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As George W. Bush so fuzzily put it, "The California crunch really is the result of not enough power-generating plants and then not enough power to power the power of generating plants." Whatever that means, his main responses to California's deregulation crisis have been to tout drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and to bar federal intervention that would curb the profiteering by big generating companies.

Since a tiny percent of the nation's electricity is produced by burning oil, drilling in the refuge is irrelevant to the problem. But, of course, it's quite relevant to the big oil and gas companies' expectations of a payoff from this Administration, in which they had invested millions in campaign contributions. They're salivating for exploration on hitherto off-limits federal lands with ANWR as the opening wedge. Bush plays along by fanning fears of power crises nationwide to overcome the pro-environment sentiment among voters. (Recent polls show that two-thirds of Americans favor a ban on drilling in the wildlife refuge.)

As for withholding federal intervention, that's simply the old-time deregulation religion preached by conservative pundits who blame the failure to deregulate fully for the California crunch. Actually, California's deregulation bill was drafted by the power companies, which made hefty contributions to grease its way through the legislature. Seeking to recapture from consumers the costs of their bad investments in nuclear plants, the utilities devised the very freeze on consumer rates on which they now blame the current crisis, and which they are trying to overturn in the courts. They also agreed to divest themselves of much of their generating capacity, leaving them vulnerable to the market manipulations of independent power producers--including their own parent companies, which are reaping huge profits from this contrived crisis. Those same parent companies are using their "near bankrupt" utilities to launder more than $20 billion in the stranded-cost bailouts that prompted the crisis in the first place.

Clearly, more bailouts for utilities and unleashing Big Oil to ravage the wilds are not the solutions to California's--or the nation's--power problems, especially when there is a native California solution at hand: municipal ownership and conservation. The model is the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which, after closing down its one nuclear reactor in 1989, held prices steady, invested heavily in wind and solar power and promoted energy efficiency through programs like subsidized buyouts of old, energy-guzzling home refrigerators.

Unfortunately, Governor Gray Davis and the California legislature have chosen to ignore the lesson of Sacramento and to "solve" the crisis by throwing more billions in public money at the utilities. Davis should be using public money and eminent domain to buy the assets of these rogue utilities out of bankruptcy and turn them over to direct public control. A statewide network of public-owned, democratically run municipal utilities would work just fine.

Municipal ownership like Sacramento's is now being urgently considered by San Francisco and other beleaguered California cities. Rather than catering to his energy "adviser" Ken Lay of Enron (who injected $500,000 into Bush campaign coffers, making him the largest single contributor in the last election cycle) and the rest of the oil and gas companies, Bush should recognize that the wind and sun provide more than enough "power to power the power of generating plants" and that power is rightfully owned and most efficiently operated by the public itself.

The Bush Administration is relying on falsehoods when making its case for opening up Alaska to drilling.

Tommy Thompson's track record as governor of Wisconsin bodes poorly for his tenure as head of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Greed led to miscalculation, which led to brownouts and soaring rates.

For downsized workers in Bloomington, it's time to start thinking globally.

Thousands of citizens can't register or have been wrongly thrown off the rolls.

Florida purged its voter rolls, thanks in part to a web of corporate players.

To a degree that's hard to appreciate outside Wisconsin, Tommy Thompson's impending move to Washington to become Secretary of Health and Human Services will transform this state's politics. Now entering his fifteenth year as governor, Thompson has for so long and so completely dominated our political life that we are used to mapping its history in Steinbergian epochs. There is Old Wisconsin, a receding green landscape where one can still glimpse the tiny figures of Fighting Bob La Follette, Father Groppi, Gaylord Nelson and the circling ghost of Joe McCarthy. And then there is Today's Wisconsin, an eternal, life-sized present, physically more akin to northern New Jersey and better known as "Tommy's Place." That yet another political world will soon come into view has us more than confused. We are dazed with hope. We even seem to be breathing differently.

