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Power Ranger 

DWP chief plans to hitch horses, 'pull this wagon out'

Wednesday, Feb 14 2001
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At the end of HIs first day on the job as California’s chief energy negotiator, S. David Freeman emerged from the gubernatorial suite in downtown L.A. uncharacteristically close-mouthed. Freeman, lionized as the man who saved L.A. from the energy crisis, had been tapped by the governor to work some of his magic for the state. Now, suit rumpled and shoulders slumped, he ducked his head and made for the door. It had clearly been a long, hard day, and Freeman wasn‘t talking.

At his insistence, an interview -- which had been arranged before he accepted his new post -- could not begin and photographs could not be taken until all parties were safely outside the Ronald Reagan Building, where the governor’s offices are housed. “My job now is to negotiate,” he said, bracing himself against the evening chill as the photographer grabbed a few hasty shots. “And a good negotiator keeps his mouth shut.”

A few blocks away, on Broadway, Freeman sought sanctuary from the cold at a McDonald‘s, where the sight of his white cowboy hat, shiny red tie and double-breasted suit drew more than a few stares from the largely Latino after-work crowd. Warming his hands around a cup of black coffee, Freeman checked his watch frequently and had little patience for questions with long lead-ins. He was tired and a little prickly. “What else you got for me?” he asked more than once in his a pronounced Tennessee twang. “I just don’t have time to be doing this right now. Every day the state is losing millions of dollars. We need to get at it.”

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In the weeks to come, the lines carved between his unruly eyebrows would crease a little deeper as Freeman, who recently celebrated his 75th birthday, reached agreements for power contracts totaling 5,000 megawatts and ranging from three to 10 years. Although that first round of negotiations is now over, Freeman, anticipating future deals, still declines to discuss his strategy, or to reveal the terms already reached.

But his mandate is clear: Lock in the best possible prices for the power that California needs. Power-industry observers appreciate the sensitivity of Freeman‘s task and his unique qualifications for the job. “The owners of power plants, given the profits they made this summer and last winter, have very high expectations for profit,” said Ed Smeloff, director of the Pace Law School energy project in White Plains, New York, and co-author of a book on electrical power. “This is a psychological showdown.”

The pressure is intense; hanging in the balance are billions of dollars and, quite possibly, the economic health of the state. “Dave has to make some of the parties feel that if they don’t cut their deal now, they will be left out of the California market,” said Smeloff, who worked with Freeman when he headed the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. “The problem is, generators know it‘s a tight market.”

It’s a formidable task, but so far Freeman has delivered. That‘s no surprise to anyone familiar with an extraordinary resume that includes service in four presidential administrations and leadership of five of the biggest public power companies in the country. Throughout a public-power career spanning five decades, Freeman has time and again demonstrated an unconventional but realistic approach to some of the most vexing public-policy issues of the day. He championed conservation when consumption was unquestioned, and, as head of the DWP, brought the same healthy skepticism to bear on the matter of deregulation that he had exercised decades earlier when confronted with the conundrum of nuclear power. Over time what has emerged is a man who is flexible, tough-minded, and unconcerned if his views don’t jibe with popular opinion.

That‘s good news for Californians, who are counting on this electric horseman to help bring the state back from the brink of its deepening energy debacle.

Simon David Freeman grew up in Chattanooga, one of two boys raised by Orthodox Jewish parents who had emigrated from Lithuania. The Freemans lived modestly -- Dad ran an umbrella-repair shop. But their heritage made the Freemans an oddity in the segregated South, and the alienation Dave felt engendered an enduring kinship with blacks. After a stint in the merchant marine during World War II, he worked briefly as a civil engineer, then went back to school for a law degree. Drawn to the social unrest all around him, he joined lunch-counter sit-ins and helped the NAACP craft civil rights strategy in East Tennessee.

When John F. Kennedy took the White House in 1960, Freeman headed straight for the Justice Department’s civil rights division, but was promptly rebuffed. As Freeman recalls it, Bobby Kennedy‘s chief of civil rights told the young lawyer that his Tennessee pedigree would turn Southern juries against him. Freeman later acknowledged that, at the time, “A white person with a Southern accent on the side of blacks just drew out special anger from these people.” The irony could not have been more pronounced: The Jew who had never quite fit in as a Southerner was now being rejected because he was.

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