MUD-Wrestling in California

MUD-Wrestling in California

San Franciscans will vote on whether to create a public power company.


Democracy campaigners battling the excesses of corporate power have in recent years made Patti Smith’s song “People Have the Power” something of an unofficial anthem. On November 6 San Francisco area voters could make it public policy.

After the California energy industry’s meltdown of recent years–complete with soaring utility rates, rolling blackouts, corporate bankruptcies and collapsing commitments to energy alternatives–voters in San Francisco and the neighboring community of Brisbane are entertaining the notion of pushing the CEOs aside and taking charge of power distribution. If they vote to create a consumer-owned Municipal Utility District (MUD), in one of the boldest assertions of citizen control over utilities since the Progressive movement’s municipalization drives of the early twentieth century, they could dramatically shift the debate not only on energy issues but also on questions of corporate accountability. “This is the beachhead campaign,” says Ross Mirkarimi, campaign director for MUD Now!, a coalition of labor, environmental and community groups. “If we win, dozens of other cities will start to look at replacing corporate control with democratic control of utilities.”

Utility conglomerates are well aware of the ramifications of the November 6 vote. “We will protect our assets,” Jennifer Ramp, spokesperson for Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), declared at the outset of the anti-MUD campaign by California’s largest utilities. The corporation is pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into the fight to defeat MUD and a related measure that would create a city power and water agency. And PG&E is benefiting from spending by telephone companies and other utilities that fear municipalization. By the time Election Day rolls around, Mirkarimi figures, public-power advocates will have been outspent 10 to 1. Even so, surveys still show the MUD proposal leading, while three related initiatives are polling even better.

But September 11 made this campaign–like every November election across the country–more complex and difficult. “We’re holding our own, but it’s just wild,” says Mirkarimi. “We don’t have the money for television commercials. We are resource-challenged, like any good grassroots campaign. And our opponents, who have all the money in the world, are now telling people that in troubled times democracy is too big a risk.” The anti-MUD scare campaign, powered by more than $1 million from PG&E, AT&T, SBC Pacific Bell and others, is designed to suggest that change is dangerous in a time of terrorism, anthrax attacks and war.

“This is a sleazy campaign of fear and distortion,” roars the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the city’s influential independent weekly newspaper whose editor and publisher, Bruce Brugmann, has crusaded for three decades to break PG&E’s energy stranglehold. As many are still mourning, the paper complains, “The opponents of public power have no problem exploiting the tragedy for political gain.”

It will take a tough campaign to save PG&E’s monopoly. Only 16 percent of Californians responding to a September Field poll said they believed private utilities had done a good job of responding to the energy crisis. That’s no surprise to Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange, a candidate for a seat on the Municipal Utility Board that would be created to run the new authority. She notes that PG&E has collected $5.1 billion in profits from consumers over the past three years. Yet, when faced with an energy crisis, the holding company for PG&E (to which PG&E had transferred $4.6 billion between 1997 and 2000) did nothing. Instead, PG&E declared bankruptcy on April 6. Just before that, the company had paid top managers $50 million in bonuses, and just after, it sought a massive rate hike. Now, San Franciscans are paying some of the highest electricity rates in the United States. Benjamin describes PG&E as “a company that provides lousy service and has let its infrastructure go to pot.” She adds that it is “severely compromising the environment and health of the community, while making no significant investments in renewable energy to replace our reliance on fossil fuels.”

San Franciscans don’t have to look far for an example of how the MUD would operate. For more than half a century, a MUD has operated in Sacramento, where rates are now 30 percent lower than in San Francisco.

Two additional propositions being pushed by MUD supporters would have the city invest in solar and wind power projects on city property and issue bonds to help residents and businesses install their own solar panels and join neighborhood solar initiatives. The goal, according to the bond measure’s sponsor, City Supervisor Tom Ammiano, is to have San Francisco lead the world in solar power. Ammiano, a likely 2003 mayoral candidate, is a prime backer of the MUD proposal.

Mayor Willie Brown has refused to back the MUD plan, referring to it as a “hoax,” while the city’s powerful business lobby, the Committee on Jobs, is actively opposing the MUD referendum. But most city supervisors have joined influential California State Senate President John Burton, the San Francisco Labor Council AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and the local Democratic and Green parties to back the measure.

“The constellations have aligned to make this a great time for a debate on public power, and we have put together the sort of grassroots coalition that even a few years ago we would not have dreamed about achieving,” says Mirkarimi, as he oversees a phone bank of elderly lefties and twentysomething anticorporate activists in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union’s Harry Bridges Memorial Building. “The only problem is that the climate has become a lot more difficult since September 11.” But it’s never been easy, the veteran activist adds. “If you look back across history, the fights were always hard. But when one major city led, the others started to follow. That’s the question that will be answered November 6: Will San Francisco lead the country into a whole new debate on how to meet the energy demands of the twenty-first century?”

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