But enough about us. What can we tell you about our "man from Elroy," the tiny farming town, deep in our coldest sticks, that is Thompson's lifelong home and the place he long represented in the State Assembly?

First, don't underestimate him. Before becoming governor, Thompson's twenty-year career in the State Assembly was distinguished only by painstaking party hacking and strident but ineffective advocacy of then still unfashionable right-wing views. Among liberals, his election as governor was greeted as a brief hiccup in state politics largely attributable to a Rustbelt recession that still resisted sleep here. Thompson was thought to be nasty but a rube, sufficiently at odds with the state's centrist political culture to be transient in his power.

Boy, were they wrong. Upon taking office, Thompson moved immediately to tighten his control of the state apparatus, overrunning Wisconsin's traditionally independent civil service with a small army of intensely loyal and openly political appointees. He patronized continuously and at scale, afterward tapping a river of corporate cash to float easily from one landslide re-election to the next. And he simply rolled legislative Democrats, stabbing them to death with his magic veto pen. Wisconsin grants its governors the unusual power to strike not just line items but individual words and numbers, and to reduce any proposed expenditure. Used infrequently before Thompson, the power in theory makes legislative budgets the equivalent of phone books, ready for gubernatorial cut and paste. Thompson made theory practice, boldly invoking the power some 2,000 times to shape law in his own image, and not once was he overridden. Make no mistake about it--the rube ruled.

Second, don't box him ideologically. Thompson signed one of the nation's most punitive late-term abortion bans (later overturned, with many others, by the US Supreme Court) and is on record as believing that abortion should be criminalized except where necessary to save a woman's life, or in cases of rape or incest. But he's also strongly defended stem-cell researchers (who use extracted embryo cells) at the state university and worked with Madison's liberal US Representative Tammy Baldwin, who happens to be an open lesbian, on women's healthcare concerns.

He has crusaded ceaselessly against welfare recipients, eventually gaining national renown by time-limiting their eligibility for support. (This Wisconsin "miracle" is hardly that. It achieved massive reductions in welfare caseloads by simply losing track of former recipients or dissolving them in a sea of working poor.) But he's also been quicker than other welfare "reformers" to help those once on welfare rolls with expanded childcare assistance and health insurance, and extended those benefits to many others. He killed light rail in Milwaukee and is a god for the state's highway lobby. His most enduring legacy, indeed, won't be welfare reform but sprawl. However, as chairman of Amtrak, he's also recently promoted high-speed rail in the Midwest. As anti-union as the next Republican, he's supported joint labor-management efforts at worker training and job retention. And so on. Always happy to throw big bloody chunks of red meat to the right, Thompson makes deals with others, too. His only limit: "if business does not object."

Third, watch out. Thompson's intelligence and near-feral sense of power, along with his longstanding ties to the Bush family, samurai devotion to the Republican Party and close attention to political detail (not to mention his polished self-caricature as a happy Babbitt from the heartland, brimming with confidence and good cheer interrupted only by occasional tearful confessions of how much he loves public service, or the lightning decapitation of a political opponent) make him a formidable political force. Add in several hundred billion dollars in HHS programs and tens of thousands of lines of amendable administrative program code, and you have something worth worrying seriously about.

Worth emphasizing here is that Thompson is not another half-cocked James Watt. By nature--and despite his Zeus-like reign in Wisconsin--he is a team player who treasures political discipline. But as a political pro, he seldom shows his hand before he plays it, and it is seldom possible to predict just what that play will be. You can only rest uneasy that whatever it is it will come at you full-bore. Prudence recommends both a readiness to respond in kind and more than the usual openness to the possibility of tactical alliance.

Good luck, America.

When W. gave the nod to New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman for the top EPA spot in his administration, the tone-deaf national press corps praised the appointment of a "moderate" (largely on the basis of Whitman's inconstant pro-choice positions). A little digging would have revealed that Whitman has been an unmitigated disaster for New Jersey's environmental protection. Under her governance, fines of air and water polluters have plummeted 70 percent. Indeed, after her nomination the head of the Chemical Industry Council of New Jersey praised her to the Newark Star-Ledger for having restored "balance" to the state's enviro policies after the aggressively antipolluter measures taken by her Democratic predecessor, Jim Florio.

Thanks to Whitman's evisceration of state enviro regs as well as a raft of subsidies and tax cuts to developers, suburban sprawl gobbled up more open space and verdant land during her tenure than at any other period in New Jersey's history. Moreover, she decapitated the state Department of Environmental Protection staff by 738 employees in her first three years in office, cut the remaining staff's workweek by five hours, eliminated fines of polluters as a source of DEP revenue and made large cuts in the DEP's budget. That's why the New Jersey Sierra Club's Bill Wolfe has warned that Whitman might "dismantle [federal] EPA and take it out of the enforcement business. I believe that this is precisely the policy Whitman has presided over and legitimized in New Jersey." One mechanism was the Office of Dispute Resolution, which she established to mediate conflicts over environmental issues (usually resolved in favor of business). She also installed an Office of Business Ombudsman under the Secretary of State (the Star-Ledger labeled it "essentially a business lobby") to further grease the wheels of the bureaucracy for polluters and developers, and to act as a counterweight to the DEP.

If Senate Democrats want to take a serious look at Whitman's record in the Garden State, they should start with "Open for Business," a three-part exposé by the Bergen County Record in 1996. After a ten-month investigation, The Record detailed dozens of cases in which Whitman's corporate-coddling policies had circumvented laws designed to protect the environment. Often, those getting favored treatment were big campaign contributors, like Finn Caspersen, then chairman of Beneficial, at the time the nation's largest independent consumer-loan company. The firm got more than $182 million in taxpayer subsidies in the form of road construction designed to ease traffic around its lavish office complex in Peapack--improvements that increased the value of an open 700-acre tract that Beneficial owned nearby. While all this was going on, Caspersen, his family and their political action committee gave the state GOP $143,250.

A more recent example: For the past three years, Roche Vitamin, a manufacturing plant in Belvidere, has been "belching out 300 tons of methanol annually--at least 10 times the rate state permits allow," according to the Star-Ledger. And Clinton's EPA has been fighting Whitman's proposals to further dilute state regs controlling water pollution and coastal development, which would sanction gigantic increases in pollution and hand over environmentally sensitive lands to rapacious developers. No wonder The Weekly Standard's David Brooks praised Whitman's nomination (and that of her anti-enviro counterpart proposed for Interior, Gale Norton) as reflecting the Bush Administration's "corporate mentality."

Whether the Dems have the stomach for a real fight against Whitman is an open question--her nomination has already been endorsed by her state's influential senior Democratic senator, Robert Torricelli. (Says a knowledgeable state Dem: "This is The Torch's way of paying back [Woodbridge mayor] Jim McGreevey," whose aggressive politicking in the gubernatorial race caused Torricelli to abort his plans to run this fall. "With Christie at EPA, McGreevey's GOP opponent, State Senate president Donald DiFrancesco, becomes acting governor and gets a big advantage.") Whitman and The Torch also get campaign cash from many of the same corporate polluters, and such bipartisan influence-buyers are likely to go all out in lobbying Senate Dems on Whitman's behalf.

Montgomery's transit system isn't segregated anymore. It barely exists.

Blogs

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With political groups increasingly eager to buy seats on state-level benches, judges are forced to act more like politicians.

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October 16, 2014

Wisconsin's governor refuses to act on behalf of low-wage workers.

October 14, 2014

In an emergency ruling, the Supreme Court puts "the rule of law ahead of the Scott Walker’s political gamesmanship.”

October 9, 2014

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October 8, 2014

Outrage over deep budget cutbacks in key states is hurting the GOP.

October 8, 2014