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Corporate cash buys election—Public Power supporters undeterred

As you look back on your life so far, there are many crossroads at which you took one path over another. Sometimes you knew then it was a crossroads and other times you could only see it as you look back and reflect on your path. In each case, whether you knew it at the time or not, your future changed. Over the past year, the path of Thurston County residents, businesses, and government moved together through a number of such crossroads…one of them was labeled Public Power. As we look back, some of us see that we took the “No” path. Those who didn’t vote or didn’t know about Proposition 1, look back without seeing the crossroads. The rest of us see that we actually took the “Not Yet” path.

 

Proposition 1, the Public Power Initiative, was on the November 6 ballot. Had it passed, Proposition 1 would have given Thurston Public Utility District (TPUD) the authority to provide electricity to Thurston County residents. Twenty-two Washington State counties already get their electricity from their PUD. Over 55% of state residents already enjoy the local control, more local jobs, lower rates, and better reliability of Public Power. In a preliminary study done by TPUD and released on August 31 (see ThurstonPUD.com to download a PDF of the study), each of the three scenarios presented would save the electrified PUD’s customers between $10 million and $215.7 million over 10 years.

So why did Proposition 1 get “only” 40% of the vote? If Public Power will bring us more local jobs, save us money, and provide more reliable service with fewer and shorter outages, why did 60% vote against it? Only two of many very good questions, almost all having the answer: experience, political clout, deep financial pockets, the strong backing of the county’s only daily newspaper beat passion, community, political naiveté, and dearth of fundraising experience. Proposition 1 was championed by an all-volunteer, grassroots organization interested in making a change for the better. We (the Chair and Secretary, respectively, of Thurston Public Power Initiative) had virtually no experience in signature-gathering, campaigning, or down-and-dirty political campaigning. We had a vision; we had people; and we had passion.

Most of you already know that Puget Sound Energy (PSE) provides electricity to almost all of Thurston County and that their service area is a monopoly—it’s either PSE or make your own electricity. Many of you also know PSE charges more for the electricity they supply than any other Washington utility, public or not, and that they are allowed by the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission to pay a 9.8% shareholder return. They also currently pay their offshore owners a 7.6% profit—and have done so even as hundreds of Thurston County businesses closed their doors and thousands of our fellow residents lost their jobs in the 2008 economic crash and since.

In a nutshell, Proposition 1 was defeated by the enormous, virtually unlimited resources of Puget Sound Energy. They used the profits paid to them by Thurston County residents to contribute over $632 thousand in reported support and many hundreds of thousands of dollars in unreported support to defeat Proposition 1. You saw the $632 thousand in the 10 glossy full-color mailers they sent out and the 100s of green and blue campaign signs along right-of-ways via their fake grassroots creation “Alliance to Protect Thurston Power.” The unreported support took the form of Thurston County-only billboards; non-political ads in The Olympian saying, for example that PSE “serves Thurston County”; hundreds of hours of door-knocking by PSE’s King County employees; thousands of phone calls from their Lynnwood Call Center warning Thurston County residents against Proposition 1, and more. Their political contributions, past and future, won them the public silence of all but one sitting politician. Many of these same silent politicians told me personally that he or she supported and would vote for Proposition 1, but that they could not do so publicly because of PSE’s clout. So much for representing your constituents…

PSE had a lot at stake. For Thurston County to transition to Public Power would mean the falling of the first domino. If Thurston County and the capitol, Olympia, were to transition to be able to enjoy these benefits, the rest of the state would take notice and realize that they could do the same…the first domino leads to many more.

Although the authority to transition to Public Power received “only” 40% of the vote, we passed through what will later be seen as a major crossroads for Thurston County. Our 100s of volunteers collected over 15,000 signatures to qualify Proposition 1 for the ballot. We went door-to-door in many areas, talking with people and handing out literature. We stood for hours on street corners waving signs. We donated artistic talents, printing services, expertise in many areas, meeting rooms and office space, and tens of thousands of people-hours. We did this for the vision of a Thurston County that will one day own its electrical infrastructure and will no longer have to suffer under the Bellevue-based corporate monopoly whose $3.4 million a year President and CEO bows deeply to her offshore masters as she sends them over $17 million in annual profits taken from the pockets of Thurston County ratepayers.

