At first blush, last Thursday in the state Capitol was the Ross Perot moment that became so familiar in 1992. Amid a crush of cameras and onlookers, the straight-talking Texas software billionaire was there to tell politicians the way things really worked, just the way a hard-nosed, reform-minded business leader does. Except this is 2002, not 1992, a very different moment, and a seemingly altered Perot from the Reform Party candidate who, at one point, actually out-polled Bill Clinton and George Bush the Elder in the 1992 presidential race.
Still resplendent in navy-blue suit and yellow tie — the colors of his alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy — Perot had been virtually transmogrified, from the straight-shooting, I‘ll-clean-up-this-mess anti-pol to yet another bobbing-and-weaving corporado caught in the floodlights of public exposure. Perot sought to explain why internal documents from Perot Systems speak of how power companies could manipulate California’s electric-power system using software his firm designed for the state of California.
”People in the technology business use colorful language, ya see,“ he said, explaining why the words should be understood to mean something other than their dictionary meanings. Or alternatively, he said, offering himself a competing escape hatch, the words were mostly written by a consultant: ”George Backus didn‘t work for me.“ And besides, he hadn’t known anything about it.
Members of a special state Senate committee, chaired by Orange County Democrat Joe Dunn, were respectful but unimpressed. Larry King, the cable chat host who did so much to orchestrate Perot‘s rise with softball interviews, was nowhere to be seen.
Was Perot Redux the coda to the era of the businessman-as-political-savior? Republican Bill Simon Jr., the investor-turned-gubernatorial-candidate, certainly hopes not. Once again, Simon invited no comparisons with the straight-talking Perot of old: He declined all comment on the Perot Systems revelations. It’s just not in him to criticize a corporation, be it Enron or Oracle, if there is any other outlet, like Governor Gray Davis, available.
And incumbent Democrat Gray Davis is a potential target once more: His favor is sought by another energy giant, Southern California‘s Sempra, the parent of San Diego Gas & Electric. The utility is looking to the Davis administration and the Public Utilities Commission to hold on to hundreds of millions of dollars in windfall profits made during the power crisis.
Sempra had the foresight to buy power contracts as a hedge against future market conditions. And during the energy crisis, a Sempra unit sold the power into the skyrocketing marketplace, reaping sky-high returns. At the same time, another part of Sempra ran up a huge debt buying power in that same out-of-control marketplace. As of now, ratepayers are on the hook for the debt; Sempra wants to keep the profits. Consumer advocates assert that, instead, Sempra should apply the windfall to the debt.
Davis may soon have to choose between the interests of his generous political patrons, the utilities in this case, and consumers. It’s an important test for a governor who is trying to talk like a friend to the people to show that he is not just talk.