Chief of Federal Energy Panel an Outspoken Southern 'Warrior'

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As a young, outspoken Republican state lawmaker representing this Gulf Coast town, Curtis Hebert Jr. once traded blows with a colleague in the capitol building. He says the guy didn't like one of his tax-relief proposals and heaved a chair at him. So he went after him.

"My father raised me not to start any fights, but make sure I finish them," Hebert says of the 1990 incident, which had to be broken up by guards. "I could not go back and look my constituents in the eye had I done anything different."

A decade later, his bruises long gone, the 38-year-old attorney with a reputation for standing his ground is in a far bigger battle--in a big-time arena. This time he may lose.

Hebert, a blunt-talking free-market conservative, has become a lightning rod for criticism from officials in the West as they try to dig out of the current energy shortage. He irked some by labeling California's effort to buy state transmission lines "nationalization" of the power network.

Hebert says his detractors simply disagree with his philosophy and are unhappy that he predicted blackouts early on because California was mishandling deregulation.

"Am I wrong because I was right?" he says. "Call me brash, call me frank, call me a warrior, but I was in the ditch" alone, working to sound the alarm for Californians.

Those who worked with Hebert in Mississippi describe him as bright and hard-working. Even the former lawmaker who duked it out with Hebert has kind words. William "Mitch" Ellerby still argues that Hebert started the scuffle by insulting him. Nonetheless, he says he respects Hebert for his accomplishments and political tenacity.

Hebert's beliefs are rooted in a deeply conservative and Christian swath of Southern Mississippi, where his gregarious, silver-haired mother is a political institution.

"We're capitalists," says Ann Hebert in an interview in her home overlooking a bayou. "I don't know anything about energy but I do know free enterprise. That's what built this nation."

Forty years ago, when Pascagoula was solidly Democratic, Ann Hebert helped form a GOP women's club. She got her son involved in politics at 10, when he marched his dog around town with a sign promoting the congressional campaign of an up-and-coming Republican by the name of Trent Lott.

Hebert was just 24 and still in law school in 1987 when he saw his chance. He upset a former councilwoman and won a seat in the state's lower house.

From the start, Hebert's political fervor sometimes worked against him. Curtis Hebert Sr. tells how his son rose from his seat on his first day in the Mississippi Legislature and challenged a graying Democratic dean, accusing the veteran of changing the rules.

Worried that his son would be seen as "a young punk," the elder Hebert offered counsel.

"I told him after, 'Some of these older folks have a lot of experience.' My point was, son, you may want to give it a little more thought. He said, 'But Daddy, I spoke the truth.' " The episode cost Hebert a plum committee assignment.

A quick study, Hebert adapted, without compromising his beliefs. One of just a handful of Republicans, he built alliances that carried him into the inner circle of the state's Democratic speaker.

And he was in the right place at the right time when the state's first GOP governor since Reconstruction needed to fill a coveted slot on the Mississippi utility commission. Hebert became the youngest member ever to serve.

Hebert, whose economic interest statements list assets of less than $100,000, was thinking of leaving elected office when he got a call from the man whose campaign gave him his first taste of politics.

Trent Lott (R-Miss.), now the Senate majority leader, wanted Hebert for a GOP slot on the federal energy commission. President Clinton appointed him in late 1997.

"Trent Lott has everything to do with why I'm here," Hebert says.

Says Lott: "[He's] an outstanding young man from my hometown [and] has been doing excellent work at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission."

Still, as the West's power crisis has intensified in recent months, Hebert's public comments have done little to quiet critics.

Last fall in San Diego, at a congressional energy subcommittee hearing, he was hammering his theme: California's flirtation with price controls on wholesale electricity was a failure.

"I've always felt and always thought that if the truth kills granny, let her die," Hebert told the assembled lawmakers and energy industry insiders. "But the truth has to be told here."

Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) cut in. "If the truth does what?"

"If the truth kills granny, let her die. Let her die," Hebert responded.

Barton: "Well, I wouldn't say that. I want to save granny."

Hebert: "And my grandmother hates that statement, by the way."

Barton suggested there was "a little more polite way" to make his point and Hebert agreed. "I'm not always polite, Mr. Chairman, even though I am from Mississippi and I should be."

Looking back, Hebert says the granny reference was "just a Southernism." What he meant was that California was dealing with its energy problems in ways that ultimately would hurt consumers.

"The point is, let's start talking about the truth; let's quit playing the blame game. . . . The question is: Who are you a warrior for? If I'm to be a warrior, the fight is for the American people."

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