Electricity to Run Davis'--and Maybe Jones'--Campaign

Gov. Gray Davis already is pounding the campaign trail, running for reelection in 2002. The signs are everywhere.

On Monday, he was at Culver City High School, talking up his new "governor's scholarships." Wednesday, he keynoted a law enforcement meeting in Sacramento and honored recipients of a "Governor's Award for Excellence in Training." Friday, he'll be at San Jose State, announcing winners of a "Governor's Teaching Fellowship Program."

Almost every day he stages some event for local TV. A few, such as the above, probably are uplifting for people present as well as politically propitious.

But the topper for a wasteful exercise was Tuesday's performance on a gravel field a few miles southeast of Sacramento. The governor stood on a makeshift podium in front of a power plant operated by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. It was a bright, sunny day in the 70s.

Davis demonstrated that even front-running governors need spring training. He rudely showed up 40 minutes late, which increasingly has become his custom. He wore a dark, lined parka--the same warm outfit he donned at a previous power plant photo op in the chill of winter. The governor looked stylish then; a bit silly this time under a warm sun.

Most strangely, he never mentioned SMUD. Davis didn't even note that he was at a power plant. He might as well have been in a cornfield or the Capitol basement--or, more logically, the governor's press conference room. For all TV viewers knew, that was an oil refinery in the background. Or maybe a rice silo. There wasn't any link between setting and message.

But the message was smart: This summer, private utility customers who cut their electricity use by 20% will receive 20% rebates.

The solution to surviving the summer without blackouts, he noted, is "more megawatts on line and reduced electricity consumption."

And, of course, there was the daily Davis message: "I inherited this. . . . Twelve years prior to my governorship, not a single major power plant was built in this state." Since then, nine have been approved and six are under construction.

"It's very hard to make up for 12 years of inaction in two years."

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The scorecard: six TV cameras, 20 reporters. A good showing on the campaign trail.

The March 2002 primary is less than a year away. "We're in our cycle. We're gearing up," says Garry South, Davis' political strategist.

South just hired a political director--a campaign contact for pols and donors. She's Mona Pasquil, who was former President Clinton's California liaison.

Who's South expect to be Davis' Republican challenger? "If I were a betting man, I'd probably say Bill Jones," he replies. "But Jones hasn't demonstrated yet he can rub two nickels together."

As of Jan. 1, Davis had $26 million in the bank; Secretary of State Jones a mere $118,000.

While Davis was baking in his power plant garb, Jones was holding a news conference in L.A. attacking the governor for an energy "shell game."

Jones called for an audit of the billions Davis is spending to buy electricity on the daily market. As of Wednesday, it totaled $2.6 billion. But the governor has disclosed few details--not even to legislators who have appropriated the money. He argues that this information would give power producers--the "profiteers"--an unfair advantage in negotiating.

"There's no oversight and no accountability," Jones asserted, echoing a Republican mantra in the Legislature. "The fact is, the governor is dimming the lights on California with his secrecy."

Jones' scorecard: only two TV cameras, three radio mikes and three print reporters. But he's not officially a candidate--and the secretary of state has no power over energy.

Plus, Jones may be even duller than Davis.

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Jones told me three weeks ago he would decide by now whether to run for governor. The signs are he's running: consulting consultants, conferring with contributors, clearing things at home. But he still hasn't announced.

"The middle of the month," he says. "Right about now."

But not right now.

How good a political issue is energy? "A leadership vacuum creates a demand for new leadership," Jones says.

Answer: It's the only issue Republicans have. Never mind that they're principally to blame--Jones excluded--for creating this mess five years ago.

Electricity has soared to the top of the voters' "most important" list. So it has become politicized.

But that's OK. It's the way the system works to make sure these politicians are paying attention to our concerns.

As the season progresses, Davis also will need to pay more attention to his attire, locale and punctuality.

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