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Looking for Mr. Wright

Why is Mr. Wright so wrong? It‘s a question often asked by consumer and environmental advocates of Assemblyman Rod Wright. The Los Angeles Democrat chairs the Utilities and Commerce Committee, and activists have long considered Wright a roadblock and an industry shill, who shamelessly raises campaign money from the very utilities he regulates. They especially fault him for torpedoing last year’s attempt to double the state‘s use of renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, geothermal and biomass.

Wright was certainly doing industry bidding when he killed this legislation and offered only a weak defense of his actions, calling the energy bill ”stupid.“

But this year Wright is sending different signals. ”Let me say at the outset,“ Wright wrote in a memo this month to proponents of renewable energy, ”I have personally invested many hours in this effort, which I would not have done if it were my intent to kill the idea.“

Legislation to promote renewable energy, sponsored once again by Byron Sher (D-Palo Alto), is about to enter Wright’s committee. It would require a utilities to purchase 20 percent of their electric energy from renewable sources by 2015. Which Wright apparently no longer thinks is ”stupid.“

If the bill gets through the Legislature, Governor Gray Davis has said flat out that he will sign it. For his part, Davis has had to perform damage control for approving $44 billion of long-term power contracts that rely almost exclusively on non-renewable natural gas--fired power plants. Critics dubbed the deals a ”Green Blackout.“ Obviously eager to resuscitate his environmental credentials, Davis told the Weekly earlier this year that the renewable-energy standard would be one of his priorities. Said Matt Freedman of the consumer group TURN (Toward Utility Reform Now), one of the principal advocates of the renewable bill: ”Governor Davis really wants this bill. His people have been pretty good. They have not tried to weaken it at all.“

But first the bill has to get past Wright.

”I‘m called ’the Legislator From Hell,‘“ noted Wright, who said he seldom bothers to talk to the press because ”you always bring up the money I raise from the utilities. I don’t even send out press releases. They just bring me shit.“ Wright, a voluble legislator and veteran political operative, spent 90 minutes last Friday talking with the Weekly about energy policy, state politics, and himself. ”I know people think I‘m a right-wing person,“ said Wright, a onetime aide to left-liberal L.A. Congresswoman Maxine Waters and, during another period, to Reverend Jesse Jackson. ”I’m not,“ he insisted. Wright got his committee chairmanship from former Assembly speaker and liberal stalwart Antonio Villaraigosa.

Wright pointed out that he isn‘t always the bogeyman of progressives on energy issues. He authored the crucial ”public goods“ bill that has pumped big bucks into renewable power, an achievement acknowledged by V. John White, executive director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies.

But Wright has been a crucial opponent of the push to require that 20 percent of California’s electric power comes from renewable energy. Last year, Wright killed the legislation by simply burying it in his committee. It never reached the Legislature for a decisive vote. Why?

”It‘s just a stupid idea,“ said Wright at the time. Because? ”The buyers [i.e., the utilities] should decide what kind of power they want to buy.“

Wright has raised megabucks from the utilities and other conventional-energy companies, including one fund-raiser at a prime capital watering hole, Morton’s steak house, just as his committee considered legislation to bail out the utilities that nearly went belly up during last summer‘s energy crisis. The event prompted a scathing editorial in the Sacramento Bee. Wright put forth a ”straight bailout“ bill for Southern California Edison, eschewing tradeoffs for the state that Governor Davis and other bailout proponents wanted in return.

In the end, the utilities got even more money than what had been proposed in Wright’s bailout. But it‘s easy to see why Wright has the reputation he does, having raised about $100,000 from the big three California utilities in the last cycle alone.

Of course, even if Wright were intent on doing the industry’s bidding, the utilities themselves have different perspectives. Sempra, which serves the San Diego area and uses virtually no renewable energy, is a staunch opponent of stiff renewable requirements. Pacific Gas & Electric, which serves Northern and Central California, seems closer to neutral. And Southern California Edison may turn out to favor the renewable standard, in part because it already has developed a renewable-energy portfolio. About 12 percent of Edison‘s and 10 percent of PG&E’s power is renewable.

On the other hand, the touted renewable-energy programs of the L.A. Department of Water & Power account for only 2 percent of its power. Where does DWP stand? ”No comment,“ said DWP assistant general manager for strategic planning Angelina Galiteva.

With support from Senate President John Burton (D-San Francisco) and Governor Davis, the Sher bill this year swept through the state Senate, setting up its date with fate in Wright‘s committee. Unlike last year, when then--Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Los Angeles) was noncommittal, new Speaker Herb Wesson, also of L.A., favors the renewable standard. Wesson also helped get through Assemblywoman Fran Pavley’s bill to combat global warming.

Renewable advocates can be excused for wondering about Wright. In addition to single-handedly blocking the Sher bill last year, he began a March meeting with advocates ”by trashing renewables,“ in the words of one advocate. But after a break, one source said that Wright changed tack: ”He asked, ‘How do we get to 20 percent?’“

”He‘s hard to pin down,“ commented a longtime Wright observer in the Legislature. ”He can really go off on tangents.“

In his lengthy conversation with the Weekly, Wright was knowledgeable and thoughtful, and more than willing to argue several sides of the same issue. ”People probably told you I’m crazy,“ he remarked. More like quicksilver. But for the record, does he favor the 20 percent renewable standard as the goal, while also requiring the utilities to purchase more renewables every year to reach that goal? ”Right,“ he declared. ”Yes.“

Wright now says that the state can do better than the 20 percent standard. He even became excited about the prospect of California leading the way on renewable energy. ”When, after a couple of years, people realize that the prices ain‘t gonna blow them out of the water, I think we’ll end up with more . . . This is the opportunity to demonstrate that it can work.“

Wright no longer holds with the argument of some utility lobbyists that renewable power only makes sense if it costs the same or less than other sources of power. ”That‘s nonsense,“ responded Wright, who said that the lobbyists were overlooking the big picture. ”We have to compare renewable prices with the total cost of the comparable 10-year natural-gas contract, which includes the capital, the plant, the fuel, everything.“

Wright will be term-limited out of the Assembly this year. He has sought an appointment, apparently unsuccessfully, from President George W. Bush to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. While open to other jobs, he says he is running for the Los Angeles City Council seat held by Nate Holden, who also is leaving office because of term limits. A renewable-energy bill would bring him a better legacy to Los Angeles, especially given his reputation as a tool of special interests, including the National Rifle Association. A veteran lobbyist called Wright ”the NRA’s go-to guy in the Assembly.“

”It‘s all the money I’ve raised,“ said Wright, with the air of a wounded, misunderstood statesman. He‘s still fuming about the criticism over the Morton’s fund-raiser. ”I scheduled that months before the hearing. It was an emergency hearing,“ he said, his voice rising. ”I already had the fucking money.“

So why has he raised so much money from the industry? Wright is very candid. ”In our system, if you chair the committee, the idea is that, whatever the damn committee is, it‘s that you chair committees because you can help your caucus [party] stay in power. That’s our system.“

As far as energy goes, ”The biggest problem is to make sure we don‘t get burned again. We’ve done some dumb shit on energy.“ He now supports moving sharply away from the wild energy market that nearly sank California last year, saying that 95 percent of the state‘s power should be under contract. ”We have to decide how much risk we’re prepared to assume and how much certainty we‘re prepared to pay for. We went under before because we assumed too much risk.“ Prices can be lower at times with a free market, he noted, but can also be disastrously higher.

All told, Mr. Wright is sounding more right on and less right-wing, which could bode well for the renewable-energy bill.


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