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The People’s Power

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

Act One

We’re on the edge of the twentieth century and Mayor James Phelan of San Francisco concludes that without abundant water and electrical power San Francisco is stymied. He fixes his thirsty gaze upon Hetch Hetchy 200 miles east,, a U-shaped glacial valley in the Sierra, flat-floored and hemmed by 2,500-foot granite cliffs. Through it flows the abundant waters of the Tuolumne river. Problem: Hetch-Hetchy lies within the bounds of Yosemite National Park, and conservationists led by John Muir vow a fight to the death to save the valley.

After an epic struggle Congress passes the Raker Act in 1913, which okays the construction of a dam that will inundate Hetch Hetchy. Muir dies the following year. Rep. John Raker, in whose district Yosemite lies, is a progressive, a profound believer in public power. Under the terms of his act the feds will waive Hetch Hetchy’s protected status to San Francisco. The dam must be used not only to store water but also to generate electric power. This power must be sold directly to the citizens of San Francisco through a municipal power agency at the cheapest possible rates. Publicly-owned water and electrical energy will free the city from one another progressive congressman calls “the thralldom … of a remorseless private monopoly.” If San Francisco does not honor the terms of the Raker Act, it will lose the federal waiver.

Act Two

By the early-twenties San Francisco is watering itself with the Tuolumne, and it has built a powerhouse at Moccasin Creek to use the Tuolumne’s pent up power. It buys hundreds of miles of copper wire to run that power into the city. Pending completion of the power lines, it agrees to sell the hydro-power to a rapidly growing utility company called Pacific Gas & Electric, which will use its grid to carry the power to San Francisco, at which point PG&E would sell the power back to the citizenry at an outrageous mark-up. The city continues to construct its own grid, but by this time PG&E has city government in its pocket. The city manages to get its grid as near to San Francisco as a PG&E switching station and then the money runs out. The public’s copper wire goes into storage.

The camel’s nose is in under the tent and there it stays. In the Roosevelt era Interior Secretary Harold Ickes fights a tenacious struggle, capped by a favorable US Supreme Court decision in the early 1940s, to force San Francisco to abide by the terms of the Raker Act. PG&E’s mayors, newspapers, public utility commissioners, city supervisors and legislators steadfastly thwart the bonds required to finance a municipally owned utility.

Years go by. The Raker Act is all but forgotten. PG&E rules supreme. In the mid-1960s a young muckraker called Bruce Brugmannn comes to San Francisco. He’s grown up in Rock Rapids, Iowa, a public power town. He’s gone to school in Nebraska, thanks to George Norris a public power state. He founds the San Francisco Bay Guardian and by the late 1960s is deep into the PG&E wars. By now the utility is trying to build a nuclear power station at Bodega Bay. Joe Neilands and Charlie Smith, respectively a UC biochemist and an organizer, mount a successful battle against PG&E’s plan. In the course of this campaign Neilands disinters the hidden history of the Raker Act and Brugmann publishes the story.


Act Three

Let Brugmann carry our drama forward.

“What heated me up and got me increasingly angry over the years was that this was a structural scandal of epic proportion. PG&E had stolen hundreds of millions of dollars down the years. But it was verboten to discuss PG&E publicly. The phrase is, When PG&E spits, city hall swims. The company had wired the city, put out thousands of dollars to various civic groups. It controlled the grand jury, and to a large extent the judiciary. Then the downtown boys managed to put in at-large elections in San Francisco, meaning candidates had to raise large sums. That slowed us down for a generation.

“Finally we got district elections again. That changed the rules of the game. Now we have a more progressive board of supervisors, beholden to constituents and their districts. Then we won a sunshine ordinance. We got it through in ’93 but City Hall loopholed it. In ’99 we renewed and strengthened it. Our coalition’s third element was to build a public power movement. We decided to push for a municipal utility district. The best example is the one in Sacramento. The McClatchy family’s Bee newspapers got it through there.

“All the time we were up against the entire infrastructure of the city, which still has the PG&E stamp on its logo. But we we found the right formula. Our coalition got the 24,000 signatures last year. We dealt with each and every condition the city attorney imposed. Then, in the first district elections in years, our slate won, so we suddenly have a progressive 9-2 majority. At the Guardian we’ve tied down every supe to a pledge to put MUD on the ballot and to support mud. We finally have a pro public power and anti-PG&E majority. Of course we still have to win the election. PG&E is lobbying behind the scenes, putting millions into the fight, even though tho it’s bankrupt. But forthe first time in our memory nobody is running on a pro PG&E platform.”

Act Three is unfinished at this time, but if ever there was a favorable moment, it’s surely now. When PG&E successfully pushed deregulation through the California legislature in the mid-1990s it surely slapped itself on the back for a master stroke. The public would pick up the tab for the company’s vast losses in nuclear power. Nationally, the Clinton administration was ushering in a whole new era of energy deregulation. The public power crowd were hemmed in and “green” outfits like the Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council actually in the vanguard of the dereg movement.

Now we have California state attorney general Bill Lockyer pushing a criminal investigation into the conspiracy to hike energy prices in California. Among the big questions: Is PG&E a shark that got chewed by bigger sharks from Houston, like Enron, or did the utility simply shuffle its money elsewhere on the Monopoly board and then declare bankruptcy? Almost a century after Raker sought to write public power into the history of San Francisco, the tide is maybe turning, and we have long-range populist campaigners like Brugmannn and the Bay Guardian and its reporters like Tim Redmond and Savannah Blackwell to thank for it. CP

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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