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.”