• Monthly
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $other
  • use PayPal

SPRING FUNDRAISER

Is it time for our Spring fundraiser already? If you enjoy what we offer, and have the means, please consider donating. The sooner we reach our modest goal, the faster we can get back to business as (un)usual. Please, stay safe and we’ll see you down the road.
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

The People’s Power

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 The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink co-written with Joshua Frank. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

June 04, 2020
Helen Yaffe
Leading by Example: Cuba in the Covid-19 Pandemic
John Davis
Our History is Our Future
Fred Baumgarten
Chamberlain v. White Plains: A Crack in the Wall for Police Killings?
Steven Newcomb
Domination and the Murder of George Floyd
Jen Moore
Defending Land and Water From Mining Profiteers in the Time of Covid-19
Jim Hightower
I Remember the Lynchings of the 60s. They’re Still Happening
Prabir Purkayastha
U.S. Abandons Open Skies for New Age Space Weapons
M. K. Bhadrakumar
NATO Returns to Libya to Challenge Russia
Dave Lindorff
Redistribution by Another Name
Thom Hartmann
How Immunity for Cops and Facebook Kills Americans
George Wuerthner
The Problem With Chainsaw Medicine: the Forest Service’s Move to Cut Oregon’s Big Trees
Victor Grossman
An Idea on Providing Coordination and Leadership
Rebecca Gordon
How the Credibility Gap Became a Chasm in the Age of Trump
Tom Clifford
With USA in Retreat, China Reassesses Its Options
Rafael Bernabe – Manuel Rodríguez Banchs
A Proposal from Afar: Trump Must Resign!
Binoy Kampmark
To the Commercial Heavens We Go! SpaceX, NASA and Space Privatisation
Brett Heinz
The UN’s Anti-Poverty Proposal for Latin America: a “Basic Emergency Income”
Peter Harrison
Four Aphorisms
June 03, 2020
Anthony DiMaggio
Revolution, Not Riots: Prospects for Radical Transformation in the Covid-19 Era
Jennifer Loewenstein
From Mississippi to Minneapolis: Leaving the ‘Abyss of Despair’
Kenneth Surin
The UK Compared With Other Countries on the Pandemic
Paul Street
“Total Domination”: Popular Rebellion in the Shadow of Trumpism-Fascism
Kenn Orphan
The Sadism of American Power
John Pilger
The Coup Against ‘The Most Loyal Ally’
Eric Murphy
The Police Are The Out-Of-Towners Provoking Violence
Melvin Goodman
How the Washington Post Accommodates Disinformation
Rev. William Alberts
It’s the Worshippers Who Are “Essential”
Georgina Downs
No, the Public Fury Will Not “Move On” Prime Minister!
George V. Wright
It is Happening Here
M. G. Piety
Tales from the Dark Side of Customer Service, or “Christians” Giving Christians a Bad Name
Chandra Muzaffar
A Superpower in Chaos
Thomas Knapp
Time to Stop Messing Around and Strike at the Root of Police Violence
Thomas M. Hanna
The Oligopoly That Controls Our Digital Infrastructure Has Deepened Economic and Racial Divides
Andrew Stewart
The Ethics of Police Murder Video Exhibition: Democratizing The News Feed, Re-Traumatizing The Survivors, Or Both?
Binoy Kampmark
Death, Protest and George Floyd
David Rovics
Who’s Trashing Downtown Every Night and Why?
Harvey Wasserman
Trump Is No Accident
Behrooz Ghamari Tabrizi
Biden and the Common Sense Voter
Timothy Ingalsbee
Ecosystems, Logging and the Definition of Insanity
Elliot Sperber
The Birds of Brooklyn
June 02, 2020
Zoltan Grossman
Deploying Federal Troops in a War at Home Would Make a Bad Situation Worse
Nicholas Buccola
Amy Cooper is Christian Cooper’s Lost, Younger Sister 
Manuel García, Jr.
Global Warming is Nuclear War
Patrick Cockburn
An Unavoidable Recognition of Failure: Trump’s Withdrawal From Afghanistan
John Feffer
Is It Time to Boycott the USA?
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail