Tuesday, Newsom cut off a reporter who started to talk about Davis’ ouster, asking, “How big of a test is this for you? The last governor-”

“Let me jump in here,” Newsom said. “I don’t care about the politics. I care about policy, and I care about being responsive, and I care about meeting the needs of millions of Californians.”

Newsom took over after eight years of Gov. Jerry Brown (D). Newsom recently criticized what he categorized as a lax CPUC attitude toward utilities under his predecessors, though he didn’t mention Brown or others by name.

“I can assure you the days of being cozy to these three utilities is over,” Newsom said this week, referring to investor-owned PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric Co. “That’s been a legitimate critique of the Public Utilities Commission in the past but is not the case in the present.”

Newsom’s favorability rating was 43% last month, before the intentional blackouts started. It has not exceeded 50% since his election, according to the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

That rating could take a hit.

“He has to deal with the consequences of a problem that doesn’t have a great solution,” said Darry Sragow, a political strategist and publisher of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan political guide. “The choice is either you cut people’s power off or you run the risk of homes and businesses being burned down.”

With repeat multiday blackouts, “you’re looking at third-world conditions” in the nation’s most populous state, said Kevin Spillane, a California-based GOP analyst.

“It’s a big deal,” Spillane said. “This is not an acceptable situation.”

In terms of PG&E, Newsom has limited leverage, Wara said.

“They can’t make a private company do the right thing, particularly when the private company is bankrupt,” Wara said.

PG&E is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization as it faces $30 billion in liabilities related to 2017 and 2018 deadly fires.

The pressure on Newsom is not just how he deals with the utilities, but the continued wildfire threat, Wara said. There are key decisions needed on land use and building codes, he said, adding that “from my perspective Newsom has done less than I would like to see.”

The governor recently vetoed A.B. 1516, a bill that would have mandated a 5-foot clearance around buildings in very high-risk fire zones. Newsom in a veto message said fire protection is important, but “each community is different and the best practices to achieve resiliency need to be crafted to meet the individual needs of that community.”

That action runs counter to what most climate adaptation experts would recommend, Wara said.

At the same time, California is pushing to get 100% clean energy by 2045, a goal Newsom supports. He has to do that while the state figures out how to operate the system in a new way that avoids risk, Wara said, and “at the same time keep things affordable.”

Recall harder this time

Anger among Californians now is a theme similar to 2000. They filled screens with rage this week when Newsom events were livestreamed.

“Nice of you to come mock us peasants,” Nick Hahn wrote on the Los Angeles County Fire Department Facebook page during a Newsom press conference. “Enjoy your mansion while you still can. Recall’s already under way.”

Two efforts to recall Newsom have been launched. Both predate the power shut-offs and were started in August by Newsom opponents. They must collect 1.5 million signatures by early February 2020 to force a recall election.

The politics of today are different from those of 2000, analysts said. Democrats dominate California, with fewer registered Republicans. Newsom last year won election with nearly 62% of the vote compared with 38% for Republican John Cox.

Davis, the recalled governor, won election in 1998 with 58% of the vote but reelection in 2002 with 47.4%. That election had the lowest percentage turnout in modern gubernatorial history, according to PPIC. The number of signatures needed to launch a recall is based on a percentage of turnout for the last gubernatorial election. So that allowed for a relatively low number of signatures needed to trigger a recall vote.

Getting enough signatures for a recall this time is unlikely, analysts said. Turnout for last year, when Newsom was elected, was 65%, the highest for a gubernatorial election since 1982.

White House ambitions?

It’s too soon to say whether blackouts could hurt Newsom’s 2022 reelection chances. The 2020 presidential election also will play a role, Spillane said.

If President Trump is still in office, that will help Newsom if he’s running again. If a Democrat is president, that gives Republicans more opportunity.

Newsom also could have Democratic challengers, Spillane said.

Spillane believes Newsom sees the White House in his future. “Oh, hell yes, he’s running for president,” Spillane said.

Newsom earlier this year ran Facebook ads in Iowa promoting his inauguration as governor. The Los Angeles Times reported that he ran Facebook ads promoting universal health care in early Democratic primary voting states Ohio and Florida.

Spillane noted Newsom also promoted his work on a national level. The governor last spring, after he signed an executive order to impose a moratorium on the death penalty, appeared on “CBS This Morning,” “The View” and other TV shows. This year he’s appeared on “The Daily Show” and Axios, and three times on CNN shows.

In terms of potential national ambitions, the intentional blackouts “if this continues on it absolutely will have a major impact,” Spillane said, and “drive his poll numbers down further.”

Sragow with the California Target Book said it could also work to Newsom’s benefit.

“If you assume he has presidential ambitions — which I don’t know — if he’s viewed down the road as having done a good job, that will be a very useful message,” Sragow said.