What we failed to do was to reach out early to a wide group of Thurston County influencers to explain what Public Power would mean to the county. Many of them were swayed by the misdirection and outright lies of PSE and the Alliance before hearing the truth. One example of this was the “No Second Chance” meme in which PSE told people that once TPUD Commissioners were granted the authority to electrify, they could do whatever they chose with no further input from the people of the county. We of the Initiative mistakenly thought at first that people would see through this blatant falsehood and it cost us dearly.

Once the PUD has the authority to electrify, they will do a feasibility study on which areas of the county would be best served initially. They then will go to the governing body of that area (e.g. the Olympia City Council or the Thurston County Commission) with the study results and attempt to work out an agreement for the PUD to provide electricity for the selected area. The governing body, with input from its residents, would vote to either accept an agreement with the PUD or to stay with PSE. Both the local governing body and the PUD have public meetings with time set aside for comments from the people and, if they want to be reelected, will follow the people’s will. PSE may ask for your opinion, but if it is contrary to what’s best for its profits, you can be sure they’ll choose profits over people every time!

Those of us who champion Public Power have the truth on our side and the best interests of Thurston County in our hearts and minds. PSE has a virtually unlimited bank account with which they will again hire lobbyists, advertising agencies, and political professionals to spread fear and uncertainty in the hope that their massive profits will flow into the pockets of the Australian investment bank that bought them in 2008 against the will of the people who depend on them for electricity.

Did you know that of the over $632,000 spent against the Public Power initiative, 95% came from privately-owned Puget Sound Energy and the other 5% come from investor-owned utilities and multinational corporations? Not one penny of the anti-campaign came from a living, breathing human being. That alone, should make Thurston County sit up and take notice—a group of corporations were the only ones who were willing to put up any money to deny the people of Thurston County the right to have a choice in who provides their electricity and from where it comes.

The logical next question is…what’s next? Thurston Public Power Initiative is committed to continuing through at least the next election cycle. After examining what went well and what we need to change, we will redefine, reorganize, and again bring the option of Public Power before the people of Thurston County.

About 9% of the people who voted in Thurston County didn’t vote at all on Proposition 1, most likely because they had either never heard of it or they felt they needed more information to make a decision. We need to ensure that the next time they have the opportunity to vote on Public Power, they have the knowledge they need.

Our volunteers and those of other campaigns with which we coordinated, knocked on thousands of doors and passed out literature in dozens of precincts. The precincts in which we made personal contact and answered people’s questions voted for us in significantly higher numbers than those we did not reach. Had we the funds and the foresight, we would have reached out to more people with the truth about Public Power—and possibly made a difference.

The next steps for the Public Power movement are currently in discussion by the dozens of activists who were involved with the initiative campaign. The Thurston Public Power Initiative is set up as a political action committee, and there may be a better structure for the ongoing public education and outreach that will be vital for winning the Public Power campaign in the long run.

On the one hand, we have a large public education project before us, involving direct outreach to over 100,000 Thurston County citizens. This calls for a broad-based grassroots effort, requiring both dedicated volunteers and effective coalition-building throughout the progressive activist community.

At the same time, we must pay attention to the world of politics and elections. We fully expect that PSE will try to strip PUD’s of their right to electrify statewide. Our initial actions may well have much broader ramifications for which we must be prepared.

While we will certainly be looking at the best strategy and timing for bringing another Public Power initiative before the voters, we must also make sure that our PUD Commissioners remains supportive of Public Power. Every two years, another commissioner is elected. Our new PUD commissioner opposed Proposition 1 and received substantial campaign support from PSE.

We expect PSE to continue in their attempts to buy our democracy, one elected official at a time. We must defend against their ongoing onslaught, and make sure progressive Commissioners and other politicians are elected.

We are cheered by the fact that, even though our campaign was less strong than it could’ve been, 40% of Thurston County voted to give the PUD the option of providing electricity. The credit for that goes first to our dedicated and hard-working volunteers—from the person who collected one petition signature or talked to one friend or neighbor, to the three who collected over 500 signatures each, to the members of the Executive Board who did their best to lead at times and get out of the way at others. It also goes to the unsung heroes of the Initiative—those who donated money, in-kind services, office space, and their time and expertise. Thank you to all.

As the title says, this is only the beginning.

John Pearce is an Olympia-based small business owner who consults with companies across North America. He is also a founding member and current Chair of Thurston Public Power Initiative.

Doug Riddels is a computer tech for the Olympia School District, past Chairman of the Olympia Eagles, 45-year resident of Thurston County, and Secretary of the Thurston Public Power Initiative.

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